State park boasts splendiferous waterfall, swimming hole
One way or another Cummins Falls State Park leaves you breathless.
Only about an hour drive from Lebanon, this aquatic getaway ranks as Tennessee's eighth largest waterfall. The site also lays claim to being one of the 10 best swimming holes in the U.S. (according to "Travel and Leisure" magazine).
It's a mere 12 miles off of Interstate 40, but be warned this is no place to wear flip-flops. You'll have to cautiously make your way down the trail to the cool waters of Blackburn Fork State Scenic River and then hike along its streambed before you reach the gorgeous gorge.
There you will spy the magnificent 75-foot-high falls, which will take your breath away. Later, as you scramble back up the trail, you may find yourself once more gasping for air. It will be worth the effort. Cummins Falls is a purely natural Tennessee treasure that you can see, hear, touch, smell and taste (although we don't recommend you sip the water).
"The coolest feature is the waterfall and the plunge pool below. The waterfall creates the magnificent swimming hole below. The ledges beneath to climb up on make it such a unique experience that people keep on coming here. In addition it's a wild and rugged area so you have to take a pretty good hike," said park manager Ray Cutcher, a 41-year veteran of Tennessee State Parks, who has been at Cummins Falls since the day after the state purchased it.
(The park was dedicated as the state's 54th state park May 22, 2012.)
The ranger noted that visitors should expect "a rugged, strenuous hike that will be rocky and slippery. Sometimes a walking stick will help while crossing the stream. You will walk through water so wear footwear, like an old pair of tennis shoes."
He also advises that you bring water or sports drinks (no alcohol allowed) and cautions this may not be the best place to tote babies or small children.
"On a typical weekend day we can draw 3,000 to 4,000. Every Labor Day is a record-setting day. Last Labor Day we had over 6,000. We have become such a popular place that in the very near future we're going to have to limit the number of people in a day," said Cutcher.
Hours for the day-use park are 8 a.m.-6 p.m., but the gorge area closes at 5 p.m., so those at the waterfall must start walking out at 5 p.m. in order to depart the park by 6. Visitors will find the parking lot, restrooms, trailheads and designated picnic area above the falls. An overlook of the waterfall is nearby and can be reached by foot on a trail about a half mile long. ADA access is available upon request.
The route descending directly to the falls is about one mile along uneven terrain with tree roots and other hazards, and part of the hike includes walking upstream through the river, thus it can be slippery.
Among park visitors who refreshed themselves in the plunge pool and sun bathed on the nearby rocks on a recent afternoon were Pam Vaughan and her son Nathan, both from Southaven, Miss.
Pam said, "This is my first time here. I love it. I love the hike. I love the outdoors. The waterfall is breathtaking."
Accompanying Vaughan and her son were her niece and nephew, Trinity and Gabe Hopkins of Cookeville. "This is our fifth time to come, and we like everything, the swimming, the waterfalls and the hike," said Trinity.
Also soaking up the natural beauty of the cascading water and the swimming hole were Jessi Collman of Knoxville and Ross Pryor of Houston, Texas.
Said Collman, "I love it. It's incredible. We usually hike in the Smokies, but this is something different."
Pryor described the scene saying, "It's unreal. This is amazing."
The couple found out about the park from friends, but the site has been no secret to folks here in Jackson County and in nearby Putnam County as locals and their ancestors have enjoyed hitting the ole swimming hole for more than a century.
Ranger Cutcher offers a bit of history about the park, saying, "The Cummins family had owned the area since 1825. For over 100 years they operated a mill on this site. The Cummins family didn't try to restrict use to the area so it kind of became a public recreation area.
"People came here with grain, and while waiting for the grain to be ground would make it a little vacation and stay a few days and swim and fish. The mill washed away in 1928, but people still continued to come because it was such a local treasure. People never were kept out of this area."
Since 2006, local outdoors enthusiasts and the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation had been working to protect Cummins Falls. Through combined efforts, the property was rescued from a proposed housing development at a public auction in 2010.
It was accomplished via kindred spirits as the foundation recruited conservation buyers in Dr. Glenn Hall, Mary Lynn Dobson and Robert D. McCaleb, who temporarily secured the land. Through fundraising efforts the foundation then was able to purchase the land in 2012.
Cutcher said the park recently added 71 more acres and is ready to purchase another small piece of property where the mill once stood. Construction on a visitor center and park office is slated for this winter and should be open late next summer.
As for a unique opportunity, the ranger shared, "This year we're gonna have an eclipse. We don't offer camping here normally, but the night before [August 20] we'll allow camping."
On a serious note, there have been three drownings here since the park opened. The plunge pool, a natural area with no man-made features, is 15 feet deep in places. There are no lifeguards, thus swimming is at your own risk.
It is also important to pay attention to the weather as sudden heavy rainfalls can cause flash floods. Heavy rains also may require the pool and the hike to the 200-foot-deep gorge to be closed for two or three days.
As for winter activities, on Feb. 24 the Friends of Cummins Falls State Park will produce its annual Cummins Falls Marathon with four certified routes: a marathon, a half marathon, a 5K and a 10K. (For race details, go online to ultrasignup.com/register.aspx?did=46862).
The last event drew 300 runners with 70 participating in the marathon. The race route is steep so, just like seeing the magnificent waterfall, the experience could likely prove breathtaking.
Cummins Falls State Park
Hours for the 282-acre day-use park are 8 a.m.-6 p.m. The gorge area closes at 5 p.m. People at the bottom of the waterfall must start walking out at 5 p.m. in order to get back to the parking lot and be out of the park by 6. Directions: From Interstate 40 Exit 280, go north 7.7 miles on Highway 56; turn right on Highway 290 and go about 1 mile and turn left on Cummins Mill Road. Go three miles and turn left on Blackburn Fork Road. Drive about 300 yards and turn left. Park address: 390 Cummins Falls Lane. Phone: (931) 261-3471. Website: tnstateparks.com/parks/about/cummins-falls