I was up at 6:00 and on the trail by 6:30, camera in hand. Ordinarily, I like the quiet of early morning hikes. The trail was deserted, but not quiet—I could hear the powerful rush of water cascading over ancient boulders more than a quarter of a mile away. I was on the wooded Campground Trail to the Cane Creek Cascades and Falls,…but I am getting ahead of myself.
The unanticipated trek along the Fall Creek Falls State Park path had been set in motion ten days earlier when we picked up our new Riverside RV Retro camper. We decided we needed a “proving trip” to check out the camper and familiarize ourselves with setting up and using the features of the camper.
Fall Creek Falls State Park was the natural destination. It is about 60 miles away along a good mix of highways and narrow winding mountain roads—perfect for the proving trip, and a perfect destination for a weekend getaway.
About the ParkAccording to the official web site, at 26,000 acres, Fall Creek Falls State Park is Tennessee’s largest and most visited state park. Stretching across the rugged Cumberland Plateau, it offers a collection of cascades, gorges, waterfalls, streams and lush forests. The centerpiece of the park is Fall Creek Falls, one of the highest waterfalls in the eastern United States. Other waterfalls within the park include Piney Falls, Cane Creek Falls, Rockhouse Falls and Cane Creek Cascades.
The park has more than 220 camping sites—from tent sites to full-service recreational vehicle sites. The interactive campground website allows campers to see what sites are available on the desired dates. Clicking on an icon of an available site opens an information box that briefly describes the site: type, size, available services, and if it is level or paved. Handicapped accessible sites are also identified. Within minutes of opening the website, we had selected, reserved, and paid for our weekend site.
Taking our time, we arrived at the park after a 90-minute drive—phase one of the proving trip successfully completed. At check-in, we received a campground map, a trail guide, and a park brochure. We opted to buy the detailed park map that provides much more detail and information for planning. We also bought firewood. Like many Tennessee campgrounds, they require locally supplied or “certified” firewood in an effort to prevent the introduction of forest pests.As we drove through the RV camping area we could see a complete range of sites; some required backing in, some had paved pads, but all were nicely sited in the hilly terrain. A clean bath house was conveniently located in the middle of each campground. Our paved pull-through site was level, with everything you would expect in more expensive commercial parks. We had the camper set up and all connections in place within 30 minutes—phase two of the proving trip completed.
The Tennessee mountain air is still cool in April, and we were soon relaxing around a warming campfire. I studied the park brochures and trail maps and made plans for the next morning.
Popular features of the park are the water falls and cascades. According to the trail map, from our campsite, it was a 15-minute walk along a wooded trail to reach Cane Creek Falls and Cascades via the Campground Trail. As I started to describe in the beginning, I was on the well-traveled trail by 6:30, Sunday morning, following the sound of rushing water.
Guided by the trail map, I came upon the cable-and-plank swinging bridge that crosses Cane Creek, just above the cascades. From the bridge, I took photos of the creek and the cascades, doubled back to the main trail toward Cane Creek Falls Overlook. From there I had an excellent view of both Cane Creek Falls and Rockhouse Falls. I lingered there, taking many photos.
At that point, I had the option of continuing another 0.8 miles to Fall Creek Falls, but opted to go back to camp. Within an hour, I had discovered and photographed the cascades and two falls and made it back to camp in time for breakfast. Note, when walking the trails, constantly look around and down; you may see a delicate blue flower tucked in beside a rock or an alert fence lizard sunning on a log.
After breakfast, we decided to drive to the parking area at the Fall Creek Falls Overlook. The overlook provides a magnificent view of the falls and the pool at the bottom of the gorge.
I could not, however, pass up the opportunity to walk to the base of the falls, in spite of the warning that it was a “strenuous,” winding 0.4-mile trail. The trail descends nearly 300 feet into the gorge. This means that the trail is steep, and much of the trail consists of irregularly spaced stones for steps. The trail descends through a densely wooded hillside, interspersed with large outcrops of stone. The air becomes noticeable cooler deeper in the gorge. But to stand at the base of the falls and look upward was well worth the effort.A fine mist swirls gently around the base of the falls. I can imagine this provides a comfortable respite from mid-summer heat. There are many vantage points at the base of the fall for good photos, although I believe the early-to-mid afternoon would provide the best light for photography. Of course, there is the .4 mile hike back up the trail. It may test your stamina—it is strenuous, but if you take your time, watch your step, perhaps use a walking stick, and are in reasonably good condition (not athletic), it is a worthwhile trek.
Incidentally, the park also has a network of dedicated bicycle trails that offer access to most of the key areas of the park. There is also an extended auto tour that includes several historic sites in the park and offers access to Piney Falls, which is several miles from the main recreational area of the park.
We spent the rest of the day exploring the park around Fall Creek Falls Lake in the center of the park. Across the lake from the campground, there is a convention center with a hotel and an excellent restaurant. Restaurant seat provides vistas across the lake. We were there for the reasonably-priced buffet that offered a variety of excellent choices. Menu service is also available.
After lunch, we followed the park road back past the campground to the Betty Dunn Nature Center located near the Cane Creek Cascades and Falls that I had seen that morning, but from the other side of the swinging bridge. The nature center features displays of the flora, fauna, and history of the park; a 15-minute program video program; and the opportunity to browse in the center’s gift shop. The center also offers hands-on environmental education through a variety of naturalist led programs.
Outside the center, there are trails to points that provide different perspectives of the falls and cascades, and there is a trail to the base of Cane Creek Falls.
Additional programs across the park include arts and crafts, movies, campfires, organized games and live musical entertainment. The park has 34 miles of trails, including two over-night trails for adventure –seeking visitors. The park also has four playgrounds, horse stables with guided trail rides, and 18-hole championship golf course, boat rentals, five covered picnic pavilions and an Olympic-sized pool with a wading area which is open Memorial Day to Labor Day. Special events and activities are posted on park bulletin boards and on the park’s website.
By the time we were back to the camp, we were ready to relax. We started a charcoal fire in the grill at the site, with plans to grill dinner. The weather had other ideas, and I soon found myself standing over the grill with an umbrella. But we were hungry, the meal was cooked, and we ate in the comfort of the camper. During the night, I was briefly awaken from a deep and restful sleep by thunder and heavy rain on the roof of the camper. We now know that the camper does not leak—it was well tested.
The next morning was overcast, and we were unsure of the weather forecast. We had planned to take the auto tour that morning before breaking camp. About 8:30 a park ranger stopped at our site. I asked if he had any news about the weather for the day. He explained that was why he was there. He wanted us to know that the Conference Center was the park’s “safe place” in the event of severe weather. And, by the way, they were anticipating sever weather that afternoon and evening. Based on that information, we decided postpone the auto tour and break camp before noon. Later that afternoon, after we were safely home, the weather service issued several tornado watches and warnings for area that included the park.
In conclusion, we were please with the camper and we also agreed that we would need at least one more, longer visit, to Fall Creek Falls State Park.
For more information on Fall Creek Falls State Park, contact the park directly at 423-881-5298 or visit their excellent Web site at: http://tnstateparks.com/parks/about/fall-creek-falls
For additional information on:
Camping Information & Reservations: 1-800-250-8611
Inn/Cabin/Restaurant Reservations and Information: 1-800-250-8610 or 423-881-5241
Golf Course: 423-881-5706
Trails, Cave, & Environmental Education: 423-881-5708
Fall Creek Falls State Park
10821 Park Road
Spencer, Tennessee 38585