From wilderness areas to a Victorian village, here are five easy and entertaining day trips from Cookeville. Photo Cred: Chuck Sutherland
Both geographically and historically, the Cumberland Plateau is an undeniably fascinating place. The enormous plateau’s average elevation is just over 1,100 feet, and time has seen its sandstone carved and dissected by the many creeks and rivers that flow over it. This erosion has created stunning waterfalls, ravines, and caves with a frequency that is unusual for the Southeast, and the plateau has become a destination for hikers and nature lovers.
The area has also seen many key moments in Southern history, including early efforts to colonize the area. Whatever your brand of history, there’s plenty to see and study in the plateau area. Cookeville is situated at the heart of all this excitement, and it serves as an ideal basecamp for venturing near and far on the Cumberland Plateau. Here are just a few of the most beautiful and interesting places to explore within an easy day’s drive of Cookeville.
1. Savage Gulf State Natural Area
Drive time: 1 hour
Where the western side of the Cumberland Plateau gives way to the Appalachian Escarpment, the landscape becomes steep and rugged. This is the terrain that makes up Savage Gulf, a 15,000-acre park riddled with creeks, waterfalls, and exposed rock. The characteristic gulfs are formed by three creeks that drop steeply down the side of the plateau, sometimes seeming to disappear entirely as they dive underground and resurface downstream.
One of Savage Gulf’s most popular spots is Greeter Falls, a spectacular waterfall dropping 15 feet then plummeting more than 50 feet into a clear blue pool at the base. The dog-friendly, three-mile Greeter Falls Loop encompasses Boardtree Falls as well, making this moderately challenging trail doubly worth the effort.
On your way back to Cookeville, make a small detour into downtown Sparta for refreshments at Happy Trails Brewing Company. In addition to their house brews, this family-friendly and dog-friendly (beer garden only) brewery offers a selection of other regional bottles and cans so you can get a well-rounded taste of Tennessee beers. If you’re still feeling adventurous after your hiking trip, sample whatever’s on their “Kaiser” tap, which is likely to be a limited edition brew.
2. Rugby, Tennessee
Drive time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
To fully appreciate why a day trip to Rugby should be high on your list, a little history lesson is in order. In 1880, a British author named Thomas Hughes set out to realize his vision of a classless agriculture-based community, and the Cumberland Plateau was his chosen location. Rugby Colony was established, and within a decade this Utopian community had attracted hundreds of settlers and gained international notoriety. Despite some signs of success, the colony faced a series of devastating events like harsh winters, typhoid breakouts, and fires that ultimately caused a slow downfall.
Though the colony didn’t survive as a utopian society, it was never totally abandoned either. Most of the village fell into extreme disrepair, and in 1966 a group activated to restore Rugby and make it a destination for travelers.
Today, Historic Rugby is about as close as you can come to being transported back in time to a living Victorian village. Visitors can shop at Spirit of Red Hill old-timey store, dine at the Harrow Road Cafe, and even take guided ghost tours through the preserved town. Round out your day in Rugby by exploring the one-mile loop trail to Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole, which has been in use since the settlers’ days.
3. Frozen Head State Park
Drive time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
With 24,000 acres of nearly untouched wilderness and more than 50 miles of hiking trails, Frozen Head State Park is a fantastic place to escape and enjoy the outdoors. If you want to get an up-close look at the often snow-dusted mountain that gave the park its name, tackle the eight-mile Old Mac Mountain Loop. The trail is somewhat challenging but maintains a moderate grade, and you’ll glimpse creeks and waterfalls all along the hike. Once you reach the top, the Lookout Tower will afford views of the surrounding mountains.
This area is also known for its proximity to the old Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. After years of disuse, the prison has now been reopened as a public attraction, and tourists can tour the former “home” of some of the country’s most dangerous criminals. Guided tours, signature “End of the Line” ‘shine, concerts, car shows, and more await inside these eerie grounds.
On the drive back, be sure to make a pitstop at the Lilly Pad Hopyard Brewery near the Obed Wild & Scenic River. What originated as a mom-and-pop campground for shaggy rock climbers has become one of the area’s most well-loved hubs for the outdoor community. Now the Lilly Pad offers craft brews, delicious food, live music, and a place to unwind and swap adventure stories around the campfire.
4. Crossville, Tennessee
Drive time: 40 minutes
Venture into Crossville and spend a day on the water at Cumberland Mountain State Park. This relatively small state park is centered around Byrd Lake, which offers numerous recreational opportunities throughout the year. In the summer, visitors can bring or rent kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, or pedal boats for a quiet, beginner-friendly outing on the serene lake. Anglers can reel in bass, bluegill, and catfish all year long, and in the winter months, the lake is stocked with trout.
Visitors are also able to experience waterfront views from several of the hiking trails that weave throughout the park. The two-mile Byrd Creek Trail is a great place to start, and hikers will enjoy the creekside path, vast groves of hemlock trees, and a walk across the top of the arched dam.
Once you’ve had your fill of Cumberland Mountain, pop over to The Pour House Bistro for well-deserved dinner and drinks. This classy-casual eatery focuses on fresh, handcrafted foods, specialized cocktails, local craft beer, and their eclectic menu includes everything from Baja tacos to sushi to fried pickles.
5. Big South Fork
Drive time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
The northernmost part of Tennessee is home to the magnificently large Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. It was formed to protect the free-flowing Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. The drive from Cookeville to Big South Fork is relatively rural, but we recommend stopping in at Campfire Coffee in Jamestown to fuel up before your hike. Indulge with espresso specialties and fresh pastries before continuing to your destination.
At no less than 125,000 acres of nearly pristine wilderness, Big South Fork is a place that can be overwhelming in both size and beauty. From Cookeville, travelers will do well to focus on the western side of the preserve where there are ample opportunities to do day hikes of varying lengths.
Erosion of Big South Fork’s shale and sandstone has caused the formation of rock features that are unusual to the Southeast, like arches, mesas, and chimneys. One of these fascinating formations is known as Twin Arches. To reach it, you can take a 0.7-mile trek (1.4 miles round-trip) on the Twin Arches Trail. Or, for more of an adventure, try out the five-mile loop trail that passes through the primitive and unique Charit Creek Lodge. The arches feature a steep, wooden staircase, allowing hikers to explore atop the wide rock features.
Written by Madison Eubanks for Matcha in partnership with Visit Cookeville.