Hops and Skips

Tennessee State Park Tour: Cummins Falls

The last weekend of summer break is always bittersweet. On the one hand, it’s the end of two months of relative freedom; on the other, the routine of school really helps stabilize sleep schedules (and lord, did we need it). Despite summer “ending” as we head back to school, the early August weather each year is very much the hottest of the season. So for one last summer vacation adventure, we headed east to the final state park of the waterfall trifecta we had yet to visit.

An Overview of Cummins Falls

Cummins Falls State Park is an easy eight-mile trip northwest of Cookeville, which no doubt explains part of its popularity, but it also boasts an impressive falls that is incredibly accessible. This weekend adventure with friends was not our first journey to Cummins Falls; we last visited in 2015, shortly after we moved to Nashville, during the euphoric first summer we enjoyed the spontaneity possible with a teacher’s schedule. On this most recent visit, nearly ten years later, the park looked very different. Where there was once just a gravel parking lot now sits a new, sleekly-designed visitor center. Built in 2020, it holds interpretive exhibits, a gift shop, and event hall while the design funnels guests between its two buildings and directly to the trail.

Cummins Falls is actually quite a rare waterfall experience because, if you choose, you can climb under the 75-foot falls and directly feel its rushing water hit your skin. At its base is a scenic viewpoint and swimming hole that has attracted visitors for over 100 years. The land had been owned by the Cummins family since 1825. At one time, they built and owned a mill on the property, and generations of the family continued to own the land until it went up for public auction in 2010. To prevent the development of a proposed housing development, the TennGreen Land Conservancy partnered with other stakeholders to purchase the land. It’s actually one of the newer state parks, officially established in 2011.

Hiking Routes to the Falls

The first thing you need to know about visiting Cummins Falls: you must have a permit to enter the gorge and access the base of the falls! You can book these online, and on summer weekends, they usually book up at least a week in advance. The park launched the current permit system in 2020 as part of its comprehensive management plan to protect both the landscape (from overuse and litter) and its visitors (from rapid waters and dangerous flash flooding).

We were up and out early, hoping to pre-empt a lot of the weekend crowd, and we hopped on the trail immediately upon arrival. The trailhead begins directly past the Visitor Center. Though there are four routes to the waterfall, three of them begin with the Falls Overlook Trail. This is a half-mile easy trail that keeps a higher elevation and leads directly to a scenic view of the falls. (The John Cummins Trail is a similar distance and begins at the picnic area.) A tenth of a mile into the Falls Overlook Trail, the Blackburn Fork Trail veers off to the right and continues downhill towards the gorge.

Following the Blackburn Fork Trail leads along the edge of the bluff above the Blackburn Fork River for just over half a mile to reach the waterfall overlook. To head down to water level, though, follow the signs that lead to the “Blackburn Fork River Shortcut.” If you’re capable, the rugged 1.5-mile gorge trail is an absolute must-do; it’s the only route to the base of the falls. We had done this trek before…but that was before kids, and this is definitely a tricky hike with little ones. In fact, the park’s official website recommends kids under five not enter the gorge at all.

The Gorge Experience

Undeterred, we ventured on, prepared to take it slow and reassess as we went. For all visitors to the gorge, there are a few non-negotiables. You’ve got to have footwear that is sturdy and has good traction [an unbelievable amount of people were wearing wildly inappropriate shoes]; you must be prepared to get wet [again, way too many people in leggings and nice sneakers]; and you need to be able to do some strategic navigating over rocks and through water [no, don’t bring a cooler]. And with kids, you’ve got be prepared to make the journey while carrying them!

Our daughters love to climb, so we were fortunate it felt somewhat like an adventure to them. There are lots of spots to observe the wildlife in a creek bed, as well as many dry areas to take a rest and enjoy a snack. [PLEASE, take your trash with you!] It took many crossings of the river, lots of boulder climbing, and a few human chains of pass-the-toddler, but once you round the bend and the waterfall enters your sight, an oasis is waiting to reward your hard work.

On the busy weekend of our visit, there were park rangers on duty around the base of the falls and life jackets available for the swimming hole. People scatter across the boulders, basking in the sun like lizards seeking its warmth. Groups gather under the fall’s lowest rapids to attempt conversation above its roaring din. Dogs join the swimmers, and the ultra adventurous climb the rocks to get closer to the water. It’d be easy to spend an entire day here, relaxing and reaping the rewards of this fairly strenuous trek. The necessity of lunch and nap was enough to drag us away from this wild, idyllic landscape for the long traverse back, though the journey home, fortunately, never seems to take as long.

CHECKLIST:

Date: August 2023
Count: 27 of 57
Region: Middle
Must-See: The hike through the gorge to the base of the falls is, without a doubt, the crown jewel of this park.

Click here to read more of our adventures in Tennessee State Parks!

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