Cummins Falls State Park is one of Tennessee's newest state parks (dedicated in 2013), but people have been trekking to the 75 foot high falls and associated swimming hole for generations.
It is not the easiest of swimming holes to get to, but the magnificent falls are enough of a draw that 250,000 people visited the park in 2015. I am sure it has only increased since then. I wouldn't go near this place on Labor Day weekend, but on a Monday morning in May, it was a gorgeous pit stop on a drive between Nashville and Knoxville on I-40.
What To Know
Getting To Cummins Falls State Park
Cummins Falls State Park is located a short 15-20 minute drive off of I-40 from any of the Cookeville, TN exits. The most direct route is to take exit 280 and then Highway 56 north. Then turn right on 290 E and left on Cummins Mill Road. There are signs for the state park along the way and the entrance to the park is well marked from Cummins Mill Rd.
Google Maps can be a little tricky because you must enter Cummins Falls State Park as your destination and not just Cummins Falls. The latter will leave you on Cummins Mill Rd at a point Google decides is geographically nearest the falls but not actually at the state park entrance. But no worries, once you are on Cummins Mill Rd, you will find the state park entrance. Like I said, it is well-signed.
There are other slightly shorter routes to the park if you are coming from the east, but they involve many turns and only shave about 3-5 minutes off travel time. I prefer the more direct route of Highway 56.
Hiking To The Falls
The trail to the falls is not easy, but it isn't a long hike at 1 mile each way if you take the shortcut trail. Half of the route is in the Blackburn Fork Scenic River, which requires wading and some scrambling over large rocks. The trail also has some steep stairs at the beginning to descend to the river gorge.
I would say that the trail is doable for kids over 5 that are good swimmers and have a parent that can stay right with them to help them over the tricky spots. The water may not look deep, but it is in parts and the current is fast. I would also have them wear a life jacket at all times.
Once you pull into the parking lot for the park, there are 2 main trailheads. One goes to John Cummins Trail which leads you to a spot upstream of the falls before heading to an overlook of the falls.
The other trailhead is far more popular. You can choose to go to the overlook first on the Overlook Trail before circling around to the stairs down to the river on the Blackburn Fork River Trail. Or you can choose a shortcut trail leading straight to the stairs down to the river. I was short on time so only took the shortcut trail down to the river.
The first part of the shortcut trail has a nice walk in the woods before descending steeply down to the Blackburn Fork Scenic River.
You can make your way along the banks of the river for awhile but eventually you will have to get your feet wet and cross to the other side.
There is a lovely 2-tiered waterfall across the river from you at one point, but it is difficult to get up to the top section as the slope is very steep.
You cross Blackburn Fork several more times until you get to the Falls and the large swimming hole at the end. As you get closer, more rock scrambling is required.
If you make it all the way to the falls, you are rewarded with a spectacular view of the 75 foot falls. You can swim up to the falls and play on the large, rock ledges at the bottom. Being that it was 55 degrees outside when I hiked in late April, I wasn't about to get in that water. My feet were cold enough just from wading. But definitely a possibility on a warmer day.
What You Should Bring
- Good water shoes. Flip-flops will not cut it. The current is fast and the rocks are slippery so leave the flops at home. Chacos, Tevas, or an old pair of sneakers are necessary for this trail.
- Waterproof bag. You are going to want to bring your camera for the falls, and I watched someone hiking in front of me slide right off a rock into a deep pool of water- soaking everything in his backpack. A dry bag or ziplock is a very good idea on this trail.
- Bathing suit and life jacket. The swimming hole at the end is half the fun of this trail so why not partake? Life jackets are recommended for everyone, not just small children if you plan to go swimming.
- Water and snacks. Sit for awhile and enjoy the view while munching on a granola bar or apple. Just remember to pack it out with you as there are no trash cans at the Falls. I was super annoyed to see styrofoam cups and discarded plastic water bottles on the trail and did my best to pick up what I could. Don't be that person.
What Not To Bring
- Inflatables, noodles, pool floats of any kind. They are prohibited. There are too many people for that and besides, as we have already established, some people don't carry out what they carry in.
- Alcohol. Because alcohol + swimming + slippery rocks does not equal good things happening.
- A picnic to have at the Falls. Due to the limited room on the riverbanks, the Park asks that people picnic at the tables by the parking lot and not bring coolers and lunch spreads upriver with them. There is simply no place to spread out.
1. Cummins Falls is an unimproved trail once you hit the water so that means obstacles and dangers have been left in their natural state. Swimming in cold water also has its dangers so be realistic about your ability to hike and enjoy this trail. The park had 36 rescues in 2015, which isn't bad out of 250, 000 visitors, but rescues aren't easy as someone has to carry you out.
2. The Blackburn Fork Scenic River is in a gorge, meaning flash floods are a possibility on this hike. So please take note of the weather, even several counties away, before you start on the trail and don't chance it if there is heavy rain anywhere in the area.
Other Important Information
There are bathrooms at the parking lot but they were closed when I was there. Port-a-potties were available but you can also use the bathrooms at the general store at Old Mill Camp across from the park entrance.
Cummins Falls is a day- use state park, meaning it closes at night. It is open from 8am- 6pm but people at the Falls must start walking out at 5pm in order to be back at the parking lot by 6pm.
Dogs are allowed but must be on a leash and under control.
If you are interested in camping in the area- best if you want to get to the Falls first thing in the morning before the crowds- check out the nearby state parks of Standing Stone and Edgar Evins. They are both about 25 minutes away from Cummins Falls.
There is also Old Mill Camp, a privately run campground for tents and RV's, across from the park entrance. It has a cute general store for snacks and ice cream after your hike if you aren't interested in camping. Tent spots are $20 and RV spots are $35 and $40 depending on whether it's back- in or pull- through. It is a quiet-looking campground even if the sites aren't terribly far apart. I would consider it for our next trip, especially as the owner running the store couldn't have been nicer. She brewed fresh coffee for me without me asking which makes her a winner in my book. She did mention that they have been getting busier every year though so I would book online in advance if you are thinking about camping here.
I am already planning a return trip to Cummins Falls State Park, maybe involving some camping, but definitely involving my nicest camera and tripod. And some swimming gear. It just won't be on a weekend in the middle of summer.