From Memphis to the mountains, Tennessee is one of the most visited tourist locations in the world.
Each of the three Grand Divisions has at least one major tourist point; Memphis in the west, Nashville in the middle, and the mountains in the east.
But among the division, there are great swaths of Tennessee that are more or less unknown.
Northwest Tennessee, for instance, around Dyersburg and Martin are not exactly vacation hotspots.
And the area south of Nashville, with the noted exception of Lynchburg, is typically unknown outside of the region.
East Tennessee, which runs from Bristol and Johnson City down to Chattanooga, is better known thanks to the mountains and popular parks which attract visitors up and down the state.
Certainly not as many people have made the drive over the mountain through Ducktown to get to Copper Hill, which sits directly on the Georgia state line. But even that tiny town does a fair tourist trade.
If I was guessing, and that’s all it is, I’d say the area under the plateau where East Tennessee transitions to Middle Tennessee is one of the regions’ most unknown spaces.
Meigs, Rhea, Bledsoe, and Sequatchie counties are relative unknowns even among many Tennesseans.
As a sports editor in Monroe County in the early 2000s, I made more than a few visits and I can tell you, those roads running east to west are not fun driving bleary-eyed through the late autumn darkness following a Friday night football game.
Where is Fall Creek Falls?
But it is in this place – straddling the east and middle dividing line in Spencer, TN – that one of the state’s most underappreciated treasures exists: Fall Creek Falls State Park.
Underappreciated is a relative term.
It’s strange to call one of the most highly-visited Tennessee state parks underappreciated, but it is.
In fact, if you could move the park out of the shadow of the Appalachians to a region less flush with majestic, natural beauty, Fall Creek Falls would be talked about with the great natural destinations in the country.
But in East Tennessee, it’s just one great massive, beautiful green space among many.
Located in Bledsoe and Van Buren counties, the park saddles the dividing line among the Grand Divisions.
Van Buren is located in Middle Tennessee while Bledsoe is in the east.
Either way, Fall Creek Falls isn’t on the beaten path. Northwest of Chattanooga and west of Dayton, home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, there aren’t a lot of reasons to be going that way unless you’re going to the state park.
It just isn’t on the way to anywhere else.
Directions to Fall Creek Falls
The park is about a three-hour drive from Gatlinburg.
The best way – and the quickest – is to head on I-40 over to Crossville and then go south.
If you want a more interesting drive, however, you can follow my old route and take I-75 down to Exit 60 at Sweetwater. Turn west on TN-68 and then south on Dayton where you can stop and have some Scopes Monkey Trial fun. From there, drive the Dayton Mountain Highway and its incredibly interesting twists and turns to Highway 286 until you reach the park entrance.
It’s not fast. It’s not efficient. You may reconsider your life’s choices that brought you to this point, but it’s different.
Once inside the park, however, you won’t regret a thing.
Its magnificent, majestic beauty is worthy of the preservation efforts it’s received.
There are multiple hikes and waterfalls in the park, many of which are fairly close to each other.
The park’s signage leaves something to be desired and often hikers can become confused. It’s also a good idea to check the water levels. When the water levels are high – especially after heavy rains – the falls are majestic. When water levels are low, it’s simply a tall trickle of water down to the river below.
How much does it cost to go to Fall Creek Falls?
There’s no cost to enter Fall Creek Falls State Park, which features over 56 miles of trails. Hikers can opt for short or long walks around the lake and to and from the base of Fall Creek Falls.
But let’s talk some history.
In the heart of the Depression when FDR’s alphabet agencies were working overtime to give Americans public works jobs, the federal government began purchasing the badly eroded land around Fall Creek Falls, which at 256 feet is among the highest in the eastern United States.
The Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps began restoring the forest and building facilities on the land which featured cascades, gorges, streams, and lush stands of virgin hardwood timber. In 1994, the federal government transferred ownership to the state of Tennessee.
What is there to see and do at Fall Creek Falls?
Today the park features nearly 30,000 acres of land and four major waterfalls.
In addition to Fall Creek Falls, the park is home to Piney Falls, Cane Creek Falls and Cane Creek Cascades.
There are 30 cabins and 222 campsites for overnight guests. Backcountry camping is allowed with a permit.
Fall Creek Falls also features five picnic pavilions complete with picnic tables and grills.
There’s also the Fall Creek Falls snack bar and general store which comes in handy for picking up last minute supplies or a quick bite to eat.
Lake lovers will be thrilled to know that there’s even a boat dock where you can rent aluminum jon boats, paddleboats, kayaks and canoes.
And finally, we have the newest addition to Fall Creek Falls State Park: The brand new Lodge at Fall Creek Falls.
The lodge is an ideal destination for those who prefer “nature-lite”. It’s also a great spot for corporate retreats.
The lodge features 85 guest rooms overlooking Fall Creek Falls Lake, an on-site full-service restaurant, a swimming pool, a Canopy Challenge Course and an 18-hole golf course (Fall Creek Falls Golf Course).
The Canopy Challenge course features a variety of aerial obstacles including ladders, wobbly bridges, rope swings, cargo nets, balance beams and zip lines.
Is Fall Creek Falls a difficult hike?
The falls are viewable from a platform located about a five-minute walk from the Scenic Loop Road.
However, the best scenic view of the falls – which launch over a horseshoe-shaped cliff to the basin below – is from the base of the falls, which is accessible from the aptly named Base of Fall Creek Falls Trail, which is relatively short but quite difficult.
You can also access the base from the Woodland Trail at the Betty Dunn Nature Center but it does add about two miles round trip.
The trail down to the base from the trailhead near the overlook is less than half a mile, but there is a stark elevation change.
It’s often slick and muddy. It is a difficult hike down and back.
Can you swim in Fall Creek Falls?
At the base, in the warmer months, you can jump in the lake and swim at Fall Creek Falls to cool off.
And even if you don’t swim, the water from the falls creates a mist that makes it difficult to stay dry. A rain jacket and good hiking gear are highly recommended if you don’t want to get wet.
Is Fall Creek Falls State Park open?
The park is open 24 hours a day, but select areas including roads leading to the falls and day-use trails close at sunset.
Have you visited Fall Creek Falls? Was it an enjoyable experience? What other popular state parks would you recommend checking out? Let us know in the comments.