Waterfalls and Other Secrets of the Cumberland Plateau
Photo Credit: Isha Institute of Inner-sciences

Waterfalls and Other Secrets of the Cumberland Plateau

Tennessee's Upper Cumberland region is natural for frequent waterfall sightings.

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During a Tennessee summer, you will most likely find yourself longing for the cool refreshment of water, which means it’s time for some waterfall hunting.  Tennessee is home to beautiful overlooks, classic swimming holes, cool coves and secret hikes. They are in abundance throughout the state, but you could center more than a whole summer’s worth of exploring in the Cumberland Plateau. Whether you need a natural pool for dipping or a sight worth a hike to see, this area has got you covered. So, let’s hit the road!

Through the car window, in a blur, the hills rise and the valleys sink. Stretching across a large expanse of Middle and East Tennessee, the Cumberland Plateau rises more than 1,000 feet above the Tennessee River Valley floor. This large protruding shelf is the world’s longest hardwood forested plateau.  The whole area is riddled with gorges, ravines, caves and other stark elevation changes making it only natural for frequent waterfall sightings.

Here are the places you won’t want to miss if you head out that way: Burgess Falls, Greeter Falls and Foster Falls. Each of these special places has its own character and vibe. These three stand out on account of their stunning overlooks, impressive water flow and reasonable accessibility.

Burgess Falls

Burgess Falls is the easiest of the three to access from the main highways of Tennessee. It sits 20 minutes past Cookeville on I-40 E. Burgess Falls State Park features a large parking lot, restrooms, a butterfly garden, a playground towards the park’s main entrance and a large covered pavilion with grills and picnic tables that can be reserved for groups and has a scenic view of the river.

To see the main attraction, you will navigate a 1.5-mile roundtrip trail/service road loop that journeys down to reach four progressively more impressive sets of waterfalls and back. The hike is manageable and easy to follow. Beginning along Falling Water River, which is fed by Burgess Falls Lake, the trail descends into the large gully. First are the gentle 20 ft. cascades, then the 30 ft. upper falls. Next are the significant 80 ft. middle falls. But as you proceed further all other sounds are drowned out as you approach the absolutely gorgeous lower falls.

A wooden terrace has been constructed as an overlook for optimal viewing of the rock shelf where a wide and gushing flow plunges a final 130 ft. down into the impressively deep canyon below. You can also lengthen your hike and enjoy some extra views by opting to continue on the half-mile extension Ridge Top Trail before turning back the way you came or returning via the service road.

Road-trip Log: During the 19th century, Falling Water River was originally harnessed by gristmills. In the 1920s, the City of Cookeville began building Burgess Falls Dam to generate hydroelectric power for the nearby city, an operation that, once completed, continued to supply Cookeville until 1944. Old remnants of these facilities can be found dotting the surrounding landscape. The framework of an old wire bridge will greet you towards the beginning of the trail and the remaining foundation of the historic powerhouse is located at the base of the falls.

Make sure to take all the pictures you want at Burgess because this one is just for the viewing.  Although there are a few places to cool down along the river, due to the strong current and rocks at its ever churning base, Burgess Falls has a no-swimming policy. There is a staircase that lets you climb down to the foot of the falls but it has lately needed renovations after some flood damage and it has been closed. However, this does little to stop a steady stream of waterfall enthusiasts from coming to visit one of Tennessee’s most impressive sights. Still got the swimming bug? Read on–because up next is one of the best swimming holes the South has to offer!

Greeter Falls

Greeter Falls in Altamont, TN
Follow the short trail to Greeter Falls

If you travel about 1.5 hours further south down the Cumberland Plateau, you’ll find the small town of Altamont, Tennessee.  Its location makes it another easy day trip from Nashville, Chattanooga or Knoxville. And here, nestled into a gorge in what’s known as the Savage Gulf State Natural Area, you’ll find Greeter Falls.

The drive is well marked and ends in an ample parking lot that usually has spaces available even on the most popular days. The trail is a short two-mile, out-and-back loop, easily navigated and mostly pet friendly. You will soon come to a fork which leads right for the upper falls and left for the lower falls. The upper falls are twice as wide as they are tall (a small 15 foot drop) and there are areas in the surrounding rocks for a picnic spread or a shaded rest if you would like to enjoy the more serene of the two falls. However, don’t let the calm fool you - because of the shallow depth and the pull of the lower falls, you’ll want to save your swimsuit for the pool at the lower falls. The trail loops back to the fork and the descent to the lower falls is a bit steep but still fairly short.  An often slippery spiral staircase leads you down the last steps into this magical pocket of southern paradise. The water here falls a full 50 ft. and pools into a fantastic swimming hole surrounded with rocky outcroppings for exploring, chilling and hanging out with friends.

Hiking at Greeter Falls.
Hiking at Greeter Falls. 

Road-trip Log: You don’t have to wait for a sunny day to enjoy these waterfalls. Rain has a huge impact on the flow of these Tennessee streams, sometimes leading to amazing surges in the different falls. The sights and roar of the raging falls on an overcast day are unforgettable.

Another aspect that makes Greeter Falls such a perfect destination is that it also has some impressive neighboring attractions if you want to add more to your trip itinerary. Boardtree Falls is another nearby waterfall stop - particularly worth it after some rainfall to the region.

Additionally, hike the Great Stone Door area. Change it up from the waterfalls and check out what can only be described as the “Grand Canyon of Tennessee.” You’ll find it just a five-minute drive further past Greeter Falls. A quick one-mile hike brings you to the top of towering cliffs reaching more than 100 ft. that wrap around the Big Creek gorge. The actual Stone Door is a 100 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide crack deep in the sandstone bluff which allows foot traffic into the gorge below. Some of the best camping in Tennessee can be found here in the South Cumberland State Park and Stone Door area. Consider Greeter Falls for that iconic dual camping/waterfall experience.

Road-trip Log: When driving out in this neck of the woods, you’ll notice brown road signs indicating a State Park or Natural Area close by - they are everywhere out on the plateau.  If you don’t have a specific plan for your road trip, you can simply ride around and quickly find multiple sites in close proximity to each other.  Some are easily accessible and family friendly; others present a more engaging challenge to find the hardcore explorer’s prize. 

Foster Falls

At the southern end of a famous Tennessee hike called the Fiery Gizzard Trail, you’ll find access to Foster Falls. The full Fiery Gizzard is extensive–coming in at 13 miles long–and as it stretches through the some of the best scenery the Tennessee highlands have to offer, this waterfall is a fitting finale that doesn't disappoint. No need to traverse all that trail however; for those who want a more direct entry, there is a smaller trailhead at a nearby parking lot that will get you to the base of the falls and back in two miles. The trail loop first follows the rim of the gorge and has a great overlook at a viewing platform along the way. 

If you proceed left of the overlook, the trail leads directly to the foot of the falls. However, head to the right at the platform instead. You will easily find the continuation of the trail which takes you to the gorge’s second and far-side overlook. This half-mile jaunt sits you atop a 200-foot cliff with one of the most beautiful perspectives of a waterfall that can be seen in the South. Not everyone makes it up to this spot if they descend to the waterfall first as it can difficult to head all the way up from the base of the falls, around and up to this lofty spot in one go–especially after swimming and frolicking away your energy for a few hours!

Foster Falls views in Sequatchie, TN
Views at Foster Falls. 

Whether or not you take the time to seek out the alternate view, getting back on the trail to the left of the first overlook soon takes you deep down into the gorge itself. To finally cross the river and reach the base of the falls, you will cross an awesome swinging bridge. There, standing at 80 ft. tall, you’ll find Foster Falls waiting for you. A large, deep pool allows for swimming in the cool spray and plenty of space exists along the shore to set your gear down. It’s a truly outstanding spot.

Road-trip Log: Don’t jump. First, it’s against each park’s rules and substantial fines have been administered to violators. Second, the rules are there to keep you in one functioning piece. Hitting water from heights of this caliber can be like hitting concrete. Many times people end up needing to be carried out on backboards from these locations due to spinal compression or broken tail-bones after trying such things. As tempting a thing as jumping can be, we strongly advise against it!

Burgess, Greeter and Foster Falls are true gems here in Tennessee and hopefully now you’ve begun planning your visit to see them for yourself before summer’s end. While the word is certainly out nowadays and they can get lots of foot traffic on the most popular days, but there are still plenty of hidden prizes to be found off the beaten path throughout the Tennessee backcountry. If you are someone who savors having the wilderness to yourself, there’s one final place to share.

Bonus: Isha Waterfalls

Isha Institute for Inner Sciences is situated on a stunning and sprawling 1,400-acre property of rugged land on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau. Though the institute is dedicated entirely to yoga and the pursuit of inner spiritual wellness, there is a set of waterfalls on the property and it’s open to the wilderness seeking visitor and yogi alike.

ISHA in McMinnville, TN
Enjoy serenity and scenic views at Isha.

When arriving at Isha, you’ll find a warm welcome in the visitor’s center. You will need to register yourself as a guest for the day and you can find information on the wide variety of programs and classes that Isha offers - including a monthly day of free yoga and meditation. There are a number of remarkable structures that are hard to miss as you begin to explore and there is an unmistakable sense of reverence wherever you go.  Across from the visitor’s center, The Abode of Yoga is a truly striking building which is dedicated to the very first Yogi. Inside, guests of Isha and program attendees can be found meditating in an expansive room surrounded with beautiful murals hand-crafted in India and completed by a giant bust of the first Yogi as its centerpiece. Isha also boasts the largest Yoga dome in the western hemisphere and its copper slope can be seen gleaming in the sunlight from the path as you continue further onto the property.

Along with its other facilities, Isha has a growing expanse of trails that traverse its outdoor wander-land. Just a short walk from the dining hall you will find yourself at the main trailhead which leads to a rocky overlook of the valley below and eventually reveals a hidden waterfall system complete with cascades and hollows. (Note: any amount of recent rainfall makes this prize all the more bountiful.) You’ll be well guided by signs, sturdy wooden bridges and well-kept, though challenging, foot trails - all of which was created and is maintained by Isha volunteers.

Hiking views at ISHA in McMinnville, TN
Hiking views at ISHA in McMinnville.

At each natural pool the Isha falls create, you notice how this outdoor element is perfectly complemented by the concept of Isha, a place to rest, recharge and become more connected with one’s inner self. The canyon overlook is stellar as well - 200 ft. from the gorge floor you’ll find yourself perched atop the perfect spot for sunset. It’s great to know there are still plenty of secret spots to keep in your back pocket for a day of disconnecting and revitalization in the Tennessee outdoors!

You won’t have to travel far for a day of waterfalls and adventure you’ll never forget. Whether it’s raining or shining these places will leave their mark on you and you’ll come away with a story.  So bring a day-pack, a swimsuit, a camera and a friend – there are adventures to be had in Tennessee.