The sound of the 110 foot waterfall roared in my ears as a stream of water cooled my skin after a rigorous hike through the pristine landscape of Upper Cumberland in northern Tennessee.
Visiting Tennessee as a guest, I decided to tackle the impressive and arduous hike of Virgin Falls just outside of Sparta. I knew it would be a tough hike, full of rugged trails, smooth tree roots that grabbed shoes, and sketchy inclines that would burn my calves.
I also knew it would be an exquisite hike, full of waterfalls, stunning beauty, and quiet seclusion in nature, so the warnings of “heavy hike” seemed like a good compromise.
I was not wrong. Besides Big Laurel Falls and Virgin Falls, the creek that ran along the trail for most of the 4-plus mile one-way hike was riddled with waterfalls and small rapids. The trees towered above like damp, mossy sentries, and I felt like I saw this part of Tennessee as it looked before the man came in and started punching things.
The Upper Cumberland area of ââTennessee is one of my favorite places in this mountainous, leafy state. Home to 14 state parks (the most in any region), it’s a fantastic place to rejuvenate in nature and the great outdoors.
Fleeing the usual suspects in Cookeville and Crossville, we made Heart Rock Hideaway holiday home in charming little Sparta our home port for the week. Besides not having the traffic of the big cities, Sparta seems to be in the middle of all the fantastic outdoor activities and has that small town charm that makes me swoon.
Sparta, as a community and county seat in White County, Tennessee, is over 200 years old. In fact, it almost became the state capital, losing to Nashville by one vote in the 1800s.
Outdoor adventures in the area are endless, but here are four fantastic outdoor activities near scenic Sparta, Tennessee to enjoy.
1. Walk all the trails
Hiking is one of my favorite things to do, and if you feel the same, you’ll run out of time before you run out of trails to hike near Sparta. From the 0.3 mile walk to the Welch’s Point lookout and its expansive 15 mile round-trip views of the Virgin Falls Trail, you can find a hike that matches your speed.
The Virgin Falls trail was my favorite. Virgin falls is a 1,157 acre natural area near Sparta; it features the 110-foot Virgin Falls, which begins as an underground stream emerging from a cave before falling over the cliff and disappearing into another cave.
There are other waterfalls on this hike as well – like Sheep Cave Falls, Big Branch Falls, and the Big Laurel – but be aware that the hike is rated as strenuous in any way.
Other trails to explore in the Sparta area include the Gorge Overlook and Woodland Trails at Fall Creek Falls State Parka moderate, 2.9 mile loop trail that leads to a waterfall; the nine trails at Rock Island State Park, which range from 0.5 mile to 2 miles and weave through the beautiful lake and falls; and the nine main trails and eight spur trails in the centennial Bridgestone – Firestone wilderness.
Known as the Grand Canyon of the Cumberlands, the Bridgestone – Firestone Centennial Wilderness is a 10,000 acre park that was donated by the Bridgestone – Firestone Corporation to the State of Tennessee. Its trails range from moderate to difficult and take you to scenic views like Welch’s Point and nine area waterfalls.
2. Kayak in Rock Island State Park
Eric Jackson is the founder of Sparta’s Jackson Kayak. When we were in Sparta we had the chance to try out his new business – the Apex Watercraft Fishing Kayak, the world’s lightest composite fishing kayak.
You don’t have to be an avid angler or have the latest kayaking to enjoy the waterways near Sparta, however. Rock Island State Park, located just 18 miles south of Sparta, is one of the prettiest places to put a kayak or canoe (or even a stand-up paddle, if that’s your jam) .
The good news is that most boat rental operations in Tennessee State Parks will open this summer, so you can charter any boat you want on Rock Island.
The boat launch on Center Hill Lake and other ramps on the Caney Fork and Collins rivers make it easy to get out on the water for boating, fishing or kayaking. The park is also known for its whitewater kayaking, if you are skilled in that area. I’m not, but I wish I had, as the park also hosts international freestyle kayaking events.
Most of Upper Cumberland’s 14 state parks have some sort of access for boating and kayaking, so if you can’t get to Rock Island, the closest parks will have opportunities.
Pro tip: Hear these words from Rock Island State Park officials and take them seriously: âSome areas of the park are reserved for experienced whitewater kayakers or canoeists and can be dangerous. Water levels and currents can change rapidly downstream of the power plant or the TVA dam without notice. Large amounts of water can be released at any time without warning. Exit immediately if you hear warning sirens or notice any changes in conditions. Don’t joke if you hear the sirens – just get to the heights ASAP.
3. Fly high with the TN flying machines
If you think this part of Tennessee looks pretty on the ground, wait until you see it from the air! Flying machines TN features three unique planes (including two WWII warbirds) that will take you on an aerial tour of the Upper Cumberland region.
In the morning I went up with Aaron Tippin (yes, the country music star Aaron Tippin), the winds were a bit too gusty for my taste. But Aaron has over 30 years of flying experience, so I was in good hands as we flew over the waterfalls of Burgess Falls State Park.
Managed by the Tippin family, these flights take you over Center Hill Lake and its beautiful waterfalls, the beautiful waterfalls of Rock Island State Park, and other notable areas.
Located at Upper Cumberland Area Airport, TN Flying Machines is one of the newest attractions in the Sparta region, so stand in line to be among the first to experience an adventure in the skies.
4. Go caving in the Cumberland Caverns
If you want a more extreme outdoor experience, know that the wild caving tours at Cumberland Caverns are a once in a lifetime adventure. I am avid caving enthusiast and have excavated caves all over the world, but I’m not too proud to say that the wild caving tour we did at Cumberland Caverns was some of the most difficult I’ve done .
I’m a little shaky with heights, but show me a hole in the ground, and I want to go up there. That being said, the tour we did with local caver Chuck Sutherland and our 19 year old cave guide Collin was almost like underground rock climbing.
These poor guys heard the most shocking words from me as I slipped over towering rocks in the dark. I swore even more when I had to use a guide rope to navigate a small ledge on a black drop off of unknown height, and I made up new swear words as I squeezed my way through tiny twisting passages and while climbing rickety wooden ladders – all inclusive of the impending darkness of the cave.
Despite my constant mouth and clumsy scrambling, the Adventure Legacy Tour was my favorite adventure of the trip. We dove deep into the over 30 miles of mapped cave passages and discovered unique and amazing cave formations that most visitors never get to see. We watched the calcite veins glowing in the dark, marveled at an underground waterfall, and marveled at the milky formations of the cathedral castle.
Be aware that the 4 hour Legacy Tour is rated âthe most extremeâ and involves high climbs, ladders, ropes and through handlines. I found it to be more physically demanding than any hike or caving I have done.
Don’t worry – if you’re not up for an intense underground exploration and scrambling adventure, Cumberland Caverns has a Discovery walking tour which leaves every hour. You will still see incredible formations, waterfalls, and the famous Volcano Hall that sparkles with a gigantic chandelier hanging from the cave ceiling.
Pro tip: Wear sturdy, closed-toe shoes with good grip and clothing that you won’t mind being muddy or wrecked. I was wearing light hiking pants and by the end of the tour I had ripped the seat of my pants so badly that one of the buttocks was hanging in the wind. Our caver friend Chuck recommends good cargo shorts, knee pads and hiking boots.
These four suggestions are just the start of the outdoor adventures available near Sparta. Rock climbing, biking, bird watching, and camping opportunities are plentiful in the area, as are fishing and bouldering. If you need help finding your perfect adventure, visit the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association!