The water wonders of Sparta, Tennessee
Burgess Falls and Rock Island
The Falling Water River puts on quite a show near Sparta as it races across Tennessee’s Highland Rim. As the river’s name suggests there is plenty of water falling along the way, especially at Burgess Falls State Park between Sparta and Cookeville. Within just ¾ of a mile, you’ll find three grand waterfalls that just by themselves would be a reason to visit. The “First” and “Middle” Falls provide a big enough rush when it comes to waterfalls, but its the 136 foot high “Big Falls” that is the signature water feature of this park. As the Falling Water River cascades over the high rock wall it continues through a small and deep gorge before calming down in the waters of Center Hill Lake.
Three other area rivers; the Caney Fork, Collins and Rock, come together at Rock Island State Park, just a few miles down the road from Burgess Falls. The main attractions are more waterfalls, both heavily influenced by a nearly 100 year old dam. Just a few hundred yards below the dam a horseshoe shaped depression in the riverbed forms the 30 foot high Great Falls. In the summer, as long as the water levels are right, you’ll see dozens of people trudging up the riverbed and jumping into the big pool of water below the falls.
Looking downstream from the overlook at Great Falls, the water seemingly rushing right out of the ridge is sure to catch your attention. This is Twin Falls. Engineers working on the dam went to great lengths to get everything right when it came to power generation. Unfortunately, they didn’t take into account the potential geological quirks of the area. Once the rivers were dammed up, some water found its way through the rocks, creating a spectacular “twin” waterfall just below the powerhouse. To get up close to the falls, just take the road on the opposite side of the river from Great Falls which takes you right to it.
Out of the ordinary waterfalls
Two of the Sparta area’s most unusual waterfalls flow out of a cave, then back into another. Virgin Falls is the biggest, but it also requires a full day to hike in and out as round trip it’s about 9 miles. This is something on my “to do” list, but only after this old, out of shape travel writer gets physically prepared for the hike.
Lost Creek Falls, on the other hand, is much easier to reach. Gravel roads take you up to a parking area just above the falls and a big cave a few hundred yards away. I was told, the parking lot was built by the Walt Disney Company when crews were there to use the falls as a shooting location for the 1990’s live action version of “The Jungle Book.” As soon as you step out of the car the roar of the water lets you know something spectacular is close by. Water rushes down through a narrow gap in the rocks, falls about 60 feet, then disappears into the pool below.
The Caney Fork River which gets its start in the wilds of Scott’s Gulf provides up to Class V rapids. I love the description one kayaker gives the headwaters on the website exploresparta.com … “you can do it once, you can do it twice, but if you do it consistently, you will be killed.” Not sure that’s the greatest sales pitch, but if you’re into adventure, I guess it’s there to try. If not, there are plenty of opportunities downstream where you can still enjoy the rapids more safely.
Of course, if you’re like me and not really into testing nature’s limits, Welch’s Overlook inside the Bridgestone/Firestone Wilderness Area provides a bird’s eye view of the Caney Fork shortly after it begins.
The Calfkiller River
The wild waters of the area create a real rush, but if you want to slow things down a bit check out the Calfkiller River which flows through the heart of Sparta. The upper portion comes off the Cumberland Plateau near Monterey and winds through a serene and narrow valley filled with forests and farmland. As it gets closer to town, it gets deeper and a bit wider providing great conditions for kayakers and canoers. A greenway runs along portions of it in Sparta and you can even cross high above it on an old railroad trestle.
All around Sparta, the rivers, creeks and waterfalls inspire adventure. And sometimes that adventure can lead to something bigger. Kayakers around the world know about Jackson Kayaks, a company founded in 2003 by Eric Jackson and Tony Lunt. Today, these high end kayaks are manufactured in Sparta, TN and occasionally you might see Eric Jackson out on the area waters looking for another adventure.
Be sure and check out my guide on what to do in Sparta.