I always forget about Old Stone Fort when thinking of semi-nearby hikes to Nashville. I’m not quite sure why because it’s such a unique hike in that it has like a hundred (ok maybe not 100) little ‘cascading waterfalls’ along the Duck River (Trivia time: at 284 miles, the Duck River is the longest river located entirely within the state of Tennessee AND it’s the most biologically diverse river in North America. So, yeah, I think you should check it out…)
The route I usually do is a mostly easy hike with only a few steep parts (off the main loop on the Backbone and Moat trails) and you get rewarded with all these river falls and some indigenous peoples history. The fort was built somewhere between 1500 and 2000 years ago and was formed by mounds and the bluff walls. There’s also a museum on site so you can learn all about the land you are recreating on.
It’s only an hour from Nashville and worth checking out if you only have a half day or so free to hike. Or make a weekend of it: snag a campsite here, also visit nearby Short Springs State Natural Area and maybe even stop by the George Dickel Distillery, only a short drive away.
But, please, oh please, practice the Leave No Trace principles when you’re out. There’s lots of folks out there newer to hiking and we ALL need to pitch in to keep our public lands beautiful. Let’s set a good example and politely encourage people to treat public lands the right way.
📍 On the ancestral lands of Tsalaguwetiyi, Shawandasse Tula, S’atsoyaha, and Chikashsha
Distance from Nashville: Just over 1 hour
Trailhead: Visitor’s Center at Old Stone Fort
Trail: Enclosure, Forks of the River, Backbone & Moat Trails
Just down the road from the entrance to Foster Falls, you’ll find the Denny Cove trailhead — one of the newer additions to South Cumberland State Park. While this area is known for it’s excellent rock climbing, hikers will also enjoy the short trails to an overlook and beautiful cascading waterfall.
This roughly 3.5 mile out and back hike has a lot of what this are of Tennessee has to offer including the classic boulder-filled trail at times. (Love it or hate it, boulders abound all over this area! Time to get those ankles strong!) I’d classify this hike as solidly moderate in difficulty, accessible to most hiking levels.
At about a half mile in, the trail splits: one part take you to a nice overlook and the other takes you to the waterfall. There’s also a spur that has all of the climber access points (and doesn’t lead to the waterfall).
I truly love this waterfall and the trail immediately leading up to it. You round one corner of the trail and boom, there’s the beautiful, towering, cascading fall. The pool it spills into is pretty small so you can stand close to it and feel the gentle mist; there’s even a large rock conveniently placed so you can sit and take it all in.
If you’re checking out Foster Falls for the day, maybe head on over the Denny Cove and add a few more miles onto your hiking day.
One of my goals for this year was to visit new (to me) Tennessee State Parks. It’s easy for me to keep going back to parks that I love because I know what to expect and I have a much lower chance of being disappointed. 🙃 I made it to Pickett and now I ventured south (instead of east) to David Crockett State Park. (Not to be confused with the David Crockett Birthplace State Historic Park. Make sure you are looking at the right map and park!)
One of my hesitancies of going to some of the state parks I haven’t been to yet is the shorter trails. I’ve said it before, but when I make the effort to drive somewhere, I want to hike for at least 3 hours. So, I made the unofficial David Crockett State Park Loop, connecting multiple trails to traverse most of the land in the park, totaling about 7.5 miles. Scroll to the bottom of the post to see my route. I started near the playground and Campground 1 at the south end of the Shoal Creek Trail.
(Side note: Many of the trails are not on GAIA GPS or Google/Apple maps, so I had to keep checking and comparing GAIA to the park map since I was making my own loop. Plus, I also did some of my ‘hiking’ on paved roads so I could connect everything.)
WIll this state park completely take your breath away? Probably not. But, there’s still things worth seeing. There’s the two waterfalls, a peaceful stroll along Shoal Creek, a small lake, plus a portion of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. There’s nice cabins, fishing in the lake, a campground, a covered bridge and I even saw an archery range and blackpowder rifle range. (I’m not sure if these are open and active.) There’s also a handful of ‘Connector Trails” that link the Shoal Creek Trail aight the Trail of Tears, so you can create a loop of varying lengths. I could see this being a great park for a family trip.
I mentioned 2 waterfalls: Crocket Falls and another (unnamed?) cascade kind of around the back end of the lake. It’s at the end of that little spur on my route. It was really beautiful and I had no idea it was there because it’s not marked on any of the maps. (I had to turn around at this fall and not complete the Crawfish Valley Trail because I deemed completely crossing that fall with a dog was too dangerous, so I hiked along the road for a bit instead.)
The park is almost right in Lawrenceburg, so it’s definitely not secluded but may be worth a visit if you’re looking to go somewhere new. And remember, any time outside is good!
Distance from Nashville: 1 hour 30 minutes
Trailhead: Shoal Creek Trailhead off Davy Crockett Park Rd
Trails: “Loop” form by Shoal Creek Trail, Crawfish Valley Trail, Lake Road Trail, Trail of Tears and Turkey Ridge Trail (see full route below)
The Great Stone Door trail is a pretty well known and easy trail with a great payoff. But, driving almost 2 hours for a mile of hiking doesn’t quite make sense to me, so I made a 7 mile loop connecting the Stone Door Trail to the Big Creek Rim and Laurel Trails for a nice longer, but relatively easy hike.
The entirety of the hike is on the plateau/rim so most of this loop is flat, but not without some views of the gulf along the Big Creek Rim trail. The rest of the trail meanders through a wooded area on the plateau, making for a nice walk in the woods. The total mileage is around 7 miles, so it may be a great way to try out a longer hike without a challenge from the terrain. Taking this route, you won’t descend into the gulf, so you won’t have to navigate steep or rocky terrain, if you’re looking to avoid that.
The loop I did makes a fantastic beginner backpacking loop with a camp at Alum Gap and a side trip to Greeter Falls. (Remember, there’s no overnight parking at the Greeter Falls trailhead!) Of course there’s the always stunning views from Stone Door, but Big Creek Rim has a few great overlooks and bluff-side walking as well. The Laurel trail is probably one of the least diverse and interesting in the area, but it is full of lush ferns and greenery. And when I hike from the Stone Door trailhead, I always pop by Laurel Falls because it only add on .2 miles. (The mini loop starts right behind the ranger station.) You can also walk-in camp at Stone Door but it can get crowded and out especially on the weekends.
This loop isn’t going to blow you away compared to others in the area, but it’s nice to mix things up and try a new route. Connecting Stone Door to Big Creek Rim and Laurel trials makes for a good long-ish day hike in one of the most beautiful places in Tennessee. It’s also great to build stamina for longer hikes. You’ll clock over 7 miles of relatively flat trail, so it’s great to build up to a longer hike!
Distance from Nashville: 1hr 45 min
Trailhead: Stone Door Ranger Station (Savage Gulf North Trailhead)
Trail: Loop formed by Stone Door, Big Creek Rim, Laurel (route in red)
I avoided Fall Creek Falls State Park for years. I went once maybe 5 years ago on my way home from another hike. I got confused by the map and all the semi-interconnected short trails and ended up just doing the Woodland Trail and seeing just Fall Creek Falls from the overlook near the parking lot.
The popularity, especially in these times, has deterred me from returning. I always opted for something “more rugged” or “less popular”. Against all of the type 4 in me, I returned to the largest state park in Tennessee yesterday. And let me just say, what took me so long to get back??
Many people drive to the different sections and do some hiking at each landmark. But, I say why drive when you can hike to them all? I decided to see how long it would take to hike to all of the iconic spots: Cane Creek Falls and Cascades, Fall Creek Falls, Piney Creek Falls, both suspension bridges and Milliken’s Overlook. And yes, it can be done! It will end up being about an 11 mile hike with both easy and difficult sections, but I HIGHLY recommend this route.
I started at the nature center and attempted the Cable Trail first. Even though Luna is quite the adventure dog, there was a spot we couldn’t get safely down together. (She did amazing maneuvering the steep slopes until we got to the problem spot halfway down though!) So, we’ll return another time with a hiking pal so I can actually get all the way down. Then, we hiked all around the nature center which has accesses to Cane Creek Falls and Cascades. Be sure to make it all the way down the steps behind the nature center for the full cascades experience.
Then, we crossed the suspension bridge that connects this area to Fall Creek Falls via the Woodland Trail and ventured down to the bottom of the falls. We got absolutely soaked in the powerful mist from the falls and it was therapeutic. After returning to the top, we headed towards the parking area at the falls and found the Overnight Trail (also called the Lower Loop Trail) which takes you to Milliken’s Overlook (via a side trail) and Piney Creek Falls. The Lower Loop Trail is completely flat and just a bit hard to see the trail. It is marked with white trail markers, but all the fallen leaves made the trail almost indistinguishable from the other land. I didn’t have trouble following it, but I also use the Gaia GPS app, which I check frequently to make sure I am on the trail.
After viewing Cane Creek Gulf, return to the Lower Loop Trail and follow it to Piney Creek Falls. After seeing the falls from the overlook, continue on just a bit farther along the white trail until you reach the other large suspension bridge. I turned around here and returned to the Nature Center via the Overnight (Lower Loop). I thought there may be a way to the bottom of Piney Creek Falls, but I’m not sure that’s the case and I had to start making my way back.
The whole adventure ended up being just a bit over 11 miles and you get to see all the highlights. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this hike.
I kept seeing the same people at all these spots. They had driven to each and I had hiked the whole way. 😂
So, don’t think that just because this is the most visited and one of the largest recreation areas in the state that it doesn’t pack a punch. I’m sure it’s crowded on weekends, but going during the week in the winter (even though it was pretty warm fro February) was perfect.
The two long trails (Lower Loop and Upper Loop) have backcountry campsites. This would be a great way to experience camping in this state park without staying at the HUGE campground. There’s just so much more to this state park than I previously thought. They have added new land and trails in the past few years, so there’s just so much to do at Fall Creek Falls State Park besides see Fall Creek Falls from the overlook (which is honestly what I thought for the longest time! 🙈)
Distance from Nashville: 2 hours
Trailhead: Nature Center near Cane Creek Falls off of Village Camp Rd.
Trails: Cable, Overlook, Woodland and Lower Loop Trails (see my route below)
Savage Gulf is one of the most diverse places to hike in middle-ish Tennessee and obviously one of my favorites.
I’d been wanting to go back and do the Collins Gulf Loop for a while now. It’s an under appreciated trail in my opinion and doesn’t get nearly as much love as the other trails in Savage Gulf. I am here to attest that this loop is one of the prettiest and most unique in the area.
Collins Gulf is one of the lesser traveled trails (Stone Door and Savage Day Loop being the most popular), but has some of the most diverse trails. You make the “Collins Gulf Loop” by joining the Collins Gulf, Collins Rim, and the Stagecoach Road Historic trail. There are a few blue blazed trails that stem off of the main ones (blazed white) which can add on a few extra tenths of a mile. One of the best things about Savage Gulf is how well-marked and well-kept all the trails are. It makes hiking so much more enjoyable when you aren’t stressing that you missed a trail turnoff or blaze.
I made a goal to backpack once a season this year. I randomly had 2 days off in the middle of the week and was searching for a backpacking partner. I asked a few friends and, not surprisingly, they couldn’t make it work for their schedule. So, I took a chance and tried to reach out in the most not awkward way to an “Instagram friend”. Before I knew it, Abby and I were speeding along I-24 towards my favorite place in Middle TN.
I returned to a semi-familiar trail for my first overnight trip in a while. But, since I hadn’t been here in 4-5 years, it felt like a whole new trail. There’s a few different options for camping, but we stayed at the Sawmill Campground, off of the Collins Gulf portion.
We clocked in just over 15 miles for the entire trip. This included a side trails to both Horsepound Falls and Schwoon Spring, which is the water source for the Sawmill Campground even though it was over a half mile away. It is one of the craziest and most amazing places I have ever filtered water from. You have to hop from boulder to boulder across little waterfalls from this spring that sprouts from a cave. It was absolutely stunning and worth the side trail even if you don’t need water. I will say, we were a little nervous the spring was going to be dry. There is no inkling that there will be water until you come upon the boulders. One of the things I get most stressed about in backpacking trips is water sources, so we were both a little nervous we’d have to backtrack to Collins Creek to get water. But, I believe this spring is wet most of the year.
So, to sum up, this loop gives you multiple falls, HUGE boulders, the stunning Collins Creek, a few gulf views, amazing history in the Stagecoach Road (be sure to read the info signs!), and multiple varied suspension bridges. While it’s a bit of a challenge to complete in one day (yes, I’ve done it), it is a great way to spend an overnight. It’s not kill-yourself challenging, but keeps you on your toes, especially with a pack on. If you decide to do it in a day, be sure to give yourself a good 7-8 hours, especially if you plan on doing the side trails for Horsepound Falls and Schwoon Spring, which in my opinion are not optional because they are both stunning.
Put this one on your list, kids!
Distance from Nashville: 1 hr 45 min
Trailhead: Off of 55th Ave near Gruetli-Laager, TN
Trail: Loop formed by Collins Gulf to Stagecoach Road Historic to Collins Gulf (see route below)
Yes, Ozone Falls in stunning but it’s not really much of a “hike”. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it lends itself to crowds because of it’s beauty and proximity to the highway. But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check it out; it’s truly stunning.
There are two short trails: Fall Creek Rim Trail and Plunge Pool Trail. The Rim Trail takes you on a short loop along the creek that feeds Ozone Falls, takes you through a small patch of oak forest and to the lip of the falls. The Plunge Pool Trail follows the highway then turns sharply down to the left right before the metal road barrier. This is the trail that takes you to the base of the falls where you can wander all around the falls and the pool including going behind the falls (always a personal favorite).
The rim trail is rated as easy and the plunge trail, while short, is quite steep and requires some careful footing over a very rocky and boulders path. But, I like to work for my views!
Kind of similar to Virgin Falls, Ozone Falls plunges many feet then Fall Creek disappears into the ground, then re-emerges downstream. Also! Ozone Falls was selected for filming scenes of the live action Jungle Book.
As is classic in Cumberland Plateau hikes, there are HUGE boulders in creek and such interesting rock structures like the amphitheater that the falls is situated in and a small cave nicknamed ‘The Gambler’s Den’.
So, if you are in the area, or just driving through, Ozone Falls is a great place to stop and enjoy some Tennessee beauty. Just PLEASE remember to recreate responsibly and leave no trace, especially at high volume areas. Let’s keep nature wild and beautiful for generations to come.
Distance from Nashville: 1 hour 55 min
Trailhead: Ozone Falls State Natural Area, right on the side of TN-1 near Crab Orchard, TN (parking on both sides of the highway
Window Cliffs has been on “to hike” list for some time. But a combination of dogs not being allowed, the multiple creek crossings and hearing that it “wasn’t that great of a trail” gave me pause about hiking this approximately 6 mile trail near Burgess Falls.
So, perhaps my expectation were set low, but Window Cliffs completely surprised me. It was, quite simply, a delightful hike.
So, let’s start off with perhaps the most daunting thing about this hike: the NINE creek crossings of the winding Cane Creek. I went during a relatively dry period and the deepest creek crossing was about knee-high and a couple were completely dry. Just like most trails in the Cumberland Plateau area, water levels are highest in the late winter (Jan-March), so that might not be an ideal time to hike this trail. (Also, I’m sure the water is freezing, so probably not the most pleasant experience.) All that to say, don’t be deterred by the creek crossings in the summer and fall, they are totally doable. (Please note that when water levels are high, the trail may close without notice. If it’s just rained, I would call ahead to check the status of the trail.)
I’d recommend hiking in Chacos or Tevas or something comparable so you don’t even have to worry about wet socks and shoes. The terrain is not particularly rocky or root-y so hiking sandals worked perfect for me. There’s cables at every creek crossing but I’d also highly recommend trekking poles for balance and stability.
Let’s talk about the highlight of this trail. There’s a waterfall, cedar groves (low key one of my favorite nature things), spots that felt like Smoky Mountain Balds, the creek crossings, and the namesake limestone cliffs. There was always something different around the bend and kept my attention the entire time. Also, the first (downhill) and last half mile (uphill) are pretty dang steep, but the rest of the trail is relatively level. So, just be prepared for a challenging last half mile!
The view from the top of the cliffs was more stunning that I thought it was going to be. You can’t really see the ‘windows’ from the top, but there’s what I’ll call an ‘underlook’ (because you are looking up to the view) where you can see the windows in the limestone.
As another bonus, there’s two rare plants – at least in the TN area – in this area: plains muhly and northern white cedar. Plains muhly has only 2 known locations in TN and looks like spindly desert grass that grows in rocky or sandy areas. Northern white cedars are also not common in the south and prefer to grow in rocky places. Just something for everyone here at Window Cliffs, folks.
So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and hike an A+ trail in Tennessee that’s surprisingly close to Nashville.
Distance from Nashville: 1 hour 10 min
Trailhead: Window Cliffs State Natural Area (8400 Cane Creek Rd Baxter, TN), Be aware that trail may close without notice when water levels are high.
When I learned of a quasi-thru-hiking trail less than an hour and a half from Nashville, it was only a matter of time before I tackled 20+ miles in one day.
This trail encircles the property of the University of the South and the town of Sewanee which makes sense if you, well, just read the name of the trail. It also follows the perimeter of the Cumberland Plateau (a personal favorite ecological feature of Tennessee). So, you’ll find all the perks of this area: a few waterfalls, heavily wooded areas and landscape views. But, as a bonus, you’ll really feel like a mini thru-hiker when you pass by the “downtown” and follow the road for a portion of the trail. (Oh, and also you literally walk through people’s backyards at one point…) It truly is an experience.
This trail is managed by the university and they recently put in really helpful way finding points along the entire trail, which makes it really easy to make sure you are taking the right trail. There are many opportunities to veer off the perimeter trail to see things like caves and additional falls. Because we opted to do the entire trail in one day, we didn’t take advantage of these side trails this time.
There is a spot to camp, but according to the Sewanee website, it is for students, faculty, staff, and alumni only. But, there is a note about other groups being taken on a case-by-case basis. See more information here. I’ll probably look into camping for another time so I can more fully enjoy every part of the trial system.
Overall, this trail is really not difficult; it’s almost all flat terrain. So, truly the hardest part is just the pure length of the trail. We did it in about 8 hours (moving time). Obviously, it’s a little easier to fit the hike in in the summer when daylight hours are longer. But, it’s also hotter and buggier. It’s is cooler up on the Plateau, so it wasn’t too terrible even in June when we did the hike.
This hike marks the longest I have ever hiked in one day at 21.4 miles. So, if you are looking to push yourself mileage-wise, this is the perfect trail, especially because you won’t absolutely kill yourself with elevation changes or boulder hopping. (Both of which I LOVE but pairing that with 20 miles in one day is A LOT!)
Distance from Nashville: 1 hour 30 minutes
Trailhead: Just past the University gates on Hwy 41A/Sewanee Hwy
I first saw Winding Stairs on an Instagram post and figured it was in East Tennessee because most of the waterfall trails I haven’t been on are 3+ hours away. But, no, this winding cascade housed in a city park (!) is a mere hour and change away from Nashville.
My initial research deemed that this would be a very short and easy trail (under 2 miles), which sometimes deters me from checking something out. (I know it shouldn’t matter, but I stan a challenging hike with a reward.) But, to my surprise, there were almost 5 miles of trails within the park. AND it was more of a challenge than I expected (Hello, Jacob’s Ladder section).
And can we pause a minute to give some love to cascading waterfalls? The way the water hugs the jagged rocks making them look smooth coupled with a typically gentler descension of the water makes the earth look like it’s just seeping water.
What’s great about this park is that you get to clamber all up and down the falls if you’d like. They are truly like stairs (very slippery ones, but still stair-like nonetheless) so carefully explore to your heart’s content.
And don’t sleep on the other trails in the park! You’ll find an overlook of the ‘Winding Stairs’ and a view of the many layers of actual stairs to get you to the natural ones. You’ll also find a trail called the ‘Milk Pail Trail’ and you’ll just have to visit to find out the story behind this odd name and a bonus trail surprise.
PRO TIP! Because online maps are few and far between (All Trails just has the 1.5 mile loop), make sure you take a photo of the map at the trailhead! (We did not until after we were finished and just followed our hearts and probably did some trails twice?) The trail also has numbers at various points which correspond to your location on the map.
This hike is perfect if you only can devote a few hours of the day to hiking and want to get out of town. Plus, it will get your heart pumping and reward you with a beautiful cascade.
Distance from Nashville: 1 hour 15 minutes
Trailhead: Turn by the sign for ‘Winding Stairs Park’ off of Hwy 52 just outside downtown Lafayette, TN. (When I went, the map directions were just a bit off, so just be sure to turn when the sign tells you to!)
Trail: Entire trail system at Winding Stairs Park (Cascades, Jacob’s Ladder, Red Oak, Milk Pail
Trail map: I haven’t been able to find a trail map online, but here’s a photo of the trail map from the trailhead
Length of hike: 1.5- 4.5 miles, depending on your route/trails
Brief overview: Surprisingly beautiful cascading, winding falls within a city park with opportunities to both explore the falls and see them from above along the few trail options.