• Russell Hill

Discovering the Upper Cumberland

Part 1 of a 5 part series exploring Tennessee's Upper Cumberland

Tennessee’s glamor is not just the lights of Nashville, but the fragrance of dwarf iris in the spring; not just the perfect acoustics of the Ryman Auditorium, but the flawless songbirds of the backwoods; not just scripted places like Dollywood, but real life surprises in places like Upper Cumberland that take your breath away, as you discover for yourself, America at its best.

Upper Cumberland’s homespun charm belies its many undiscovered trails and remarkable scenery waiting to reveal themselves to the curious, the bold, the adventurous. More than just nature at its finest, these breathtaking landscapes reveal an underlying layer of wonder for those willing to put aside modern distractions, get real,  and “play dirty”. I have learned this time and time again myself while exploring the backroads, hollows, and layered rolling mountains that exude the personality of an affable “old soul.” Still, I am amazed each time I round another secluded little corner of unspoiled nature in the Volunteer State and realize, truly, Tennessee is ‘playing our song.’

This week our family explored the Upper Cumberland plateau and day after astonishing day kept asking ourselves: “Why haven’t we come here sooner?” We live only a few hours away in Kingsport and enjoy Bays Mountain, the Roan Mountains, and the nearby Smokies; but found amazing features unique to the Upper Cumberland!  Gorgeous waterfalls that disappear underground, spacious caverns large enough for rock concerts, and well-marked but near empty trails through a virtually unspoiled wilderness.

We wanted to give our family of four children-- ages 3 to 10 years old-- a real adventure, something  that stretched us and pushed out of our comfort zone. Something that would help us bond and give us unforgettable memories to cherish. Upper Cumberland did not disappoint. It was exactly what we were looking for.

We set up a home base at the Mountain Glen campsite with our fifth wheeler. It allowed us to have a self contained camp site while following social distancing practices.  Besides the campsite, an idyllic pond and rippling stream awaited us. Perfect! Our kids like to catch bugs, play hide and seek, and simply explore new settings.  Within minutes of arrival our oldest, Bennett (10), had already captured an ‘adorable’ 14 inch water snake. There’s no holding back now! 

After loading up at Brockdell, it didn't take long to get to Falls Creek Falls State Park and the main attraction of the day: the highest free fall waterfall east of the Rockies. The Falls Creek Falls towers 256 feet over a picturesque valley floor that is surrounded by a dense green forest and large craggy outcroppings.  We hiked the 4/10s of a mile from the top of the falls to the base and were glad that we did. It is a primitive, rugged trail but worth the trek.  At the base of the falls, you feel its force more than see or hear it. Like a tuning fork, your whole body reverberates with the power of the falls and fills you with a different sensation than just the visual beauty when looking from above. At the end of the day, Rowan (3) kept raving about the literal vibes he felt at the base of Falls Creek Falls.

At the top of the Falls, a flat and well-groomed trail leads to Millikan Overlook.  This trail is an easy 1.5 mile stroll through the forest.  We didn’t pass any other hikers on the trip.  Ah, we had the entire trail all to ourselves! When we arrived at the Overlook, we could see that a road led all the way from the highway to the Overlook. We had knowingly planned this, we wanted to hike, not drive.  

The kids had other ideas, of course.  “What? We could have driven the car straight here? Why didn't you tell us,”

they each asked individually, exasperated. We knew the vistas are always better after a hike. We would have missed the forest for the road, we said laughingly. 

The overlook has expansive, breathtaking views.  Unfortunately our visit was marred by a barefoot boy somehow getting two chopstick sized splinters in his foot. (He did make the hike  with shoes, but must have really wanted to relax on the wooden platform so he made himself right at home.) Actually, he rarely wears shoes and barely noticed the splinters even when I yanked them out.  Somehow, he thought this injury might grant him a free ride back to the car. Nothing doing. So, instead he ran most of the way back with his sister Hazel (7).

Never one to shy away from taking the lead,  Hazel showcased her new-found endurance as she ran two miles on the trail back to the car. Then, not so humbly said to the rest of us, “Why are you guys so slow?”

We also enjoyed the views from the top of Piney Falls and Cane Creek Falls on this first day in Upper Cumberland.  A perfect introduction to our week..  Excitedly, we talked about how our next visit to Falls Creek Falls SP would include the suspension bridge (still under construction), zip line (delayed opening), and a bike tour around the scenic loop.  

If you are like us and need to feed your kids quickly after pushing them on outdoor excursions Park Road Shack offers a hidden gem of delicious burgers, fries, and shakes just outside the north entrance to the park.  Worth every calorie.

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