Monday, September 8, 2014

Trail Review: Cummins Falls State Park

Cummins Falls State Park natural swimming hole

Trails: Downstream and Overlook Trails at Cummins Falls State Park
Location: 1081 Cummins Mill Rd., TN
Trail Length: Apprx. 4 Miles (or 3.2 mi. if skipping the Overlook Trail)
Difficulty: Moderate (requires river crossing - bring proper footwear)
Solitude: Presumably crowded during summer months due to excellent swimming hole.

A custom trail map of trails at Cummins Falls State Park
Click map for larger image.
According the park’s website, Cummins Falls was named one of the nation’s ten best swimming holes by Travel & Leisure and Conde Naste magazines. I don’t know about the other nine, but this one is now undoubtedly my favorite. The scene of the 75-foot Cummins Falls overflowing into the Bluckburn Fork Scenic River gorge is nothing short of stunning in its picturesque beauty. The natural swimming hole formed at the base makes this a popular spot in warm weather months, so expect to share your time there with others during that season. (Alhough my 7 AM hike on an overcast Sunday in early September only brought me in contact with one other person fishing from the river bank.) The hike I’ve outlined here is fairly easy except for one very short but very steep descent into the river gorge to get to the base of the falls. The route also involves a couple of river passes and very low level rock scrambling, so be sure to wear water shoes or sport sandals. Expect water crossings that can be knee high in a spot or two. The beauty of the falls is well worth that minimal effort to get there, though. See below for a quick overview and more pics.

NOTE: To simply get to the falls and swimming hole, the hike in is a scant 1.6 miles in (3.2 miles round trip.) If you also want to view the overlook area, taking the Overlook Trail out and back will only add another half or three-quarter miles round trip. 

Shortly past the initial parking lot trailhead, you will soon see a trail split offering either the “Waterfall Overlook” or “Downstream Shortcut.’ Take a right for the shortcut. The trail will split again offering “Waterfall Overlook Area” or “Downstream Trail.” Again, veer to the right for the Downstream Trail. The trail now winds briefly through dense woods of laurel and hardwood as it descends into the river gorge. The last 100 yards or so of the trail as it falls into the river bed are very steep and somewhat slick with mud. Climbing ropes had been affixed to trees for handrails when I was there. By no means is this especially difficult terrain, but it is worth noting for those with small kids or physical complications. Once you reach the river, take a left and enjoy the cool air and scenery of a mountain river basin. Eventually, you will reach a first river crossing that was roughly knee-deep during my visit. From here, you will walk a few hundred yards before crossing back over the river in an area that was only ankle deep during my trek. At this point, you are almost to the falls.

Large boulders in Blackburn Fork Scenic River at Cummins Falls
Above is the section of Blackburn Fork Scenic River that require crossing to reach the falls.
As you make your way along the last eastward bend of the river trail, you will begin to hear the rush of the big falls. Once they are in sight, the scene is overwhelmingly beautiful as the limestone boulders and rushing river snake their way to the spilling falls. As mentioned, the large, calm, blue-tinted swimming hole that forms at the falls base just beyond the rock “steps” seems almost unreal in its natural perfection. While by the falls, I felt every step I took offered a new and more beautiful composition. I could not put my camera down the entire time. Plan to spend some here soaking up the beauty.

Cummins Falls river gorge.
The scene approaching the falls is stunning from first sight.
Once you've indulged all the hardcore nature porn you can stand, you'll retrace your steps back down the river, and then back up the ridge. Those wanting to see the falls from above can take a right and follow the signs for a quick trip southward to the overlook area. After enjoying the overlook view on my visit, I opted to simply turn around and retrace the Overlook Trail to return to my car. While the maps on site at the Cummins Falls parking area display an “Upstream Trail” that can be reached from the Overlook point, I never saw proper signage indicating the trail. Frankly, I found the area at the end of the Overlook Trail a bit confusing with several unmarked “mini” trails, which is why I chose to simply head back the way I came. That said, the mileage in the area is minimal, so those who care to explore surely would not be risking too much time or effort.

View from the base of Cummins Falls.

Cummins Falls as seen from overlook area
The view from the overlook.
Cummins Falls also offers some picnic tables and open meadow space near the ample parking area for those who might want to make a day of their trip. For the most part, however, the park itself is a pretty modest affair at its entrance and parking area. When you have one of the crown jewels of the region, however, you don’t need to do anything more than make it accessible.

For more information regarding Cummins Falls State Park, including directions, contact information, and a park map, CLICK HERE FOR THEIR WEBSITE.

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