Summer Swimming and More at Cummins Falls State Park
On a hot summer day, what better way to spend an afternoon than splashing around in a nice cool swimming hole? Better yet, not just any swimming hole.
This notable swimming hole is nine miles north of Cookeville at the base of the eighth largest waterfall in Tennessee. The Blackburn Fork State Scenic River plunges 75 feet on to rock shelves forming Cummins Falls as it makes its way through a lush forest of beech, oak, sycamore, pine and hemlock.
It’s known that Native Americans visited the area and that buffalo once wallowed in the river shallows downstream. The land around the falls was transferred to a veteran of the Revolutionary War named Blackburn in the 1790s and became the site of a water-driven mill built by John Cummins in the mid-1800s.
The mill was washed away during an immense flood in 1928. This land remained in the Cummins family until the 211 acre-site became a state park. It opened officially May 2012 so it’s still a work in progress. There are no restrooms in the parking area yet but there are a couple of porta-potties about half-way to the overlook. The park will be developed in time.
The sign from Blackburn Fork Road points down a gravel road that leads to a parking lot with a wooden kiosk. There I was joined by a small but steady stream of visitors from as far away as Florida who studied the displayed trail map working out exactly where the half-mile path to the falls overlook started. I was astonished that so many people visited the park on a week-day afternoon. I guess word of the falls and the natural beauty of the area has spread quickly since its opening.
I soon realized the “trail” started on a 12-foot wide gray gravel road southwest of the parking area. This section looked more like a road than a trail and had a couple of hilly areas but other than that was, well, frankly pretty ho hum if you expect to be hiking through the woods. So what was up with the sign warning of a strenuous hike, rugged terrain and slippery rocks? Keep reading.
As it turns out the limestone gravel road leads to a freshly mulched trail that continues through dense forest to an overlook, or precipice – depending on how you feel about heights. The hardy souls who built the sturdy log fence that now provides a safety zone for people to view the falls did some mighty fine work. Most likely digging postholes through the rough and nearly vertical terrain while hooked up with ropes and safety harnesses. I assume they were attached to terra firma or else some intrepid souls put their lives in danger to build that fence (or maybe they had parachutes to go with their post hole diggers – talk about base jumping….).
And what a view it is. In the near distance the cascade tumbles onto a series of limestone ledges before entering a wide, exquisite basin filled with cold, clear water. Agility and determination lead hikers on into the gorge via the Downstream Trail and up the riverbed lined with boulders that are as worn rugged and slippery. It took the long lens on my camera to determine that there were two people sitting at the base of the falls. The distance is deceiving.
About 1.1 miles farther along the trail you reach the base of the falls and an impossibly beautiful swimming hole that invites you to linger longer and longer… but the park closes at sunset so be sure to allow time for the 1.6-mile trek back to the parking lot.