When you think about Tennessee, your first thought is probably music. But what most don’t realize is the easy access to incredible waterfalls, hikes and scenic views within an hour drive from Nashville. Welcome to Cookeville, TN, a place I consider to be the hidden gold mine of waterfalls. Within a 40-mile radius of Cookeville’s downtown, there are over 150 documented waterfalls and too many scenic overlooks to count.
My name’s Paul Tellefsen also known as @technopaul on Instagram, and I am a photographer who fell in love with travel. Over the past few years I’ve been able to visit some of my top bucket list destinations and honestly Cookeville is one of my favorite small towns in America! It’s a hard place to pass up with the amazing charm and an incredible outdoor experience.
I visited Tennessee for the first time in March of 2017, checked it off my bucket list and fell in love with Cookeville. After only spending a day there and getting just a taste of not only the landscape but also the food too, I knew I had to come back to experience more.
Me and my friend Jared Whitey (@jaredwhitney) packed our bags and headed on a hiking and waterfall adventure to Cookeville! Falls in the Fall! Over the next 4 days we visited 7 waterfalls, 4 overlooks and many state natural areas and state parks. It was the kind of trip you look forward to all year long.
We began our adventure at the newest state natural area, Window Cliffs. A 5.4-mile roundtrip hike across 9 river crossings to the overlook of natural formations like windows in the limestone cliffs. Our tour guide, Molly was kind enough to pack a picnic lunch which we enjoyed at the half-way point. It was a great memory, sharing a meal together, taking in the incredible formations, taking some photos and relaxing to regain strength to make it all the way back.
Hiker Tip: Watch out, that first hill on your way down to the river is a doozie on your way back. Make sure to save your energy!
After a quick 25 minute drive back into town, we checked in and settled into our home for the week at the TownePlace Suites by Marriott. It was nice to kick our shoes off and look through the images we had captured before setting out to find dinner.
Nestled into the busy downtown of Cookeville, 7 Senses Food & Cheer is one of those places you come back to again and again. The quality of the restaurant is in the thoughtful staff and the incredible and ever-rotating dishes.
Foodie Tip #1: Try the Bacon Cheese Grit Puppies.
Foodie Tip #2: Be careful, they are highly addictive.
After we had finished a leisure dinner, we walked down the block to one of the most famous areas in the Upper Cumberland region, Cream City Ice Cream + Coffee House. Known for its iconic outdoor sign, the ice cream here was proof enough we had made the right decision to come back again.
Seeing someone experience a place you’ve been to and love, for the first time is exciting. My friend Jared had never been to Cookeville or Tennessee, for that matter. As someone who’s from the Pacific Northwest, he was caught specifically by surprise at the amount of accessible hikes and climbs and also the height of the waterfalls.
After a big first day, coffee was a must. After a quick, lucky yelp investigation we found a local shop in Sparta called The Coffee Collective. When we pulled up, we knew we had a made a good decision. And you know it’s good when the local Portland coffee snob, Jared Whitney, approves. We even stumbled upon a local artist, now turned business owner of Coffee Collective, Rachel Rippberger (@rachelrippberger). Hearing her story of opening a coffee shop was compelling and inspiring from someone her age. Bright things ahead for this shop.
With coffee in hand, we visited the Jackson Kayak plant where they manufacture and build every kayak from start to finish. Founded by Olympic adventure kayaker Eric Jackson, Jackson Kayak ships their products around the world today out of their factory in Middle Tennessee. The amount of detail and time given to every kayak blew me away. It was like a big happy, well-organized family, where the staff loves what they do and know everyone they are doing it with.
From there, we drove to the playground of Jackson Kayak customers and staff, Rock Island State Park. This was, without a doubt, my favorite spot of the entire trip. Not only the volume of water, but the length and height of Twin Falls make this a must-visit spot on any Cookeville trip. We were lucky enough to have local “ographer” Chuck Sutherland show us around for the length of the day. He’s a photographer, cartographer, caver and geographer. From Twin Falls, we hiked the trail to the overlook of the Caney Fork and when we made it back we stumbled across a team of kayakers practicing in the waters.
The feeling you get when you watch someone do what they were made to do is exactly how this moment felt. You would’ve guessed the three kayakers were highly experienced, except we came to learn one of them had only been at it for 2 years, while the others were on the Jackson Team! It was a sight to see.
As the road turned from pavement back to gravel, we knew we were approaching our next adventure. While driving through Big Bottom and the Lost Creek State Natural Area, I was able to find a quiet moment in the car, as the road went by, to reflect on how peaceful this whole area was. I remember telling myself that I needed to find this kind of solitude more often.
The rest of our day took us to the beautiful Lost Creek Falls, where the 1994 version of the Jungle Book was filmed and then we drove towards The Rock House. This historic property was the stop of many presidents including, some suppose, Abraham Lincoln, my eighth cousin! … Which I promise is not a surprising fact if you meet me in person because of my height.
We drove on to end our day at Welch’s Point, my second favorite stop on the trip. An overlook hidden away down an old dirt road. We set our stuff down on the big rock and breathed in the cold air as the sun sank behind the rolling hills.
Now a day isn’t complete without dinner, so on our way home we stopped for a good burger at Father Tom’s Pub. Greeted by the town famous bartender, Beard, named for his, you guessed it, long beard. This place is like the tv show Cheers, if they had an actual storefront. Adorned with pictures of the regulars, this pub seemed to be the heart and soul of the town’s WestSide cultural district, the food ain’t bad either!
One thing I’ve learned in traveling is that it’s not about the place you visit, but who you visit it with. During our third day I was excited to have a few friends join us for our adventure. Reed and Brighton Robertson with their pups (@officialreedrob @brightonrobertson) and Emily Otteson (@emilytheott) all drove out from the Nashville area to join us and hike the 20,000 acre Fall Creek Falls State Park. With amazing overlooks at Buzzard’s Roost, my personal favorite, to the iconic Fall Creek Falls, the highest waterfall in the Eastern US, it’s easy to tell why this is a favorite state park of locals and Americans. We spent our entire day driving and hiking through this beautiful place. The local Nashvillians were pleasantly surprised, as I was, at how close all of this was to their front door.
Even though we got lost a few times, it was an amazing day! We made a lot of funny memories and shared a lot of great conversations while dodging dogs, walking across rivers and suspension bridges.
Driving Tip: In the Cookeville area, follow the brown signs on the side of the road for the best directions.
Sunrise is my favorite part of the day. No other part of the day is as brimming with hope or calm. Yes, I’m a morning person who also happens to love the evenings too. Waking up to catch sunrise at Bee Rock in Monterey was made better when our friend Josh Ness (@theexplorerdad @nashvilleexplorersclub) made a surprising appearance out of the woods with our tour guide Zach who had brought coffee from Broast (@broasttn) and donuts from the iconic Ralph’s Donuts. After catching up and snapping a few photos of the spectacular overlook of the Calfkiller River, we plotted a course for Ozone Falls.
Much to Molly’s dismay when we arrived at Ozone Falls I headed straight to sit on the edge to look down the 110-foot falls. This waterfall was also the site of the 1994 Jungle Book film, and you could easily tell why. It felt like we had entered another country. I could’ve stayed here all day, but after we took a quick selfie for memories sake, we headed back into town.
Our friends Greta Hollar (@gretahollar) and Amanda Burton (@amanda.burton.travels) joined us in town for lunch at Char on the square. It was hard to decide what to pick here because everything sounded amazing. I’m not normally one to get food envy, but when the dishes came out, I wanted to try everyone’s food! As a photographer I also really loved this spot because of the great light coming in the windows during the day. However, most people will love Char in the evenings. Things are most alive during the night as live bands and townsfolk dance the night away to classic tunes.
After another quick selfie, we drove across town to the Blues + Brews Craft Beer + Music Festival to experience all that Cookeville had to offer. With over 60 craft beers from local breweries and beyond, this place was hopping with people full of cheer and a lot of cheering too. And no it wasn’t just the beer causing them to cheer, football was also on giant TVs in the tasting area. This town really loves their football. As a Texan, I can relate.
The amazing thing about this festival was its location, Dogwood Park, a giant green space that was recently converted from a shopping plaza. It was amazing to see how much life this park has brought and is bringing to the city.
After winding down for a few hours, we gathered again just the three of us (myself, Jared and Molly) for a last supper of sorts at The Blue Pig Smokehouse. We were able to have incredible conversations with the Owner and Chef, Kent Birdwell, about his time abroad and how every decision he made led him to opening this restaurant a few months prior. It was exciting getting to share in his experience and taste the fruit of his labor. His prime rib is other worldly. And yeah, I ate the whole 16 ounces. Deal with it! Now that’s how you end a trip to Cookeville.
It’s always memorable coming to Tennessee, especially Cookeville, this micropolitan is something special. The small town charm and the community experience so many people are looking for, make Cookeville home to a lot of not only incredibly active and fitness-oriented folk, but friendly and hardworking people who know how to show a Texas photographer a good time.
Grateful to have found a slice of solitude and oasis in the hills of the Upper Cumberland.
Until next time,