Reasons to stop and stay awhile in Sparta, Tennessee
Deep roots in music, deep gorges and a deep love for nature all fuel a small-town vibe in Sparta unlike any other you’ll find in Tennessee. It’s a town countless people have passed through over the years, and now more than ever there are plenty of reasons to stop and stay awhile.
Brewed and aged to perfection
As the baristas serve up delicious caffeinated creations at the Coffee Collective, a family band called Tenos (from my hometown of Clinton, TN) takes the stage for 90 minutes of homespun music. Music and coffee houses just go together, don’t they? The crowd gathered, tapped their feet, clapped their hands and sang along to familiar tunes like “I’ll Fly Away” all while ordering up plenty of coffee and treats to keep them going.
According to the sign outside, this shop on Liberty Square in downtown Sparta is for the “Blessed and Coffee” obsessed. From frappes and cappuccinos to Reuben and Cuban sandwiches, this is a great place to start your visit to Sparta.
While the Coffee Collective brews up coffee from freshly roasted and ground beans from Ethiopia, Columbia, Brazil and other regions, another kind of brew is bringing in people from all over. The Calkiller Brewing Company is tucked away along side a winding country road in what resembles an old red barn. Quirky decorations both inside and out give the place a unique character, but it’s the beer that’s the real star (even though the red, white and blue rooster might disagree). After homebrewing operations outgrew their space, Don and Dave Sergio decided to expand and today you can find Calfkiller Brewing products all across the state, but nothing beats the ambiance of being at the brewery itself. Happy Trails Brewing in downtown Sparta is another popular spot for craft beer and also for enjoying live music.
Heading up toward Cookeville the folks at Northfield Vineyards have plenty of reasons for you to include them on your list. Not only can you find great wines inside the “barn” you’ll also find a great deal of Southern hospitality and charm as this place is more than just a winery. Throughout the year, many community wide and private events are held here at the Vineyards situated in the lush green rolling hills of the Upper Cumberland. And, much to my liking, Northfield Vineyards also produces a tasty hard cider sold in a growler.
Food finds in Sparta
Let the Foglight be your guide if you’re in the mood for Cajun food. (And yes, I know Sparta isn’t anywhere near Louisiana). Overlooking the Caney Fork River near Rock Island State Park’s Twin Falls, the Foglight Foodhouse serves up mouthwatering crawfish etouffee, jambalaya and a signature recipe for red beans and rice. But the menu doesn’t stop there. Pecan crusted catfish, steaks and even bangers and mash are served up in what is definitely a unique setting. You can buy beer to go with your meal, including several selections from Calfkiller Brewing or you can bring in a bottle of Northfield Vineyard wine to pair with whatever you choose on the menu as the Foglight doesn’t sell wine.
For something a bit simpler (and a little lighter on the wallet), head into to Jack’s Top BBQ just outside Downtown Sparta. This no-frills joint is the real deal when it comes to BBQ. Jack Pitts, the owner, moved to Sparta from Albany, GA where he took a rub recipe from a friend, altered it a bit and then perfected the BBQ creations on the menu today. On my trip, I couldn’t decide between the ribs and the brisket and after a recommendation from the waitress, I went for the brisket. Certainly, no regrets as the thinly sliced pieces of beef almost melted in my mouth. Next time, I’ll try the ribs.
From the boutique to the unique
From trendy clothing and décor, to handmade pottery and antiques, Sparta’s downtown stores have a lot to offer.
Jongees Gifts and Clothing is a great place to start. This boutique has been around for many years and it’s easy to understand its rave reviews on Facebook. Stepping inside, the cozy surroundings accentuate the wide variety of items you’ll find for sale. From small pieces of furniture to themed collections of items, Jongee’s has a little something for everyone. I ended up leaving with some flamingo themed items for my daughter who is truly obsessed with the pink bird.
The Fragrant Mushroom Gallery boasts having the world’s most affordable pottery and if you’re looking for that perfect coffee mug, a ceramic coaster or something more, then this is the place for you. When I walked through the front door, I was surprised at how big the space was and was instantly drawn to the vibrant colors of the creations lining the shelves. All of them are pieces of art, but are made and sold with affordability in mind, something the owner says on his website makes it “the GEM that you have found!”
If you find yourself needing more time to spend in Sparta, the Heartrock Hideaway is an eclectic B&B located inside a meticulously restored (circa 1910) building along Main Street. It’s something you probably won’t notice going down the street but believe me it’s worth checking out if you are looking for a place to spend a few nights. There are many other properties nearby when you search airbnb or vrbo.
The Broadway of America
When it comes to show stopping performances, you’ll find plenty of them along U.S. 70, also known as the Broadway of America. The prelude comes as you come down off the Cumberland Plateau east of Sparta. As Highway 70 descends, a sign points to an overlook where thousands of people have stopped over the years to enjoy the sunset and views stretching more than 30 miles. Sunset Rock is worth the stop. There’s also a small picnic shelter there if you want to bring along your lunch.
At the bottom of the mountain, an old toll station on the original stagecoach road through the area still welcomes visitors. Nowadays, the people coming to the Rock House are coming to learn about its rich history. This building has been standing for nearly 200 years and has welcomed U.S. Presidents, prominent businessmen and even served as a school at one time. Today, the Daughters of the American Revolution provide the upkeep for the property, and the state historical society offers tours.
In the heart of Downtown Sparta, the marquee of the historic Oldham Theater lights up the block. Spelled out on it is the town’s moniker, “Bluegrass USA” a nod to hometown musician, Lester Flatt (one half of the duo Flatt & Scruggs). While it is no longer a theater inside, the town still lights up the marquee at night, truly a sight that stirs up nostalgia for the days when every town had at least one movie house.
Nearby there is a monument to Lester Flatt, that sits on top of a stone outline of his signature Martin Guitar. Each October, the town celebrates its musical roots at a Lester Flatt Festival featuring hours of free music.
Sparta’s Wild Side
Waterfalls and scenic overlooks abound in the area around Sparta and more and more people are starting to take notice. The area has become known as the “Land of Falling Water” and for good reason. In fact, there are just too many reasons to mention here, but here are a few places to check off your list. (Click here for a more in depth look at the waterfalls in the area).
Burgess Falls is actually a series of waterfalls along the Falling Water River all located inside Burgess Falls State Park. All of these water wonders are easily viewed from a ¾ mile trail running along the river with several overlooks along the way. The big payoff comes at the end of the river trail where high above the gorge you can watch the river pour over a 136 foot high rock wall.
The water at Twin Falls rushes out of cracks in the rock just below the Great Falls Dam Powerhouse at Rock Island State Park. The falls are a result of the water taking a shortcut after three rivers in the area were dammed up in the early 1900’s.
Lost Creek Falls might look familiar if you watched the 1994 Disney Live Action version of The Jungle Book. Crews came to this waterfall (and a nearby cave) to film part of the movie.
If you’re looking for great views, head out to Welch’s Point, a place accessed via a 400 foot trail from the parking area above it. From the rocky outcropping you get a bird’s eye view of Scott’s Gulf, the Virgin Falls Wilderness Area and the Caney Fork River. (To get there, follow the signs to the Virgin Falls trailhead, go past it and turn right onto Welch’s Point Road following it to the overlook parking.)
Nearby is Yellow Bluff, accessed by the trail along Scott’s Gulf Road. It’s a simple hike to the overlook, but longer than the one to Welch’s Point. From Yellow Bluff, you are closer to the headwaters of the Caney Fork River. The vantage point there gives you unparalleled views of one of the wildest areas in Middle Tennessee.
If heights aren’t your thing, then the Big Bottom inside the Bridgestone/Firestone Wilderness area might be just the spot. This area almost completely surrounded by small ridges reminded me very much of Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains. At the time I visited, my guide and I were the only ones there and the tranquility of the area was truly astounding.
Whether you’re a serious hiker looking to explore the wilderness around Virgin Falls, just want a small town experience filled with music, great food and coffee, or want to float down a gentle river, then it’s time for you to Explore Sparta. where you will find plenty of things to do and want to come back again.
*During this trip to Sparta, I was a guest of the Sparta, TN/White County Chamber of Commerce. The opinions expressed in this article are my own.