Adventure Travel

5 Picturesque Tennessee State Parks To Put On Your Bucket List

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5 Picturesque Tennessee State Parks To Put On Your Bucket List

Tennessee is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in America. From the mystical hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the plethora of natural swimming holes and lengthy hikes through dense, old growth forest, there’s no doubt that these Tennessee State Parks are one of a kind.

Are you ready to explore this summer? Look no further than these top Tennessee State Parks! They have everything from cascading waterfalls to interesting ties to history (like the 1996 Olympics), so there’s sure to be an adventure waiting for everyone.

Hiwassee Ocoee State Park

Find yourself searching for the best whitewater rapids in Tennessee? Head down to Hiwassee Ocoee State Park for an adrenaline-pumping experience on the the water. Whether you’re an experienced kayaker or a beginner looking for a guided tour through the rapids, Hiwassee Ocoee State Park has an adventure read for you.

To reach the park, head east on Highway 74 from Cleveland. Turn left (north) on Highway 411 and travel until you reach Spring Creek Road. Turn right and you’ve reached the park!

For the least intense experience, check out the Hiwassee River. Mostly comprised of Class I and II rapids, it’s the perfect spot to chill-and-float all day long. Be aware that certain sections are considered Class III, which require expert navigation skills. Inquire at the visitor’s center before heading out on your leisurely trip.

The Ocoee River is the place to be for extreme whitewater fun. Guided tours are available to take you through the nonstop Middle Ocoee waves from the put-in at Rogers Branch all the way to take-out at Caney Creek. Parts of this course are considered Class III and IV, so be sure to use caution upon approaching the rapids. The Upper Ocoee section, from the Ocoee No. 3 Dam, traverses Class II and IV rapids, taking rafters through Olympic whitewater courses.

If you’re looking for an overnight adventure at Ocoee Hiwassee State Park, it’s easy to book one of the 47 primitive sites. Note that most campsites are tent-specific and do not have electric hookups for RVs.

A short and easy one-mile hike, called the Gee Creek Trail, takes you over a naturally paved surface to view the beauty of the flowing river, should you wish the refrain from participating in the rapids yourself.

Rock Island State Park

A amazingly beautiful series of cascades down a gorge wall. The water source is an underground cavern which pours the water out the side of the gorge wall

Image: Shutterstock/Michael Shake

Kayakers and swimmers adore the sweet simplicity of Rock Island State Park, where casual cruises down the river and relaxing on the natural sandy beach is the only way of life. As a Tennessee staple, a visit to Rock Island is a must for every nature lover across the state. The cascading waterfalls are easy to reach, the hiking trails are diverse, and the access to water is unparalleled, which is why Rock Island is the perfect summer retreat.

To get there, exit onto Highway 70S from I-40 and go south. After several miles, you’ll reach the 70S and 111 split, where you should stay right to continue on Highway 70S. At Highway 136, take a right and stay left to follow Highway 287. The visitor’s center is ahead on the right.

The Caney Fork River Gorge that runs throughout the park is easy to view from one of nine hiking trails, all varied in difficulty. While only half of a mile, Blue Hole Trail is the shortest, but most strenuous hike through moving water and steep cascading steps.

The easiest hike comes in at only one mile. Called Upstream Trail, the route crosses the Upper Gorge area and comes across two swim-at-your-own-risk pools (Ice Hole and Warm Hole).

Other activities enjoyed at Rock Island are boating, swimming, and fishing. The pools below the falls are crowded in the heat of summer with Southerners looking for a break from the dense heat, as well as adventurers looking for some relief after a strenuous hike.

Kayaking is one of the most beloved activities at the park. It’s famous whitewater rapids have hosted international freestyle competitions. But don’t worry—these sections are clearly marked and easy to avoid for the casual kayaker!

To stay at the park overnight, there are several options. Two campgrounds (one tent-only and one with RV hookups) have around sixty sites to pick from, while ten deluxe cabins are available to rent. It’s important to note that Rock Island’s cabins are renowned for their “luxurious” amenities (like DVD players and appliances), so they book quickly all year long.

Roan Mountain State Park

Wild pink catawba rhododendron at Roan Mountain State Park in spring bloom near the border of North Carolina and Tennessee at sunrise

Image: Shutterstock/Cvandyke

East Tennessee is notorious for rolling hills, mature hardwood forests, and epic hikes. The adventures found at Roan Mountain State Park are no different, in fact, there are 2,000 acres of pure wilderness to enjoy! From camping to mountain biking to interpretive programs, Roan Mountain is the place to escape all summer long.

Located on the Tennessee and North Carolina border, Roan Mountain State Park is tucked into the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains along the Appalachian Trail. To get there from Johnson City, drive east on Highway 321, turning right (southeast) at Highway 362. At the intersection of Highway 19E, turn right and follow it until you reach Highway 143. The visitor’s center is on the left after a few twists and turns!

Day trips and overnight camping are the best ways to explore Roan Mountain. The park is easily accessible from Johnson City, Asheville, and Boone, which makes it perfect for a quick jaunt into the woods. Camping trips are great to experience everything the park has to offer over the course of a weekend or a few days.

At Roan Mountain, there are several choices to stay overnight. Thirty fully-furnished cabins (complete with kitchens, rocking chairs, wood burning stove, and gas/electric heat) dot the mountainside, while 107 classic campsites are perfect for tent or RV camping. Each of those come with a picnic table and outdoor grill as well.

For hikes around the park, the trails are divided out by experience level. If you’re looking for an easier route, try the Roan Mountain Gardens trail. It’s paved, following gentle hills that wind through the trees. You’ll pass a wild rhododendron garden, with elevated platforms for optimal viewing. Moderate hikes, such as sections of the Appalachian Trail and Cloudland Trail are easy to find from the visitor’s center. Cloudland Trail is the best option to reach Roan High Bluff (the second-highest point in the park).

Expert hikes are found by connecting the Appalachian Trail from Carver’s Gap. If you catch the trail here, you’ll pass over numerous flourishing balds, like Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Yellow Mountain. In July and August, the blueberries bloom, making it the perfect time to photograph the natural beauty…and perhaps spot a bear or two!

Burgess Falls State Park

Burgess Falls State Park Cumberland Plateau Tennessee

Image: Shutterstock/KennStilger47

Exclusively for day-use, Burgess Falls State Park is a must for families and adventurers of any age who wish to explore the grand beauty of the series of steep falls. Although the lookout for the main falls is closed for construction due to extreme flooding, it’s still easy to view the cascades, upper, and middle falls.

Located on the Falling Water River off of Highway 70S, Burgess Falls is easy to find from Cookeville, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga. Simply head west on Highway 135 from 70S until your reach the park.

The most exciting activity at the park is the 1.5 mile River Trail Scenic Loop that takes hikers past the waterfalls and down into the gorge below. From this trail, you’ll experience cascades and waterfalls starting from 20 feet in height to over 80 feet. The highest fall, at 136 feet, is currently closed to repair waterflow damage.

A great family-friendly activity within the park is paying a visit to the Native Butterfly Garden near the upper parking lot or enrolling your child in one of many Junior Ranger day camps.

Some people enjoy fishing down below the dam and at the fishing pier. Largemouth and smallmouth bass and bream are all frequently caught at the park.

For an easily-accessible day trip, Burgess Falls is is the best choice for Middle Tennesseans!

Fall Creek Falls State Park

Cane Creek Falls in Fall Creek Falls State Park in Tennessee

Image: Shutterstock/RichardBarrow

As the largest and most visited of Tennessee State Parks, Fall Creek Falls has everything you need for the perfect adventure wrapped into one destination. Located conveniently between Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville, it’s no wonder people come from all over to explore the natural beauty of the park.

Fall Creek Falls encompasses more than 26,000 acres of sprawling landscapes on the Cumberland Plateau. Because of it’s size, there are a variety of diverse geographic offerings for visitors to experience. As Rockhouse, Falls, and Cane Creeks run throughout the park, cascading waterfalls, steep gorges, and lazy streams are perfect to gaze at or even jump in!

Swimming at Fall Creek Falls is a favorite summertime activity for Tennesseans who’ve had enough of the intense heat. After a long hike in the sun, head to Cane Creek Cascades for the best swimming hole in the park.

Many people will tell you that the best part of Fall Creek Falls State Park is the abundance of waterfalls to view. In fact, the park is home to six waterfalls in total, one of which is considered to be the largest fall in the East. Fall Creek Falls itself rushes 356 feet down into a deep gorge. The other falls within the park are: Coon Creek Falls (250ft), Rockhouse Falls (125ft), Piney Creek (95ft), Cane Creek Falls (85ft), and Cane Creek Cascades (45ft).

There are several trails within the park created for different types of adventures. Short, family-friendly hikes to see Fall Creek Falls are easy to maneuver, while difficult, overnight hikes take you deeper into the park. If you plan to backcountry camp within the park, be sure to attain a permit before heading out.

Upwards of 200 traditional campsites are open year round, but they book quickly during spring, summer, and early fall. It’s advisable to plan ahead when hoping to car or RV camp at Fall Creek Falls. And if you’re looking to have a cozy weekend in the woods, the park has thirty cabins to choose from. Interestingly enough, Fall Creek Falls also has a hotel on-site, complete with a restaurant and meeting space. Next corporate retreat, anyone?

Join the thousands of local Tennesseans who head to Fall Creek Falls each year. After an epic hike and dip in the water, you’ll be hooked, too!

Mandy Burkholder is a travel, adventure, and outdoor writer who honed her craft in the foothills of the La Plata Mountains of Southwest Colorado. After a stint in the Swiss Alps, she now resides in Tennessee. Follow her on twitter — @mandyburkhold3r

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