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Hiking to Waterfalls in Central Tennessee

Updated on September 5, 2014
Burgess Falls from the Overlook
Burgess Falls from the Overlook

Burgess Falls

Easily found off I-40 in TN is the state park called Burgess Falls. Located in Dekalb County, this park has picnic and restroom facilities convenient to a large parking area. There are plenty of places to watch the water flow from the common areas designed for cooking, playing and eating, but the best is found a ways away from there.

The riverside trailhead is located to the right of the parking area, with the river also to your right. The trail is well-worn, being as the park gets tens of thousands of visitors each season. It is also well-maintained, but not wheel chair accessible. However, to the left is a dirt road that can be traveled by wheel chair, and it will take you to the large falls overlook. This route is not as scenic, nor can you see much of the other falls along the trail, but it will get you to the overlook, which is grand enough in itself.

Machine Falls

If you are looking for a wilder place, less traveled, perhaps, then Machine Falls in Coffee County (a bit south of the southeastern tip of Normandy Lake) could be for you. It's a moderate hike through underbrush with a pretty steep drop at the end, before the falls. While an impressive 45 to 60 ft.high, the watershed is on the small side. Even so, it is splendid and fairly awesome.

You park off a rural, two-lane (Short Springs Rd.) near a radio tower, and walk east up the road a short way until you see a trail on the left.The area is not heavily traveled, and you will end up a winding mile from your vehicle, so don't leave anything valuable inside. Take a walking stick with you and wear good hiking boots and long pants. Watch for snakes. Though we didn't see any during our hike, you never know. TN is full of snakes, many of which are non-poisonous, but there are rattlers and copperheads, too.

If you can go in the spring or fall, the trek will be much more interesting. We went in mid-summer, with green leaves everywhere, and it got a bit monotonous. But when we descended the trail and made it that last thirty or forty yards, we knew why Machine Falls was "on the map," so to speak.

We stayed long enough to get totally refreshed. There's a lot to look at around the base of the falls. We found another trail back so didn't end up re-visiting our "in" route. While the return seemed longer, it likely was not, and the view of the falls was certainly worth it.

It isn't a bad idea to take a compass with you, since we thought we were lost a time or two on the way back. We weren't, and this has happened to us more than once, so you'd think we'd have learned better. In any case, it's always good to know which direction you're heading.

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Rutledge Falls

Close to Machine Falls, actually on the way, is a neat area on private land but accessible (as of this posting) to the public. It's called Rutledge Falls and the roads leading to it from the east and the south are both named for it. Traveling from Manchester toward Tullahoma on Hwy 55, look for Rutledge Falls Rd on the right. Where this road meets up with Short Springs Rd, (same road from the Machine Falls description, previously noted) can be seen a residence with a dirt drive. Park there and walk the trail to the falls, a short distance away.

The top of the falls is quite dangerous and there is really no reason to try going up there. The bluffs around the cataract are steep, too, so take care. Once you reach the waterside, you can walk downstream quite a distance. Also, before you descend (or on the way back up) look for the statue of the lady midway between the home and the falls. There were some wild citrus-like fruit bushes nearby, too. It's a neat place and a short walk, too. There's enough water at the base to take a dip, if you're so inclined.

Greeter Falls, Upper Greeter Falls and Boardtree Falls

In an area of the Southern part of the Cumberland Plateau is the Savage Gulf. You may have heard of the Stone Door, which is within the Savage Gulf State Natural Area. US 41 will take you to Hwy 56 with the towns of Tracy City, Beersheba Springs, Greutli-Laager and Altamont, nearby. Firescald is the name of the creek that feeds these falls, all located within one partial day hike of one another.

Greeter Falls nature area has a good size parking area and an outhouse. No picnic areas or water were available, so tailgating is recommended. The trail is well marked and fairly safe, although small children should be kept close at hand. Wet stairs can be hazardous, and so can muddy paths and slippery rocks. Steep bluffs may or may not have railings in places. Running along the trails is not recommended as a misstep could prove disastrous. There are places to swim, and children should always be supervised, no matter old they are.

After a short half mile stroll is Upper Greeter Falls, 15 feet high and 40 ft wide, roughly. Another half mile beyond lies Greeter Falls, a 50 ft high wonder (also written as Lower Falls on some signage along the trail). There are stairs leading to a deck near the base of the falls. Many times we've seen kids swimming and splashing in the waters below the falls. It appears to be fairly deep and certainly very clear and cold.

Beyond this is Boardtree Falls, almost another 1/2 mile along the trail. Since the hike becomes more difficult at this point, it can be a challenge to reach the top of this falls. After the larger Greeter Falls, it is a bit of a let-down, so we don't usually go this far.

It is recommended to stop at the Stone Door or Savage Gulf Ranger Stations and pick up a map before you do this hike. It's always informative to have background information when you plan to enter an area you've never been in before. It's also much safer when you have children in tow and Greeter Falls is a great place to take the kids.


Fall Creek Falls

One of the most famous waterfalls in TN is Fall Creek Falls and it's neighbor, Coon Falls. Fall Creek Falls State Park is a destination many plan on for summer vacations and fall excursions. Not only are there spectacular views along the roadways in the park, the deer are plentiful and unafraid of people in cars, there is a lake, a museum, a swimming area, a swinging bridge and a playground. You can camp here in a tent or an RV, rent a room at the inn or rent a cabin on the lake. There are more picnic areas than I can count and a number of fishing areas. Biking is also popular at the park. But I digress, we're talking about waterfalls, after all.

There are actually 6 waterfalls in the park. Cane Creek Cascades is a large stream of gushing, rolling, tumbling water that is easily seen from a partially fenced area behind the nature center, a mere walk away. It was once home to the Bickford Mill which was destroyed by flood in the spring of 1929. If the water is low enough, one can locate some of the holes and metal that held the mill in place nearly 100 years ago. In summer, one often sees people cascading down the creek along with the water here.

Rockhouse Falls is also just past the nature center, but off to the right and down a short trail. Cane Creek Falls can be seen from the same area - Cane Creek to the left, Rockhouse to the right. It's quite a drop to the bottom, so it's good that the viewing area is fenced. Still, hold the little ones' hands, and don't drop your camera!

Piney Creek Falls is a double drop waterfall that can be accessed after a few miles of driving from the nature center, following signs. A fairly easy trail leads to a view of the falls in the distance.

Fall Creek Falls and Coon Creek Falls are close to the same height but Coon Creek Falls is much narrower, sometimes being a mere dribble when rainfall has been minimal. Both are seen from the viewing area when water is flowing well. The viewing area is fenced, accessible to wheelchairs and there is water, picnic tables and restrooms.

There is a trail from the viewing area down to the plunge pool below. It is not an easy walk, either way, but it's good exercise, and you can explore the pool area and the microclimate that is created there. On a steamy, hot day, you can get a bit of relief by the mist that blankets everything depending on how the wind blows down there. Be prepared for a long walk back up, though.

You can also hike a trail that goes around the canyon to the right of the viewing area. The trail takes you past Coon Creek and on to the top of Fall Creek and beyond. Please be sure children know how dangerous this trail can be. Many have died falling from atop the falls here. There are no railings in most areas. Shoes with non-skid soles are a must if you plan to venture anywhere near the edges of the trails. I cannot warn you too much to take care of yourself and your young ones. It is a great trail to follow, though, with wonderful views of the surrounding hills and canyons.

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