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
Located solidly off of any interstate, Laurel-Snow is a beautiful little pocket of the gorges of Walden Ridge in the eastern Cumberland Plateau. It gets it name from 2 waterfalls in the area and is also the first National Recreation Trail designated in Tennessee. Laurel-Snow also contains a section of the Cumberland Trail, although it doesn’t yet directly connect to any other part of the the CT.
The entire area has about 11 miles of trails situation in a ‘Y’ shape. About 1.5 miles in, the trail forks. The right fork takes you to Laurel Falls and Bryan Overlook and the left fork takes to you Snow Falls and Buzzard Point. You’ll find Henderson Creek campsite near the fork and a campsite near each of the waterfalls (water sources near all sites). Doing the entire trial system in an overnight is a bit of a push, but very doable.
The trails are marked relatively well, but it’s very easy to get turned around or wander off on a fake trail, especially as you wander deeper into the area. I would highly recommend having the free Gaia GPS app, which helped us stay on track.
During the first part of the trail, you’ll find remnants of Richland Mine as you meander along Richland Creek. Even with water levels low, this waterway is stunning with its enormous boulders and trickling cascades. We veered left towards Snow Falls and soon came upon the longest metal footbridge I’ve ever crossed at 150 ft. Three connected bridges zig-zagged over the boulder-filled Richland Creek gorge. The trail gets slightly overgrown in this area, basically meaning that the poison ivy is all up on your feet and legs. Take the dirt/jeep road to get to Buzzard Point; it’s definitely worth it the 180 degree views of the gorge and Chickamauga Lake in the distance.
We camped at Morgan Creek, a peaceful site near Snow Falls. You can access the base and the top of the small fall. Because the water level of Morgan Creek was low, we got to hang out in the creek bed and take it all in.
The next morning, we retraced our steps back to the trail fork and headed then headed towards Laurel Falls. You’ll climb out of a gorge, traverse some pretty amazing rock structures and climb through a little rock tunnel, which was especially fun with a loaded pack on your back! Laurel Falls was just a trickle, but the shelf-like rock that formed it was stunning regardless of the water level. We relaxed on the car-sized boulders before heading back to the trailhead.
The only bummer about these trails is that you have to do a lot of backtracking to see everything. You end up basically doing every trial twice. Oh, and poison ivy and ticks. Lots and lots of poison ivy and seed ticks. (I may have found a tick TWO days later attached near my armpit 🤢)
There were lots of people coming to swim in the creek, so that means there was trash, especially along the first 1.5 miles. Please remember to #recreateresponsibly and #leavenotrace. PICK UP TRASH Y’ALL.
Laurel-Snow is a complete winner, just make sure you have a plan, a map and plenty of water (all things you should have for any hike anyways!)
Distance from Nashville: 2 hr 45 min
Trailhead: Pocket Wilderness Road off of Back Valley Rd near Dayton, TN
Trail: Laurel-Snow Trail
Length of trail: 3.3 miles (one way) to end of Laurel Falls Spur Trail, 4.8 miles (one way) to end of Snow Falls Spur Trail. My route was 15.5 miles, split over 2 days
As a child, our family “accidentally” hiked to Rainbow Falls. We parked at the wrong trailhead thinking we were doing an easy hike to Grotto Falls and ended up doing a strenuous 5 mile hike – and my family was not really a ‘strenuous hike’ family. I am pretty sure it scarred my sisters’ view of hiking for the rest of their lives. But, I hadn’t been back to hike this trail since that day over 15 year ago. So, I figured, why not hike this trail on the way back down from LeConte.
Rainbow Falls is a relatively popular and, like I mentioned, difficult trial. The trail has a total elevation gain of almost 4,000 feet, meaning we lost almost 4,000 feet of elevation over about 7.5 miles.
Most people hike an out-and-back from the trailhead up to Rainbow Falls (about 2.5 miles one way and 1,500 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead), making the trail from LeConte to the falls very quiet and serene. The entire trail gains almost 4,000 feet of elevation. (Yes, the knees on the downhill were rough!) This trail was heavily affected by the fires a few year back. Not too far from the top of LeConte, you’ll see a huge area of burned trees and shrubbery, looking eerily post-apocalyptic. Around that same area, you’ll also see beautiful vistas and even Gatlinburg down below.
As the trail winds down the mountain, you’ll cross LeConte Creek a few times before you come across Rainbow Falls, which is the highest free-falling waterfall in the park. I hear that it’s much more impressive when you go after a big rain, but it wasn’t much more than a trickle when we visited. The last part of the trail is the busiest (and the dirtiest: pack out what you pack in folks!) because its a popular day hike. And while I love waterfalls, my favorite parts of the trail were closer to the top and the smaller cascades along LeConte Creek.
Many people consider this a must-do trail in the Smokies. And while I believe any time spent outdoors is great, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Rainbow Falls as one of my top hikes in the Smokies. But again, catch this fall after a good rain and it may just make all the difference!
Practice Leave No Trace. Pack out E V E R Y T H I N G. Pick up trash. Follow signs about staying on the trail. This trail was decimated. I had filled up my entire 15L dry sack full of trash and I couldn’t get everything. Also, so much toilet paper, like seriously, how was there that much TP. These Smoky Mountain trails are getting so heavily loved, so let’s love them back. Hold yourself and others accountable while on trail.
Distance from Nashville: 4 hours
Trailhead: Rainbow Falls Trailhead, 2 parking lots – A & B – along Cherokee Orchard Road
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)
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)
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.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, Savage Gulf is near the top of my favorite Tennessee hiking spots. There’s so much to see in this state natural area. But, many of the hikes are a bit more challenging and require a solid 6+ hours to complete. However, the Savage Day Loop is the perfect introduction to this area of South Cumberland State Park.
Clocking in right around 5 miles (if you include a little spur to Savage Falls, which is completely worth it), Savage Day Loop has wooded trails, two suspension bridges, Savage Falls (upper and lower), and a fantastic view from Rattlesnake point. It’s such a great payoff for a relatively easy hike.
The true Savage Day Loop doesn’t include Savage Falls, but it is a quick .3 miles from the trail and well worth your time. (You’ll see signs for Savage Falls. Then just go back the way you came until you meet up with the loop trail again.) There’s stairs to the bottom of the falls where you’ll get the full effect. But, as with any waterfall and river, it’s quite slippery and boulder-y when you get to the base of the falls.
There’s also a couple campsites if you are looking to camp in this area. There are a handful of sites a stone’s throw away from the Savage Gulf Ranger Station, Then, there’s some sites near the falls if you were looking to do a little backpacking.
So, if you’re looking for a perfectly easy day hike in what I believe is one of the best hiking spots in Tennessee outside of the Smokies, get on out to the Savage Day Loop. (And also maybe invite me along because I love sharing this trail with others!)
Distance from Nashville: 1 hour 45 min
Trailhead: Savage Gulf Ranger Station off of TN-399
Trail: Savage Day Loop plus Savage Falls add-on
Length of trail: 5 miles including Savage Falls, 4.2 miles without the falls
While most people go to swim in the Twin Falls swimming hole (see below!), I went to check out other parts of the park (albeit, there aren’t many more…).
I hike the very short but very steep and slippery Blue Hole Falls trail. It’s less than a half mile each way, but you are basically just traversing a waterfall and creek. There is kind of a trail at the beginning, but then you just follow the water down to the river. There is also the Eagle Trail (0.7 miles) nearby that connects Blue Hole to Badger Flat and the beach area.
The trail is basically where you see the water…
You can also swim in the river once you get down to the bank.
It’s a fun little hike if you are looking for some more adventures in Rock Island. You can definitely hit a few here because they are all pretty short.
Distance from Nashville: 1hr 30min
Getting to the trailhead: 2nd right on the road coming from the Visitor’s Center of Rock Island State Park, signs for ‘Blue Hole Picnic Area’
Greeter Falls is one of the last bits of Savage Gulf that I hadn’t seen. It’s a pretty short trail and usually, when I drive over an hour and a half for a hike, I want to make it worth it. But, this time I had some friends and a swim suit in tow, ready for a different kind of adventure. (Read: I wore my bathing suit and went swimmin’)
The Greeter Falls trailhead is located at the western end of Savage Gulf and it’s only about a half mile walk down to the falls. It’s also a nice place to go swimming on hot summer Tennessee days (and holy Lord do we have a lot of them) and WAY less crowded than Cummins Falls (side note: I went there in the middle of the day on a Wednesday expecting it to be not as crowded. I was very very wrong).
Make sure you go to both the bottom and top of the falls (only a very short walk from either to the other) so you can enjoy both swimming and splashing around in the small creek that feeds the falls.
At the top of the falls
When we were there, the falls weren’t exactly rushing, but that meant I got to explore around in what usually is a creek/river bed. Getting to climb and explore around made up for the fact that I only got to hike 1 mile.
Looking down from above Greeter Falls
You can easily connect to the the Big Creek Rim, Big Creek Gulf, and Laurel trials if you wanted to do a longer hike. Also, the Alum Gap Campground is only about a mile and a half away.
Distance from Nashville: 1hr 30min
Getting to the trailhead: Greeter Falls Parking on Greeter Falls Road off of TN-56