Windmills and Waterfalls: Cummins Falls

I should have known. When Chet and I were thinking about where to go last weekend for our outdoor adventure, the promise of beautiful weather made me a bit dreamy. Quixotic in the “unrealistic or impractical” sense of the word, perhaps. I have been wanting to go to Cummins Falls for some time now. It seems to always appear on those “Top 10 Waterfalls” lists that you can find on the web and it’s one of the few we haven’t already been to. Yes, it’s a three hour drive from Huntsville, and yes, we had tree ID class at the Botanical Garden on Sunday making Saturday our only option, and yes, I had already signed up for my first ever Pure Barre class at 8:15 on Saturday morning, but surely we could still manage it, right? We made a hotel reservation in Cookeville, Tennessee for Saturday night, planned to leave as soon as I limped home from the Pure Barre class, and started looking for cool restaurants and brewpubs in the area for our post-hike meal. It would be sort of a mini-vacation!

Now, some of you may already remember that I am NOT a morning person, so having to get up early enough to make an 8:15 class across town was risking a bad start to my morning, but as it turned out I enjoyed my class (though it was really hard ). I drove straight home, packed up the car with luggage, hiking stuff and my hubby and off we went. Google Maps routed us up I-65, then across on I-840 to I-40 East towards Cookeville. It wasn’t the most interesting route, though the I-840 piece was new road to us, so Chet spent the time looking up info on the Cookeville brew scene. Our best choice sounded like Red Silo brewery for local brews, at least until we realized they were having a special “Winter Warmer” social event Saturday night that was already sold out. Bummer. But just down the street, Chet found Father Tom’s Pub, which advertised a good selection of regional brews plus a pub-y sort of menu. Sounded like just what we wanted to have after a hike, so we were all set!

As we made the final few turns to get to Cummins State Park proper, we passed a guy running. Running folk aren’t that uncommon of course, but folks running out on little windy country roads are sort of uncommon, so we commented on him. Shortly after that, we passed another runner, and then another. Sure enough, when we pulled into the parking lot at the park, we realized that it was ground zero for a set of road races. What a zoo! There were cars everyplace, people wandering about, long lines at the women’s restroom (of course), and a big white tent set up where they were announcing the winners in the different categories. Sorry, guys we passed – you must have been the stragglers. I worried that the trails would be mobbed, too, but either the race route wasn’t actually on the trails we’d be hiking, or the runners were already off them. This was good news for me, anyway. One of the things I enjoy about hiking is the peace and solitude I can find out in the woods, so sharing the trail with hordes of people can make me a little grumpy.

Cummins Falls State Park is a 211 acre park created only 5 years ago when Tennessee Parks and Greenway Foundation acquired the land from the Cummins family. John Cummins acquired the land in 1825 and built two mills in the area. The land stayed in the Cummins family for more than 180 years. Though private property up until 2011, this spot has long been a popular hiking and swimming area in the summer. There are three marked trails in the park, each about a half mile long, plus a short connector trail and the route to the base of the falls. We planned to hike all but one of these. We set off through the woods on the Falls Overlook Trail, a nice broad trail with a soft dirt footbed. This trail is only .45 miles long and leads, as you may have guessed, to a place where in theory you can see the top of the falls. I say in theory because in reality, there is exactly one spot, which is in the point of a small triangle shaped area, where you can actually see the falls. We took a look, snapped some really terrible pictures (the light was just wrong) and then moved out of the way so the group behind us could see the falls. We actually planned to wait for them to move on so we could try to get some better pictures, but time was short and these folks were taking selfies and taking pictures of each other taking selfies and taking group shots with various combinations of people – you get the idea. We moved on.

From the overlook, we took what’s marked on our maps as the Blackburn Fork River Trail, but on the park signage was labeled the Downstream Trail. This trail leads along the top of the bluff, with the Blackburn Fork River a good 80 feet or more below. As far as trail went, this was my favorite part of the hike. It was quiet, soft underfoot, and wound through soaring trees. It made my soul quiet.

Just a little short of half a mile, the trail drops down off the bluff by way of a couple of switchbacks and ends up at the river. Here there were more people and the trail was less distinct. From the trail above, the water level looked pretty high and we knew from the trail map that the way to the falls would include wading in the river. Our moods took a nose dive and after several grumpy comments from Chet, I even suggested we just cut our losses and head back. He sniped something about how he’d  driven three hours to get here and wasn’t going to give up now and I fumed in silence behind him as we pushed on along the narrow sliver of trail. We passed a pretty little seep trickling down the rocks, and then noticed a really beautiful cascade on the other side of the river. That lifted my mood a bit. Finally, we came to an set of large rock slabs and then the canyon wall closed in just beyond it so that there was no place for a trail anymore on our side of the river. There was a large group of teenagers led by a couple of guys all hanging out near the rocks and scrambling up the steep slope to the rocks above. I chatted with them a bit and found out they were a gymnastics and cheer group from Maryland down doing a tour of some sort in Tennessee. They seemed like nice folks.

Chet and I contemplated our options. There was a nice gravel sandbar and space for a possible pathway along the other side of the river if we could get over there. The river looked pretty deep right at the rocks, deeper than our hiking poles anyway, and the current looked too strong just upstream of them.  We decided to go back downstream a little way to see if we could find a shallower spot. We found one just upstream from that pretty cascade we’d seen and decided to go for it. We’d come prepared. We had river shoes and good hiking poles and knew how to cross a river in February (it’s a thing with us, I guess) so in we went. It was cold, but honestly not as cold as I remember the Sipsey being. It was deeper than I was hoping for – a couple of spots it was over my knees – but doable. We both made it across and then started on the least favorite part of this hike, the rock scramble. There wasn’t really a trail per se over there. There were pathways of sorts through the river-jumbled rocks and boulders, but that was as good as it got. We scrambled and scraped knees and toes and gutted our way through it for a short ways, and then could see that the river curved away from us, with a lovely looking dirt trail on the inside curve. We just had to get over to it. Another river crossing. Sigh.

We made this one as well, though it seemed deeper and longer and trickier somehow. The nice dirt path led around the curve and then there were the falls. Finally! It was worth the effort. Cummins Falls is the eighth largest waterfall in volume of water in Tennessee and drops 75 feet from the edge of the canyon to the river below. It’s pretty impressive.

We spent quite a bit of time at the falls taking pictures and just enjoying the view of the canyon and the rushing river. I found a mystery tree and tried to figure out what it was. I failed, but I was getting too cold to sit and read the field guide and besides, the park closed at 4:30 so we needed to head on back. We crossed the river again (just as hard the second time), scrambled over those darned rocks again (just as “fun” as the first time), and then crossed the river one final time (seemed so easy after the others!) and retraced our steps down the canyon to the bottom of the switchbacks. We passed a couple and their dog who asked whether the place to wade across was marked. I told them it was not. I bit my tongue and didn’t mention to them that I thought Ugg boots were a poor footwear choice for wading across a river. I also didn’t mention, but maybe should have, that the park closed in 30 minutes and it had taken us 45 just to go one way from the falls to the point where we met. Hopefully they were asking because they were planning a return trip.

We headed back up the switchbacks and were surprised to notice some early spring wildflowers! We spotted hepatica, star chickweed, and toothwort blooming along a steep bank next to the trail. This spot will be beautiful when the flowers are out in force. Once we reached the top again, we took the short connector trail past some of the biggest beech trees I can remember seeing and back to the Falls Overlook Trail only .1 mile from the trailhead. The total mileage for our hike was 3.5 miles.

We stepped off the trail at exactly 4:30. There was a group of rangers taking down the tent from the running event or maybe cleaning up the parking lot. They didn’t seem at all bothered about the 4:30 closing time so maybe that is more of a suggestion that a hard and fast rule. In any case, we hopped in the car and drove on to our hotel in Cookeville to change into dinner and beer clothes. We asked at the desk for recommendations and Father Tom’s was highly recommended, so we set off excited for our evening plans — only to have them dashed. Father Tom’s had a sign in the window indicating that they had some sort of kitchen equipment issue and weren’t serving food. Foiled! We were so hungry! But the desk clerk had mentioned that there were two really good restaurants in the same area that also served local beer so we set off to find them. The first place we found was a Cajun place that had been recommended. I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for Cajun, but I was cold and hungry so only about a block after we passed it, red beans and rice started sounding like the perfect dinner so we headed back.  Yeah, us and every other person in Cookeville, apparently. We weren’t thinking about the fact that it was the Saturday before Mardi Gras. We had a 25 minute wait, during which we had to stand in about a 3 foot by 10 foot area with at least 12 other people, but we waited it out, got our table and asked about their beer selections. It was abysmal – Bud Light and IPAs for the most part – so we decided to eat there, but get our beer at Father Tom’s after. Dinner was good and Father Tom’s was a cool little spot. It’s in an old building and has a lot of charm. I had a very peppery Father’s Hot Chocolate porter by Red Silo and Chet had a delicious Gotta Get Up to Get Down milk stout by Wiseacre Brewing. It was a nice end to the day.

A definition of the phrase “tilting at windmills” is “a vain effort against adversaries real or imagined.” Aching muscles, sold out breweries, crowds in the park, an impassable trail, broken down kitchen equipment, overcrowded restaurants with bad beer selections – all of these were “adversaries” that day. But as Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, said: “To be prepared is half the victory.” On this day, half our victory was coming prepared to wade across that river. The other half was not letting the small stuff get us down. Aching muscles mean it was a good workout, we met some nice folks on the trail and still had the falls all to ourselves, our dinner was warm and filling, and we did have a fine beery nightcap at Father Tom’s after all.

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