State park boasts splendiferous waterfall, swimming hole
One way or another, Cummins Falls State Park leaves you breathless.
Located in southern Jackson County just northwest of Cookeville, 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 (Exit 280), 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).
Park manager Ray Cutcher is a 43-year veteran of Tennessee State Parks, and he’s has been at Cummins Falls since the day after the state purchased it.
“The coolest feature is the waterfall and the plunge-pool below,” said Cutcher. “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.”
Cummins Falls was dedicated as the Tennessee’s 54th state park May 22, 2012.
Steep Soggy Slog
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 5,000 to 9,000. 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, adding that likely would occur in 2020.
As evidence of its growing popularity, the park saw its attendance double this past March from March a year ago.
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.
On a serious note, there have been five drowning here since the park opened. The plunge pool, a natural area with no manmade 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. Such an event occurred in July 2017, causing two drownings and stranding 48 people for part of a day. Heavy rains also may require the pool and the hike to the 200-foot-deep gorge to be closed for two or three days.
Longtime Local Leisure Spot
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.
“The Cummins family had owned the area since 1825,” said Ranger Cutcher. “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,” Cutcher went on. “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.”
As for what’s new this summer Cutcher said, “We’ve started doing some different evening programs, like night hikes and campfire programs, and we also have added a few photography and painting programs. These are things that people normally don’t have access to and they are fee-based.”
The park continues to offer Junior Ranger Camp with four-day sessions for children ages 6 to 12, running June 24-27 and July 15-18. Cost is $25.
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 plans to purchase another small piece of property where the mill once stood. “We don’t have ownership but our friends group is holding it. And we got a Recreation Trails Program grant to build an observation deck at the main overlook. We hope to have it built later this year.”
While too late for this year, every February the Friends of Cummins Falls State Park hold an annual Cummins Falls Marathon with four certified routes: a marathon, a half marathon, a 5K and a 10K.
The last event drew approximately 300 runners with about 70 participating in the marathon. The race route is steep so, just like seeing the magnificent waterfall, the experience likely would prove breathtaking.
Cummins Falls State Park
Hours for the 282-acre day-use park are 8am-6pm.
The gorge area closes at 5pm. People at the bottom of the waterfall must start walking out at 5pm. in order to get back to the parking lot and be out of the park by 6 p.m.
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, Cookeville, TN.
931-520-6691, (931) 261-3471.