My first visual of Middle Tennessee was a five-second video clip of a kayaker on the Caney Fork River at Twin Falls in 1997 at a video premier. When I asked the producer of the video where that clip was from he was hesitant to tell me, as it was his secret spot; it was one of the most impressive looking kayaking places I had ever seen.
I managed to get some basic directions from the kayaker who was in the video: “40 West to Cookeville, then south about 30 miles to a town called, ‘Rock Island’. Ask Bino at the Rock Island Market how to get to the river from there.”
To this day, that is all you need to find Twin Falls and the rapids below Great Falls Dam. When I arrived with my wife and two kids in our 31’ Coachmen Mirada RV, loaded with kayaks on the roof, Ranger Joe greeted us and made us feel right at home.
The waterfalls and river were even more impressive than the video clip, and the rural nature of the area made us so happy to be out of the hustle and bustle of suburban Washington, DC. It was the day after Halloween, and the leaves were falling fast; and the kids and I made a big pile of them outside the RV, parked at Twin falls for the day. I will never forget the feeling we all shared at that moment, that “We had made it” feeling.
I went kayaking, and then we hiked up and down the gorge, playing in the shallow mountain creeks, catching crawfish, skipping rocks, and detoxing from the grind. My job was a professional kayaker, training and competing to win competitions, design kayaks, sell kayaks, write books about kayaking, make videos about kayaking, and teach kayaking.
Rock Island was heaven for us.
Eight years my wife, kids, and I spent traveling around North America in an RV, and around the world (we literally got around the world tickets) year after year for eight years before we realized one place kept us coming back: Rock Island, Tennessee.
Several things stood out in the beginning.
We had a secret little restaurant, the Foglight Foodhouse in Walling, TN.
Amazing places to play outside with the kids at Rock Island State Park, and neighboring Fall Creek Falls State Park.
We could eat out at Bino’s (Rock Island Market) for breakfast for under $10 and get more local culture and good home-cooked food than we could ask for.
I could keep my World Champion titles coming with these quality training grounds.
There were great people to meet here, and I felt like I was home long before it became my home.
From the time we passed the “for sale” sign on Powerhouse Road in 2002, one mile from Twin Falls, we knew we were home, and home would never get old. While we have explored much of our area, it will take a lifetime to see everything. I enjoy sharing this special part of Tennessee I call home, as it is truly a gem that is mostly under the radar.
Here are a few insider tips to enjoy a short or extended stay in this special part of the world:
Arrive via back roads. I recommend hitting up State Road 30 coming from the East. Starting around Athens, Tennessee and ending up on 70S, you’ll find this 75-mile section of road rivals some of the most famous driving roads in the USA: switch backs, windy steep sections, and breathtaking views broken up into sections with small towns and valleys in between. Arrive in Rock Island for lunch at Bino’s or “Smoke and Bricks” and get a cabin that sleeps seven people for the night at Rock Island State Park, or for the brand new, luxury cabin getaway the “Happy Yakker” cabins on Powerhouse Road have the homey feel and you’ll be taken care of like family.
Plan a hike up or down the gorge along the river at “Twin Falls” at Rock Island State Park or bring a bike and ride the “3 mile loop”, a single track trail just outside the park entrance. You’ll want to work up an appetite as few people can finish their meal at the Foglight Foodhouse. Plan on coming early or late to the Foglight on a Friday or Saturday, or you’ll wait a while to get a table. They make the wait part of the fun, however, with a new, rustic beer garden/bar area where you can order up some “pub grub” and there are plenty of conversation with locals or others visiting from out of town as the place has a true community atmosphere.
If you or the family enjoys fishing, you have Center Hill Lake for walleye, big smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, spotted bass, crappie, and catfish. There is a boat ramp at Rock Island State Park or you can rent fishing kayaks at the “Happy Yakker.”
There are a couple of “floats” you can do in kayaks that have become quite popular among the locals and you will understand why if you try it. Ride a slow moving liquid conveyor belt through the valley on the Collins River. “Smooth Rapids” or “Happy Yakker” will get you on the water with all of the equipment you need.
Bring a fishing pole and you might connect with a “river giant” muskie! Yes, Middle Tennessee’s Caney Fork Watershed is home to some of the best muskie fishing in the country. It recently hosted the World Muskie Fly Fishing Championships.
If you have a boat, you’ll want to also check out Cotton’s Marina on Great Falls Lake, across from the Foglight Foodhouse. Fun bass tournaments every Saturday morning and a restaurant on the water for lunch or dinner with live music on the weekends, and yes, they’ll tell you where to catch fish.
Whitewater kayakers have come to this area for years for the Spring runoff. February-May is the best time to enjoy the free flowing creeks and rivers of the Obed/Emery system. Class 1-3 creeks and rivers abound, as well as class 4-5 creeks. The local club, Tennessee Scenic River Association, has a rendezvous every year around the third week of April, a must-do for any whitewater kayaker. You can come every year for 20 years and not hit every available piece of whitewater, it has that much to offer.
Going off the beaten path to discover America’s real gems is a great way to spend a vacation. Tennessee’s great outdoors are the stuff made of legends.
Come explore and play in my backyard in Middle Tennessee, on the Cumberland Plateau, and see why our local restaurant’s motto is, “You have to get lost to find us.”
I hope to see you here!