In the heart of January, the morning was a bit chipper with cold as my friend Emily and I wandered up the trail at Frozen Head State Park in Wartburg, Tennessee, and the densely-forested trail was gray with early morning mist.
A stream burbled over small rocks and quaint waterfalls along the still-verdant wilderness, and it was easy to imagine that we were exploring this wild hidden trail along Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains as it looked centuries ago.
We were on the nearly one-mile Panther Branch Trail to hunt for waterfalls. The dirt path, riddled with loose rocks and exposed root, traveled upwards at a steady incline to connect to the .5-mile Emory Gap Trail, and we were taking the hike at a fast clip.
After a challenging year and a month of a rough and problem-laden move to a new home, I had escaped with my friend to Tennessee for some much-needed nature therapy. I had visited Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Gatlinburg the year before and fell in love with the rolling, almost-unbelievably beautiful nature of Tennessee, so I knew I wanted to return.
When I was invited to explore the state’s oft-overlooked state parks as a hosted guest, I jumped at the chance. For a week, Emily and I drove through the central areas of Tennessee as we sought out long hikes and hidden waterfalls.
With 56 designated state parks and 85 state natural areas, we had plenty of parks to choose from. Because we only had a week to get away, we narrowed our trip down to six Middle Tennesee parks, but the ones we chose were heart-breakingly splendid in their unspoiled wildness.
Frankly, you can’t spit without hitting postcard-perfect forest areas or hidden waterfalls in this state. And while our initial plan wasn’t to go waterfall hunting, that’s what we ended up doing.
In the brief time we had to explore the wilds, these are the six state parks we discovered.
1. Pickwick Landing State Park, Counce
Traveling east from Oklahoma to Tennesee, our first state park was Pickwick Landing State Park, roughly 100 miles east of Memphis. Technically, it’s located in the western part of the state, but it was the first one we hit as we made our way towards central Tennessee.
We arrived at night to stay at the newly-remodeled Lodge Pickwick Landing with its spacious rooms and lovely balconies overlooking the water.
Pickwick Landing State Park is surrounded by 1,000 acres of natural beauty and is famous for its water sports, like swimming, fishing, boating, and more, but the friendly hills offer a chance for some nice hiking as well.
In fact, as we walked along the relatively easy, 2.8-mile Lake Trail, I tried barefoot hiking for the first time. Emily was already a fan of feeling the dirt under her naked toes, so I gave it a try as well, despite the cold morning. The trail has some mild elevation and stellar views as it winds along the Pickwick Lake shore, but the rocky trail did make for some sore heel bruises at the end of the hike.
The park also has a marina, camping, and cabins available for use, including 48 sites with electrical and water hook-ups, and an indoor and outdoor swimming pool at the lodge.
If you are a fishing enthusiast, Pickwick Landing is famous for its smallmouth bass and Tennessee River Catfish, and the lake is home to several large fishing tournaments year-round.
The park also offers up a challenging golf course surrounded by trees with water found on eight holes.
2. Cumberland Mountain State Park, Crossville
After my inaugural barefoot hike at Pickwick Landing, Emily and I loaded up for the four-hour drive to Cumberland Mountain State Park in Cumberland County, Tennessee. After getting a speeding ticket in Waynesboro (slow down on the hill entering the town), we arrived to stay in one of the deluxe cabins at Cumberland Mountain State Park, which also has 11 historic Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) cabins available.
The park and the Cumberland Plateau, which extends down from western New York to central Alabama, are located just minutes off I-40, but you’ll feel as if you’ve traveled back in time.
One of the architectural achievements of the CCC, Cumberland Mountain State Park was a part of the New Deal-era Cumberland Homesteads Project, which helped relocate poverty-stricken families on the Cumberland Plateau to small farms centered on what is now the Cumberland Homestead community. This 1,720-acre park was built to provide recreation for the 250 families who homesteaded on the Cumberland Plateau.
We squeezed in a .85-mile hike on the Cumberland Plateau Trail that weaves along the bucolic stream before the sun set that day, waking up to find a fine layer of snow on the ground the next morning.
Despite the snowy start, we tackled the 2-mile Byrd Creek trail to the 5.9-mile Overnight Trail for our hike of the day, joined by a second Emily who lived in the area. While the 2-mile Byrd Creek Trail has some steep elevation at points, it’s a soothing journey along the verdant and green Byrd Creek with its ridiculously green wild rhododendron bushes that burst with flowers in the spring and summer.
The nearly-six mile Overnight Trail was a challenge, to be honest. With steep, rocky inclines and some rickety bridges, it’s not for the faint of heart or those looking for a mild hike. It’s worth it, though, as you weave up the sides of mountains and across streams. The distant serenade of cows punctuates the deep silence as you skirt pasture land and pass through dense forest. Hiking poles are a good idea on this hike.
When you connect back to Byrd Creek Trail to return to the visitor center parking lot, it’s best to retrace the first leg of the trail instead of the loop back. The loop doesn’t end in the parking lot but about a mile further down, and we navigated a rather tricky and dangerous creek crossing to get back to the original trail.
Cumberland Mountain State Park is home to a golf course, boat rentals, RV campsites, and backcountry camping. It’s also famous for its birding as herons, belted kingfishers, and ducks winter over in the area.
The restaurant at the park was closed, but Crossville is close enough to run into town for food. The Grinder House coffee house is a delight, with its curated coffees and tasty burger and sandwiches (I recommend the Reuben!), which were a delicious treat after eight miles of hiking. The Pour House Bistro and Wine Bar is a great dinner option for unique dishes like a spicy Korean rice bowl, fish and chips, and shrimp ‘n’ grits.
3. Ozone Falls State Natural Area, Rockwood
After our morning hike at Cumberland Mountain, we still had half a day to explore the nearby Ozone Falls State Natural Area, roughly a 30-minute drive along winding country roads from Cumberland Mountain State Park.
You do not want to miss this park! This 43-acre natural area’s gem is the 110-foot Ozone Falls that plunge over a sandstone cap rock into a deep-blue pool. You can even walk right to the edge of the falls, but be aware that the stone near the falls can be slippery and dangerous. However, the small rugged trail that leads to the falls offers great views of both the falls and the plunging valley.
This was the waterfall that introduced us to the waterfall obsession we had for the rest of the trip. The area is so pretty that it was included in the 1994 Disney film The Jungle Book.
Your map app will try to take you to a parking area that doesn’t exist. You’ll see the parking for the park right off of the main road, and there is additional parking across the street, near a railroad bridge. Don’t follow the navigation on your phone, or you’ll end up at someone’s private property.
4. Frozen Head State Park, Wartburg
The next day’s Tennessee de-stressing marathon began in the densely-forested, dripping with waterfalls mountain splendor of Frozen Head State Park. We only had a few hours that morning to explore the more than 24,000 acres of wilderness that was named for the more than 3,000-foot peak in the Cumberland Mountains.
Honestly, I wish we had been able to spend several days here. The Emory Gap Trail we chose paralleled a creek that sang with small waterfalls as we hiked the easy, in-and-back dirt path toward Debord Falls and Emory Gap Falls. The trail to Emory Gap Falls is another three-fourths of a mile from Debord Falls and is a bit more steep and rocky.
Emory Gap Falls is definitely worth the hike, and if you are comfortable with hopping and climbing around boulders, you can get pretty close to the waterfall.
Frozen Head is actually famous for the internationally notorious Barkley Marathon ultramarathon, which includes a “fun run” of 60 miles and the normal course of 100 miles. Every year, 40 runners register and they have a 60-hour timespan to finish either course. It’s a wild race with several documentaries made about it.
If you have the time, the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area encompasses 125,000 acres along the free-flowing Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and its tributaries. With scenic gorges, sandstone bluffs, and more outdoor recreation than you can shake a stick at, it’s a popular place for locals and visitors alike to explore.
5. Pickett CCC Memorial State Park, Jamestown
Driving up to Pickett CCC Memorial State Park, I had little idea that this tiny state park on the border of Kentucky would be among my favorite parts of the trip. Nestled in the 19,200-acre Pickett State Forest, this park is also a Silver-tier International Dark Sky Park that has an astronomy field just a few miles outside of the park.
Editor’s Note: We love looking up at TravelAwaits. Here’s more on stargazing.
The park also pays homage to the CCC workers who built the 10 hiking trails, the five rustic cabins, the ranger station, the recreation lodge, and the 12-acre lake at the park. But before we even drove into the park, we pulled into the parking lot for the astronomy field, which is part of the Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area. We ventured down a trail to immense sandstone bluffs and cliffs that form multiple rock houses and sandstone formations. From the road, you can’t imagine the absolute geological beauty of the area, and the overlook of the canyon and gorge is well worth the hour or so hike.
Pickett CCC Memorial Park was home to some of my favorite small hikes of the trip, including the 1.6-mile Hazard Cave trail, which leads to a massive sandstone overhang that a small farm could fit into. The 1-mile Natural Bridge Trail is a popular path that is easily accessed by the highway, too, and every trail makes you feel as if you’ve somehow wandered into a tropical land.
Green rhododendron bushes line the paths that skirt along hidden little creeks and sandstone bluffs. Thompson Creek opens up to a wider section where we saw an otter dipping in and out of the water as it played.
The trails range from easy to steep and rocky, and it’s best to keep one of the free trail maps with you, as the trails can be a little confusing to follow.
If you’re in the mood, a 30-minute drive will bring you into Jamestown, where you’ll find the Simply Fresh restaurant. Don’t let the fact that it’s attached to a gas station deter you from eating here -- we had one of the best ribeye steaks I’ve had in a while.
The Highland Manor Winery on South York Highway in Jamestown is Tennessee’s oldest winery and produces several varieties of award-winning wines. Try the white Muscadine Select and the seyval blanc when you drop by for a tasting.
6. Fall Creek Falls State Park, Spencer
Fall Creek Falls State Park is Tennessee’s largest and most visited state park, and it’s easy to see why. With more than 26,000 acres, Fall Creek Falls has one of the highest waterfalls in the eastern U.S. Fall Creek Falls is 256 feet high and plunges down like an unstoppable force.
But it isn’t the only waterfall in this wild, untamed area. The whole area is lush with cascades, gorges, waterfalls, streams, and lush stands of virgin hardwood timber.
Fall Creek Falls has 20 cabins, located directly on Fall Creek Lake, which are known as the “Fishermen Cabins.” They gave us an exquisite view of the lake every morning. There are also 10 one-story, two-bedroom cabins known as the “Landside Cabins,” as well as 222 campsites (92 with sewer connections) in five different areas. Be aware that all cabins and campsites book up quickly, so make reservations in advance.
While you can drive to the overlook of Falls Creek Falls, we took the roughly 1-mile Overlook Trail from the Nature Center. The view will take your breath away.
You can also take a trail to the base of the falls, which is rather difficult and treacherous in areas. You’ll traverse over wildly rocky terrain and over boulders that are constantly slick. The journey back from the base of the falls is incredibly steep, but standing in the roaring mist of this giant waterfall will make you feel alive.
There are 56 miles of hiking trails around the park and three mountain biking trails to explore, so you’ll find a trail that’s perfect for you. The park also has one of the most challenging 18-hole golf layouts tucked into the densely forested woodlands of the Cumberland Plateau.
Don’t miss a chance to try some local brews at Happy Trails Brewing Co. in nearby Sparta. Founded by Trey and Jessica Upchurch, the brewery offers a wide selection of locally-crafted beers and munchables that are sure to fill you up. And if you want the absolute best mac and cheese you’ll ever have the pleasure of tasting, hit up The Tavern Grill in Sparta.