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Burgess Falls State Park & River Trail

This is an excerpt from Hiking Tennessee by Victoria Logue.

Area Information

Before it was the site of a water-powered gristmill and a hydroelectric plant, Burgess Falls State Park was home to Native Americans who used the land as a hunting ground. European settlers began settling in the area in the late 19th century as the numerous falls and rapid flow of Falling Water River were used to power grist and saw mills. In 1924, the town of Cookeville constructed a concrete dam on the river, which was washed away with its powerhouse during a flood in 1928. A new dam was built on the foundations of the old and a bigger and stronger powerhouse constructed. The dam and its gravity-fed piping system provided power for Cookeville until 1944.

Today, the falls continue to move slowly upstream as the erosion that created them continues to wear down the Devonian shale beneath the Mississippian limestone above. The four falls along the river cascade more than 250 feet, ending with Big Falls and its 130-foot drop.

Directions: From Interstate 40, take exit 286, and head south on Tennessee 135 for 8 miles, following the signs to the park.

Hours Open: The park is on central time and is open from 8:00 a.m. until 30 minutes before sunset when the gates are closed. The park is also closed when the river is high or there is snow on the roads and trails.

Facilities: The park has one picnic pavilion available for reservation as well as picnic areas that are located near restrooms. The park is not generally wheelchair accessible. Pets are allowed on a leash.

Permits and Rules: A Tennessee fishing license is necessary to fish.

For Further Information: Burgess Falls State Park, 4000 Burgess Falls Drive, Sparta, TN 38583; 931-432-5312. Website:

Other Park Trail

  • Ridge Top Trail (0.5 mile)

Other Areas of Interest

In nearby Smithville, the Appalachian Center for Craft at Tennessee Technological University offers 2,700 square feet of sales galleries featuring crafts created by students and other local artists that include jewelry, hand-blown glass, woodworks, ceramics, textiles, furniture, blacksmithing, and custom knives. The galleries are open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. They also have about 25 exhibitions each year. For more information, call 931-372-3051.
Big Falls, with its 130-foot drop, is one of four waterfalls in Burgess Falls State Park.

River Trail

Distance Round Trip: 1.2 miles

Estimated Hiking Time: 45 minutes

A short hike along Falling Water River traverses the steep bluff and offers views of the falls, ending with the most spectacular - Big Falls. It is a pleasant stroll back to the parking area along the service road.

Caution: This hike begins along the steep bluff overlooking the river and is often wet and rocky with exposed roots. Keep an eye out for poison ivy and watch your step.

Trail Directions: Parking is at the picnic area, and the trailhead is at the back of the lot next to the river at N 36º 2' 38", W 85º 35′ 42″ (1). Hike down the steps and turn left and then go down some more steps. At .09 mile, you will reach the overlook for the first falls to your right. Be careful; this is a very steep bluff. Cross a wooden bridge and continue to hike along the bluff, passing beneath a rocky outcrop and down some wooden steps at .12 mile.

Cross a wooden bridge over the stream of a small falls at .21 mile and shortly thereafter, cross a second wooden bridge over the stream of another falls at N 36º 2′ 39″, W 85º 35′ 41″ (2). At .36 mile, you will cross a third wooden bridge near the middle falls and ascend 79 steps. Trees in this area attest to how long this has been a popular destination as they are covered with carved graffiti.

At .47 mile, you will pass benches on your right and reach the overlook side trail (straight ahead) to Middle Falls. Continue to your left and descend steps, reaching the deck overlooking Big Falls at .64 mile or N 36º 2′ 42″, W 85º 36′ 0″ (3). To the right of the platform, there is a very strenuous .3-mile optional side trail that leads down to the river and the bottom of the falls.

To return to the parking area via the service road, follow the sign for the Ridge Top Trail, ascending stairs to the gravel road. At the road, turn left, and at .69 mile, you will reach the trailhead, on your right, for the Ridge Top Trail. Continue straight ahead, and at .78 mile, you will reach the second junction of the Ridge Top Trail at N 36º 2′ 35″, W 85º 35′ 60″ (4).

Continue along the gravel road, passing a bench on your right at .87 mile. At 1.11 miles, the gravel road splits. Follow the lower road to the left and pass alongside the parking area, reaching the trailhead at 1.18 miles.

  1. Trailhead
  2. Second wooden bridge
  3. Big Falls Overlook
  4. Ridge Top Trail junction
  5. Trailhead

Learn more about Hiking Tennessee.

More Excerpts From Hiking Tennessee