Hiking the Highlands

Fall Creek Falls State Park

Date: December 14, 2016

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A treasure of the Cumberland Plateau

By Molly Moore


During the “polar vortex” in February 2015, Fall Creek Falls, on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, became blanketed in ice and a rare ice cone formed at the waterfall’s base. Photographer Cara Alexander is also a ranger at Fall Creek Falls State Park. “I adore the relative peace of the park in the winter and the beauty that most people don’t get to see,” she says. “Summer is always hectic and full of people, and the wintertime is rejuvenating.” To see more of her work, visit caraalexanderphotography.com.

From Rocky Point Overlook during an unseasonably warm fall afternoon, the air is still, and the Upper Cane Creek Gorge stretches to the blue horizon, though the bottom, some 300 feet below, is out of sight. Even during a busy weekend on a popular loop trail, this point offers solitude and an expansive, humbling view.

Located on the western edge of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, Fall Creek Falls State Park encompasses 26,000 acres. The area is largely comprised of limestone, shale and sandstone, where thousands of years of erosion have carved steep gorges, rocky bluffs, caves and underground rivers into the plateau’s rolling contours.

The five creeks that pass through the area give rise to six waterfalls within park boundaries, but that’s only part of the draw. Hikers can choose from 34 miles of trails, with options that range from wheelchair-accessible overlooks to two overnight backpacking loops at 13.2 and 14 miles long each. Another hike descends to the base of Cane Creek Falls with the aid of a cable — not recommended during wintry conditions. In addition to hiking, the park hosts activities such as biking, birding, horseback riding, fishing and boating; amenities even include golf and zipline courses.

To experience a slice of the park in just a few hours, Park Ranger Cara Alexander recommends a 2.9-mile loop that begins on the north side of the Betty Dunn Nature Center at the head of the gorge. From here, visitors look down into a wide pool formed by Rockhouse Falls and Cane Creek Falls, both of which are more visible later along the trail.

Cane Creek Cascades

Cane Creek Cascades flows past snowy banks on a cool winter’s day. Photo by Cara Alexander.

Following the paved path to the other side of the nature center, hikers arrive at the loop’s dramatic entrance — a classic wood-and-cable swinging bridge that spans the width of Cane Creek and bears a “Load limit, 6 people” warning sign. It’s worth pausing on the bridge to watch the creek pour over Cane Creek Cascades on its way to the larger waterfall and pool. A grist mill once stood above the cascades, but it was washed away during a massive flood in 1929.

After a flight of stairs, the trail climbs upward to intersect with Woodland Trail to the left and the Gorge Trail to the right. Either direction provides access to the loop, but hikers who opt for the right soon reach the brief side trail leading to Cane Creek Overlook.

This viewpoint looks across to the overlook near the nature center, but from this perspective the vista is even more impressive: Cane Creek Falls gushes 85 feet over a wide ledge, and, from another creek, narrow Rockhouse Falls plunges 125 feet. Both spill into a single deep, reflective pool.

Fall Creek Falls Loop
Length: 2.9 total miles (1.2 Gorge Trail, .4 each way on Fall Creek Falls Trail, .9 Woodland Trail)
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Location: 10821 Park Rd, Spencer, Tennessee
Contact: Call 423-881-5298, visit tnstateparks.com/parks/about/fall-creek-falls

Beyond the first viewpoint, the path continues along the plateau through a mix of pine, oak and hickory. Two short overlook trails to the right provide additional glimpses of Cane Creek Gorge. According to Alexander, the gorge is home to an old-growth forest that includes hemlock and yellow poplar.

As Cane Creek flows roughly 10 miles from the waterfall to the Caney Fork, it also drops underground in places where the limestone bedrock is dissolved by the water’s natural acids. The waterway flows in underground channels year-round, with an aboveground stream rising during periods of heavy rain. During its underground journey, Cane Creek cools to 56 degrees before reemerging at Crusher Hole — a bright blue spring that is also 56 degrees year-round.

Further along the path, a fourth side trail leads to Rocky Point Overlook. Accessing the signature outcropping requires careful footing, but the broad panorama and bands of rocky bluffs on the opposite side are worth the scramble.

Fall Creek Falls

The day after Thanksgiving, hiker Debbie Blankenship visited Fall Creek Falls, the larger of the falls at left, and Coon Creek Falls instead of Black Friday shopping. Photo by Debbie Blankenship, Flickr/deblam1005(BLESSED)

Returning to the main path, the trail comes to a fork: the Woodland Trail, to the left, leads back to the nature center, and an out-and-back trail to the right heads to Fall Creek Falls.

The overlook here offers majestic views of Fall Creek Falls and the nearly adjacent Coon Creek Falls as they both plunge sharply into the same pool. Fall Creek Falls, which boasts a larger volume of water, drops a stunning 256 feet, while Coon Creek spills 250 feet.

To reach the base 300 feet below, follow the orange-blazed downhill trail for .4 miles, past large boulders and rugged, overhanging cliffs. Floods tore through this channel in the distant and not-so-distant past, before a dam on Fall Creek began to regulate the waterway — it’s now the only managed stream in the park.

The path ends with the dramatic sights and sounds of two tumbling streams of water thundering — or splashing, depending on the water level — into a plunge pool, misting fellow trekkers.

Check with park staff before embarking on this section during winter. Even if the rest of the trail is in good condition, this area may be icy due to mist from the falls.
Return by walking uphill and back to the last intersection. Follow the easy Woodland Trail through the open forest and back to the swinging bridge and nature center. From here, enjoy a picnic at the lake’s edge, a meal or brew at the park lodge, or another adventure entirely.

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