The Ultimate Road Trip Through Eastern Tennessee's Waterfall Haven
1 Jeep Wrangler, 2 campsites, 3 days, 6 state parks, and 14 waterfalls.
Situated between Knoxville and Nashville, Tennessee lies a region of the Appalachian foothills that is dotted with beautiful state parks full of waterfalls, campgrounds, rivers, hiking trails, rolling mountains, caves, and lakes; perfect for anyone with a desire to explore. If waterfalls make you weak in the knees and camping is your idea of blissful relaxation, this road trip is calling your name.
This road trip will take you through 6 state parks that include Fall Creek Falls State Park, Rock Island State Park, Edgar Evins State Park, Burgess Falls State Park, Cummins Falls State Park and Virgin Falls State Natural Area. Each park is wildly beautiful and unique in their own way which will make your trip exciting and unforgettable.
Head out from work Thursday evening or wake up early Friday morning to get to Rock Island State Park Campground and begin your weekend of adventuring. We decided to drive out Thursday night so we could wake up in Tennessee and get an early start Friday morning. The campgrounds are flexible about when you check in, but if you arrive the night before make sure you have the campground booked for that night as well as you might not be able to secure one last minute.
Start your day Friday by exploring Fall Creek Falls State Park. This state park boasts one of the tallest waterfalls, Fall Creek Falls, in the eastern United States at 256 feet. This particular site also has five other waterfalls and a swing bridge. I recommend to first hike to Cane Creek Falls and Rockhouse Falls before then hiking to see Fall Creek Falls. After you’ve hiked and seen all the waterfalls (don’t forget the swing bridge!) be sure to grab a park map and take some time to drive along Scenic Loop Road and enjoy the view at some of the many outlooks.
After thoroughly exploring Fall Creek Falls, head back towards Rock Island State Park and stop by the little country store, Rock Island Market, to pick up homemade BLTs before heading to Twin Falls.
After you’ve gotten your sandwiches, drive across the river to Rock Island State Park’s Twin Falls. Park in the designated parking area and follow the little footpath down towards the falls. From here you will have to hop across the rocks to get to wherever you choose to eat your lunch and enjoy the view of the falls. After eating, be sure to dispose of all trash and then hike the downstream trail to another smaller set of falls. Here you can cliff jump or swim in the swimming hole without having to worry about the rough currents that you experience up river.
After exploring Twin Falls, head back to your campsite and enjoy your evening with a cozy campfire and a good beer (or tea!).
Wake up early, grab some breakfast and pack up camp before heading to Virgin Falls State Natural Area for an eight-mile hike. Virgin Falls State Natural Area was named for Virgin Falls which is a waterfall formed by an underground stream that emerges from a cave, drops 110 feet and then disappears back into another cave. Aside from this waterfall, the hike has three other waterfalls including Big Branch, Big Laurel, and Sheep Cave Falls as well as multiple caves and swimming holes. While this hike is classified as strenuous, if you are not an avid hiker you will still be able to do this hike, just be mindful to give yourself five to eight hours to complete the hike.
Depending on your pace while hiking Virgin Falls, after you get back to the parking area you might have the option of visiting Burgess Falls State Park. Currently the main falls at this park is closed but if you still would like to go and do the quick two mile hike next to the river, this would be the time to do it.
After hiking Virgin Falls (and if you decided to hike Burgess Falls State Park), head to your next campsite at Edgar Evins State Park. This campsite is “primitive,” meaning you have to carry your gear a few hundred feet to set up camp. At the edge of the campground is a parking lot so you can back your car in and make as many trips as you need to bring your gear in. Only a select few of the campsites are lakefront so make sure to book early enough in advance to snag one of the water-front sites. After setting up camp, make sure to hang up a hammock on some of the many trees surrounding the campsite and enjoy a hard earned beer (or tea!).
Wake up early once again, grab some breakfast and pack up camp if you plan on heading out of town after visiting Cummins Falls State Park. Starting at the Cummins Falls State Park parking lot, take the Downstream Trail. The trail will lead you down a few switchbacks before spitting you out into the river gorge. Follow the well-beaten path through the gorge, but keep in mind when you lose the trail you need to look across the river and cross to continue on. Looking at a copy of the State Park's map will give you a better idea of where these river crossings are. After hiking about a mile you will come to a bend in the river and to the left around this bend the river opens up and you will see the falls. Spend time at the falls enjoying the view or swimming in the swimming hole at the base of the falls. This waterfall is known to get very crowded on a hot afternoon, so I recommend getting there very early in the morning or opting for a late afternoon hike instead.
From here you can either head home or return back to Edgar Evins Campground to pack up camp before heading home. If you decide to stay for one more night and head home Monday morning, use the afternoon to swim at the beach in Edgar Evins State Park or hike on one of the many trails in the park.
As you have probably noticed while reading this, this road trip packs a lot of parks, waterfalls and adventures into a short amount of time. You can always lengthen your trip by a day (either Thursday or Monday) to spread out the adventures and make the trip a little bit easier. But our expereince of packing these adventures into a few days was a blast!
For our trip we opted to save money and camp out at two different campsites (the tent only campground at Rock Island State Park & Edgar Evins Primitive Campground) and we used those campgrounds as a home base for the rest of our hiking and adventures. If camping isn’t your thing, there are plenty of AirBnb’s near the towns of Sparta, Cookville, and Crossville (and some of the state parks such as Fall Creek Falls offer cabin rentals as well).
We decided to bring bread, peanut butter, bananas, oranges, apples and backpacking food for breakfast, stop by a local country store for lunch, and then make backpacking food for dinner. While backpacking food was the easiest option for us you also have two other options: 1) bring a cooler with perishable foods. Each campsite has a grill you can make food on and each campsite also has a country store a few miles down the road that sells ice. 2) eat out every meal. Although you are exploring a lot in the wilderness you’re never too far from local restaurants/fast food joints. Make sure to research what restaurants are in the area and what times they are open to ensure all your meals are covered and you wont be left hungry. If you choose the restaurant option, I still recommend bringing snacks for when you hike in the different parks to stay energized and enjoying your time in Tennessee!
Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More
Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.