The sound of the 110-foot waterfall roared in my ears as a spray of water cooled my skin after a rigorous hike through the pristine Upper Cumberland landscape in northern Tennessee.
While visiting Tennessee as a hosted guest, I decided to tackle the impressive and strenuous Virgin Falls hike just outside of Sparta. I knew it was going to be a challenging hike, one full of rough trails, slick shoe-grabbing tree roots, and sketchy inclines that would make my calves burn.
I also knew it would be an exquisite hike, one full of waterfalls, eye-watering beauty, and quiet solitude in nature, so the “strenuous hike” warnings seemed like a good trade-off.
I wasn’t wrong. Besides the Big Laurel Falls and Virgin Falls itself, the stream that ran along the trail for most of the 4-plus-mile one-way hike was riddled with falls and rushing little rapids. The trees towered above like damp, mossy sentinels, and I felt as though I were seeing this part of Tennessee as it looked before man came and started knocking things about.
The Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee is one of my favorite places in that mountainous, green state. Home to 14 state parks (the most in any region), it’s a fantastic place to get your nature and outdoors fix.
Eschewing the usual suspects of Cookeville and Crossville, we made the Heart Rock Hideaway vacation home in charming little Sparta our home base for the week. Besides not having the traffic of the larger cities, Sparta seems to be smack dab in the middle of all the fantastic outdoor activities and has that small-town charm that makes me swoon.
Sparta as a community and county seat of Tennessee’s White County is more than 200 years old. In fact, it almost became the state capital, losing to Nashville by only one vote in the 1800s.
The outdoor adventures in the area are countless, but here are four fantastic outdoor activities near scenic Sparta, Tennessee, to enjoy.
1. Hike All The Trails
Hiking is one of my absolute favorite things to do, and if you feel the same, you’ll run out of time before running out of trails to hike near Sparta. From the .3-mile walk to the Welch’s Point outlook and its expansive views to the 9-mile round-trip Virgin Falls trail, you can find a hike that’s just your speed.
The Virgin Falls trail was my favorite. Virgin Falls is a 1,157-acre natural area near Sparta; it features the 110-foot Virgin Falls, which starts out as an underground stream emerging from a cave before dropping over the cliff and disappearing into another cave.
This hike also has other waterfalls — like the Sheep Cave Falls, the Big Branch Falls, and the Big Laurel — but be aware that the hike is considered strenuous by all accounts.
Other trails to check out in the Sparta area include the Gorge Overlook and Woodland Trails at Fall Creek Falls State Park, a moderate 2.9-mile loop trail that leads to a waterfall; the nine trails at Rock Island State Park, which range from .5 mile to 2 miles and weave through the gorgeous lake and falls; and the nine main trails and eight spur trails in the Bridgestone–Firestone Centennial Wilderness.
Known as the Grand Canyon of the Cumberlands, the Bridgestone–Firestone Centennial Wilderness is a 10,000-acre park that was donated by the Bridgestone–Firestone Corporation to the state of Tennessee. Its trails range from moderate to strenuous and bring you to scenic vistas like Welch’s Point and to nine waterfalls in the area.
2. Kayak Through Rock Island State Park
Eric Jackson is the founder of Sparta’s Jackson Kayak. When we were in Sparta, we were lucky enough to try out his newest venture — the Apex Watercraft fishing kayak, the lightest composite fishing kayak in the world.
You don’t have to be a fishing enthusiast or have the latest kayak to enjoy the waterways near Sparta, though. Rock Island State Park, located just 18 miles south of Sparta, is one of the prettiest places to put in a kayak or a canoe (or even a stand-up paddleboard, if that’s your jam).
The good news is that most Tennessee state park boat-rental operations will open this summer, so you can rent your watercraft of choice at Rock Island.
The launch ramp on Center Hill Lake and other ramps on the Caney Fork and Collins Rivers make it easy to get out on the water for some recreational boating, fishing, or kayaking. The park is also known for its whitewater kayaking, if you are skilled in that area. I’m not, but I wish I were, because the park also hosts international freestyle kayaking events.
Most of the 14 state parks in the Upper Cumberland have some sort of boating and kayaking access, so if you can’t get to Rock Island, the parks nearest you will have opportunities.
Pro Tip: Heed these words from the Rock Island State Park officials and take them seriously: “Some areas of the park are for experienced whitewater kayakers or canoeists only and can be dangerous. Water levels and currents can change quickly downstream of TVA’s powerhouse or dam without notice. Large amounts of water may be released at any time without warning. Exit immediately if you hear warning sirens or notice changes in conditions.” Don’t mess around if you hear the sirens — just get to higher ground as quickly as possible.
3. Fly High With TN Flying Machines
If you think this part of Tennessee is pretty on the ground, wait until you see it from the air! TN Flying Machines has three unique aircraft (including two World War II-era warbirds) that will take you on an air tour of the Upper Cumberland area.
The morning I went up with Aaron Tippin (yes, the country music star Aaron Tippin), the winds were a little too gusty for my liking. But Aaron has more than 30 years of piloting experience, so I was in good hands as we flew over the waterfalls at Burgess Falls State Park.
Run by the Tippin family, these flights take you over Center Hill Lake and its beautiful waterfalls, Rock Island State Park’s lovely waterfalls, and other notable areas.
Located at the Upper Cumberland Region Airport, TN Flying Machines is one of the newest attractions in the Sparta area, so get in line to be among the first to have an adventure in the skies.
4. Go Caving At Cumberland Caverns
If you want a more extreme outdoor experience, know that the wild caving tours at Cumberland Caverns are a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. I’m an avid caver, and I’ve delved into caves all over the world, but I’m not too proud to say that the wild caving tour we did at Cumberland Caverns was among the most challenging I’ve done.
I’m a bit shaky with heights, but show me a hole in the ground, and I’ll want to climb in. That being said, the tour we did with local caver Chuck Sutherland and our 19-year-old cave guide, Collin, was almost like underground rock climbing.
These poor guys heard the most shocking cuss words from me as I butt-scooted over towering rocks in the dark. I cussed even more when I had to use a guide rope to navigate a small ledge over a black drop-off of unknown height, and I invented new cuss words as I squeezed through tiny, twisting passages and climbed up rickety wooden ladders — all in the looming dark of the cave.
Despite my constant potty mouth and clumsy scrambling, the Legacy Tour Adventure was my favorite adventure of the trip. We delved deep into the more than 30 miles of mapped cave passageways and discovered unique and stunning cave formations most visitors never get to see. We gazed at calcite veins that glowed in the dark, wondered at an underground waterfall, and marveled at the milky castle formations of the Cathedral.
Be aware that the 4-hour Legacy Tour is rated “most extreme” and involves high climbs, ladders, ropes, and traversing handlines. I found it more physically demanding than any hike or caving I’ve done.
Don’t worry — if you’re not game for an intense underground crawling and scrambling adventure, Cumberland Caverns has a moderate and lighted Discovery Walking Tour that leaves every hour. You’ll still see amazing formations, waterfalls, and the famous Volcano Room that sparkles with a gigantic chandelier hanging from the cave ceiling.
Pro Tip: Wear sturdy, closed-toed shoes with good traction and clothes you won’t mind getting muddy or destroyed. I wore light hiking pants, and by the end of the tour, I had torn the seat of my pants so severely that one buttcheek was hanging in the wind. Our caver friend Chuck recommends good cargo shorts, kneepads, and hiking boots.
These four suggestions are just the beginning of the outdoor adventures available near Sparta. Rock climbing, cycling, birding, and camping opportunities are plentiful in the area, as are fishing and bouldering opportunities. If you need help finding your perfect adventure, visit the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association!