Since our little family of four moved to middle Tennessee (south of Nashville) in 2015, we've sorta become addicted to chasing waterfalls. I think we were just so starved for natural beauty, green, and rushing waters after living in big city Dallas for 11 years! So we started taking mini road trips on Saturday or Sunday afternoons to explore the many waterfalls within a 2 hour drive of the Nashville area.
I've since learned a fun fact: waterfalls release tens of thousands of negative ions per cubic centimeter - 3 or 4 times the amount of normal fresh air. Negative ions help lift our mood, reduce anxiety, strengthen resistance to illness and even keep our airways functioning well. There are literally good vibes coming out of waterfalls! Which explains why we can't stay away.
In this post I'm keeping a running list of the waterfalls we've visited (and re-visited) so far - all doable and fun adventures with our two young girls (3 and 7 when we started). One day I'll be a hardcore rock climber wearing Athleta gear 24/7, but this is real life with small children, ya know?
Before you read, keep this big tip in mind: go to Instagram and check the hashtag (or location tag) for the waterfall you're wanting to visit. For example #fosterfalls. Look at the most recent posts and see how much water was flowing in the photos other people just posted.
Lesson learned the hard way...we once visited Foster Falls one October with friends from out of town and when got to the bottom, it was eerily quiet... there was no waterfall, just a big silent pool. Womp womp.
Now, I always check beforehand to ensure that the water is flowing.
Foster Falls (Sequatchie, TN)
Perhaps Foster Falls is so dear to my heart because it's the first Tennessee waterfall I visited in my post-college early 20s days living in Nashville. The hike is short, and even though you're hiking downhill the entire time to the waterfall, the natural rock formations form stairs that are fairly easy to climb over. A few steps into the hike, the towering trees and mossy rocks will make you feel like you're in an ancient, magical forest in the Pacific Northwest. Before you reach the waterfall, you cross a suspension bridge and end up on a small sandy/rocky beach area with the swimming hole and waterfall spread before you. The water is shallow near the shore, so small children can wade there. Adults or bigger kids can venture out and swim in the deeper waters along the rocky edges or, if you can brave the frigid water, underneath Foster Falls itself. There's another rocky area to the immediate right of the waterfall where you can sun yourself on big rocks and let all those wonderful water ions fall on your skin. The return hike requires stamina as you're going uphill at a pretty steep slope, but there are plenty of places to hold on or rest if you need to.
Quick overview: Swimming hole / short hike / uphill return / suspension bridge
Make a stop at Mooney's Market and Emporium in Monteagle, TN just off I-24. It's a funky little health food/antiques/garden/yarn shop with a creamsicle-orange food trailer behind it called The Crescent Cafe. I had the best pumpkin smoothie there last time.
Greeter Falls - Altamont, TN
Greeter Falls has become one of my favorite places in Tennessee - there's so much to love. Powerful waterfall. Amazing swimming hole. Lots of big boulders for sunning yourself. And CLIFF JUMPING.
The most important thing to know about Greeter Falls is that you will have to do some careful maneuvering to get to the falls. The hike itself is less than a mile, and you'll pass amazing cliff formations, caves, and flowers. But there are narrow pathways with sheer drops without railings, so be super careful with small children. At the end of the trail before the waterfall, you'll descend a very narrow, winding staircase down to the falls. If you're afraid of heights, just be aware that it's worth it, and it'll be over soon :). After the staircase, you'll go across a kind of slanted wooden plank to get to the falls. It can get slippery, but there's a railing, and if you stay low to the ground you'll be fine.
Quick overview: Swimming hole / cliff-jumping / rock-scaling / spiral staircase
There's no restroom at Greeter Falls. You have to use the restroom at the ranger station at the Stone Door, 12 minutes away. We learned this the hard way! Before or after Greeter Falls, check out the Stone Door hike - it has easy trails, and you end up at a breathtaking mountain vista where you can see forever. There's a place where two cliffs come close together forming a small passageway to walk through, called the Stone Door. No waterfall there, but it's a must-see!
Jackson Falls - Duck River, TN
Jackson Falls on the Natchez Trace Parkway is only 14 minutes from our farm, so we've been there several times, at all different times of the year. Jackson always has water running, but if we haven't had much rain it can be a pretty gentle falls compared to others. There's not enough water to swim, but there's an upper falls that people slide down if there's enough water, plus it's lots of fun wading in the water in the lower falls and it's perfect for kids to play. You can park at the entrance to Jackson Falls and there's a paved trail with a hand rail to get to the bottom, so it's friendly for people of all ages.
If it gets crowded, head down stream to explore other areas to play and little pools to splash in!
Quick overview: No swimming hole / short hike / paved walkway / Natchez Trace
Rock Island State Park - Rock Island, TN
Rock Island State Park is a gem! There are multiple waterfalls within the park, and after several trips, we’ve finally been to all of them. The photos above are of Twin Falls. You can hike over big boulder rocks to get close enough to feel the waterfall spray, but you can't swim in the water because it's powered by a dam that can rise at a moment's notice.
On another trip to Rock Island, we only went to the sandy beach swimming area, which is absolutely gorgeous. We took a picnic lunch and spent hours swimming and wading there. The waters are warm and calm with lots of “rock islands” you can swim out to a perch and relax. I definitely recommend bringing water shoes/Keens/Chacos and floats for both kids and adults! We also saw lots of people in kayaks.
On our last trip, I feel like we really saw the glory of Rock Island. We parked in the lot right past the cotton mill at Great Falls. From the overlook in the parking lot, you can see Great Falls and the swimming area down below…
Looks so inviting, right? At the end of the parking lot, there’s a trail down there with steps and a handrail. Along the way, we stopped at another incredible waterfall (perfect for kids to play in) where we could have stayed all day…
…but we had so many other adventures planned. So we kept on going down into the Caney River Gorge, which you walk through for awhile to get to the base of Great Falls. I couldn’t believe the views down there, all the rock formations piled like Jenga pieces and both rushing waterfalls and tiny ones pouring out of the rock cliffs far above.
Once we got to the Great Falls swimming hole, well, we could have stayed there all day too! It was freeeeeezing, but it’s the perfect swimming hole in a circular shape where you can swim to other little falls around the perimeter. It makes me want to take a book next time so I can stretch out on a rock and read all day.
You really can’t go wrong at Rock Island!
Quick overview: Swimming holes / sandy beach / multiple falls / rock-scaling
Rutledge Falls - Tullahoma, TN
OK, I have mixed feelings about Rutledge. First of all, it’s different than the others because it’s privately owned but open to the public. It’s directly off the road in Tullahoma, so there isn’t really much of a hike to it except a short, steep but doable path down to the falls. The first time we went (when these photos were taken), it was late September, so the water was freezing, but as you can see, we got wet anyway and had a blast with friends visiting from out-of-town. We played for hours in the swimming hole and downstream. But the last time we went on a Sunday afternoon in June, it was so crowded and unfortunately, there were so many people smoking that it’s all you could smell. Maybe it’s more risky because it’s privately owned and not a state park which is more closely regulated, but there was also a lot of trash left around the water and on the rocks. It made me sad. I hope these falls can be preserved and kept up so they’re still a great destination.
Quick overview: Short hike off the road / swimming hole/ can be crowded
Fall Creek Falls - Spencer, TN
Gonna be honest - I don't remember this hike super well. We camped at the Fall Creek Falls campground, which I do remember was beautiful with really clean bath houses. Then we hiked the trails and saw the main falls from up above and went down to Cane Creek Falls where you can wade in the water and play. This is definitely one of the most popular Middle TN waterfalls, and the area is pretty crowded, but still a popular one for good reason.
Quick overview: Swimming hole / nice campground / crowded
Stillhouse Hollow Falls - Mt. Pleasant, TN
There's not a ton of water flowing from Stillhouse Hollow Falls, but it's still a gorgeous hike to get to it, and a pretty magical place. You can semi-swim and wade in the water, and it feels very secret down there at the falls. You hike through some streams, so be sure to wear water shoes, and I remember it being a heckuva hike back up to the parking lot with a toddler on my back, but it was doable! We'll have to revisit this one soon since we live so close to Mt. Pleasant now.
Quick overview: Semi-swimming hole / quiet & secluded / uphill return hike
Cummins Falls - Cookeville, TN
This is the most crowded waterfall we've visited with it being so close to Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, but it's definitely worth it! You do have to walk/hike downstream for awhile until you get to the actual falls, but then it's multiple levels and pools and areas to play, and if I remember correctly, there was also cliff jumping! This is one I'd love to return to now that my girls are little bit bigger. One great thing about Cummins is that they provide complimentary life vests! There are tons of them in all different sizes strung on a line right near the falls. With a toddler in tow, this was super helpful.
Quick overview: Long but easy hike to falls / swimming hole / cliff-jumping / life jackets
Check out downtown Cookeville afterwards. There are cute shops and a fun old-fashioned ice cream parlor called Cream City, across the street from which is an old train depot with train cars that kids can play on - our girls absolutely loved it.
Burgess Falls - Sparta, TN
This is a great one for small children. It's an easy hike in beautiful woods and past some neat rock formations until you see the falls. When you arrive there, there are tons of places to play in the plateau-like area and shallow waters that eventually go over the edge of the falls, so you're at the top of the falls rather than the bottom. You can even go to the very edge of the waterfall and sit on some rocks if you don't mind heights! We went to Burgess in November, so it was more for playing and just exploring nature than getting wet, but I bet it would be great in the warmer months. If I remember correctly, there was also a sweet little playground by the parking lot.
Quick overview: No swimming hole / easy hike / wading and splashing
Old Stone Fort State Park - Manchester, TN
Old Stone Fort is located on ancient Native American ceremonial grounds, so there's a museum there as well as some interesting artifacts and maps about how the land used to be. This is the most "wild" waterfall we've been to thus far - the most important thing to know is this might not be the best place for really small children unless you plan to just hike the trails. In order to get down to the waterfall, you have to go down a pretty steep slope, and the rocks at the bottom are slippery. Our youngest was able to handle this when she was 4-years-old. Once you're at the falls, it's really a unique habitat - we felt like we'd been transported to a secret rainforest in Hawaii, and there are lots of seaweed-type grasses and moss under the water. You can stand under the waterfall and let it pound over you - so invigorating!
Quick overview: Swimming hole / easy hike but difficult rock-scaling / quiet & secluded
Other waterfalls on my list to visit:
And finally, a few more general tips:
If you have toddlers, I definitely recommend a hiking backpack or other babywearing carrier (Tula and Boba are my favorites). It's best to have babies or toddlers on your back so you can keep your hands free and won't lose your balance trying to hold them up.
Here's what always have in our backpacks:
Essential oils (Melaleuca, Lavender, Frankincense)
Natural bug/tick repellant
Change of clothes