Hiking and Trail Running
1. Virgin Falls
With enormous waterfalls, overhanging bluffs and rocky outcroppings, the Virgin Falls natural area epitomizes all that’s great about the Cumberland Plateau’s unique geology. The eight-mile out-and-back hike to see Virgin Falls is a tiring challenge, but it’s not grueling. Quicken your pace, though, and you’ve got a trail run that’s technical, steep, and thoroughly rewarding. From the Virgin Falls Trailhead parking area, you’ll descend gradually alongside a creek. As you make your way to Virgin Falls, you’ll enter a wonderland of lush forested areas and across lively cascades. If time permits (and if you fancy a stout climb), take the spur trail that’s about two miles from the Virgin Falls trailhead and make the half-mile detour up to Martha’s Pretty Point.
2. Edgar Evans Loop
This singletrack Edgar Evans Loop within Edgar Evins State Park combines the Millennium Trail (2.5 miles) and the Merritt Ridge Trail (5.5 miles) for an eight-mile loop in one of the park’s least traveled sections. Though it’s not terribly long, this loop packs a punch with just under 2,000 feet of elevation gain, all earned in a series of rolling (and occasionally steep) hills. Much of this route hugs the high banks of Center Hill Lake, so you can enjoy the picturesque waterfront as you pick your way along this heavily vegetated path.
3. Window Cliffs Trail
At about three miles each way, this out-and-back trip on the Window Cliffs Trail deposits runners and hikers at the Window Cliffs, one of the absolute coolest geologic formations in the Southeast. These natural limestone bridges rise 200 feet above Caney Creek and were formed by heavy erosion in the long, narrow ridge. What this trail lacks in distance it makes up for with about nine creek crossings each way. While it’s possible to grasp cables or hop across rocks and at many of the crossings, you should expect to get your feet wet on this trail. Also, note that you shouldn’t attempt to hike this trail during or after heavy rain.
4. Phifer Mountain Loop
There are many ways to experience the beautiful, hilly backroads of the Phifer Mountain area, but one of the best options is to ride the taxing 13-mile lollipop loop that begins and ends at Mill Creek Baptist Church. This route has about 900 feet of ascent and utilizes quiet mountain farm roads for a true Tennessee cycling experience.
5. Cub Mountain Loop
If you’re really ready to step up your cycling game, tackle the famed 75-mile Cub Mountain Loop that starts and ends in downtown Cookeville’s Dogwood Park. This epic ride involves no less than 3,300 feet of elevation gain, most of which is dished out in four significant climbs. The route’s claim to fame is a short stretch where the grade reaches a staggering 18%, causing many cyclists to hop off and push (which is totally acceptable). After all that, you’ll be rewarded with a comfortable, rolling descent back to the park.
The Cub Mountain Loop serves as the route for the annual Ride to the Sky, a cycling challenge that offers 10-, 20-, and 40-mile variations, plus the traditional 75-mile loop. Held in October each year, this charitable event showcases the Cumberland Plateau’s bright fall colors.
6. Big South Fork IMBA Epics
The IMBA Epics list is a nationwide roundup of backcountry bike routes that are nominated and voted on by mountain bikers themselves. The Epic in Big South Fork connects all five of the recreation area’s bike trails into one giant, remote 34-mile loop. Completing the loop means sampling all that Big South Fork has to offer: cliff-top singletrack, old hardwood forests, lush stands of rhododendron, wild creekside areas, and expansive views. The main challenges of the route are its length and isolation, so riders should be self-sufficient and well-prepared.
7. Fall Creek Falls Upper Loop
Most folks who visit Fall Creek Falls State Park are there for the waterfalls (which are definitely worth visiting), but the park is also known for its excellent singletrack trails. The 13.5-mile Upper Loop was initially built for backpackers, so it offers some tight twists and turns that present fun challenges for mountain bikers. Despite a modest elevation profile, those tight turns mingle with technical terrain and sustained climbs for a tough and interesting bike adventure.
8. Caney Fork River
As the Caney Fork runs through Rock Island State Park, the river creates a playground for skilled boaters. This section of the river includes waves to surf, cascading waterfalls, and plenty of scout-worthy Class IV-V rapids.
Situated just below Great Falls Dam, this section of the river has reliable flow over 200 days out of the year, making it an all-time favorite for local creekboaters and playboaters. Because of the Caney Fork’s dependability and diverse features, it’s also the home to champion kayaker, Jackson Kayak founder Eric Jackson and his family and factory, which often hosts boating events in the area.
9. Big South Fork River
The free-flowing Big South Fork River is tucked deep within the 125,000-acre Big South Fork National Recreation Area, making it one of Tennessee’s most remote and pristine whitewater paddling destinations. The area is characterized by sandstone bluffs, deep and scenic gorges, and a wildness that will leave you feeling absolutely thrilled. The six-mile runnable section features big water including Class IV rapids, though beginners can put in on the final two miles and enjoy smaller rapids.
Written by Madison Eubanks for Matcha in partnership with Visit Cookeville.
Header Image: Paddlers will find cascading waterfalls and plenty of big rapids on the Caney Fork River. Credit: Jared Whitney.