From hikes to epic motorcycle rides, here are six outdoor adventures you can only have near Cookeville.
One of the reasons why Tennessee is such a special state is the vast diversity of its landscapes. From rolling farmland in the west to the bowed peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains in the east, the state offers outdoor enthusiasts a dizzying array of adventures to choose from. But the Cumberland Plateau, in particular, is one of Tennessee’s most unique regions—and perfectly suited for active-minded travelers of all stripes. Its craggy landscape and extraordinary geology make it a hotbed for a myriad of outdoor experiences, whether you’re all about running Class V rapids or cruising along the byways on a motorcycle. Here are some of the unique things to see and do while visiting this remarkable part of Tennessee.
1. Explore a Wonderland of Waterfalls
The Cookeville area is known for its breathtaking waterfalls, many of which come with a picture-perfect swimming hole to enjoy on a hot day. In Overton County, venture off the beaten path to find Waterloo Falls, a little-known spot with a 35-foot cascading waterfall. This low-traffic swimming hole is only a few minutes from the popular Cummins Falls and features wading areas above and below the roadside waterfall.
Located in a state natural area just east of Cookeville, Ozone Falls plunges 110 feet over a sandstone ledge into a deep, dark pool. When the water level is high, it’s a prime spot for swimming. (Pro tip: Be sure to wear water shoes or grippy sandals, as the bottom of the pool is extremely rocky.)
If you want to stray from the pack, head into the Caney Fork Gorge at Rock Island State Park. Here, adventurous swimmers will find deep swimming holes and jumping rocks at the base of the aptly named Great Falls. The park also offers a calmer, family-friendly beach and swimming area on the shores of Center Hill Lake.
2. Paddle Pristine Whitewater and Flatwater Rivers
From expert-level whitewater rivers to relaxing flatwater cruises, the Cookeville area is a prime location for paddlers of all calibers. Experienced kayakers can brave the rapids of the Caney Fork as it flows through Rock Island State Park. Because the Center Hill Dam feeds the river, the water flow is reliable for more than 200 days each year (also one of many reasons world champion freestyle kayaker Eric Jackson makes this his home and training grounds). This section takes only about an hour to complete and is best for freestyle paddling and play-boating. Additionally, Bee Creek, while a little further out,offers an eight-mile stretch of Class IV and V whitewater that can keep a practiced paddler busy all day long.
Flatwater paddlers will enjoy the serene surroundings and gentle currents of the Calfkiller River near Sparta. This cool, cave-fed river offers plenty of access points and lovely forest and farmland scenery. Plus, it’s great for fishing while you float. The river is mostly remote and quiet, and paddlers are often more likely to encounter wildlife than other people.
3. Escape to a Romantic Inn or Luxury Treehouse
You don’t need to rough it at a campground to feel connected to the outdoors when spending the night in Cookeville. Whether you’re there for a weekend getaway or a special event, the Saltbox Inn is just the spot to kick back amidst rustic surroundings. The 22-acre farm offers four suites and four spectacular venues, and the entire property is surrounded by gardens and pastures that complement the inn’s delightfully Southern vibe.
For an equally memorable experience that will take your Cookeville vacation to literal new heights, book a stay at Sulfur Ridge, home to Tennessee’s first luxury treehouse. This romantic treetop hideaway features cozy decor, floor-to-ceiling windows, a hot tub, 1976 jukebox, and plenty of outdoor space for lounging. Sulfur Ridge also offers retro Shasta campers that allow guests to get a taste of a tiny home stay while camping.
4. Raft the Big South Fork
Tennessee and Kentucky share the wily Cumberland River and the rugged Big South Fork recreation area that surrounds it. A rugged playground for all sorts of adventures, Big South Fork is an especially popular place for rafting. The Big South Fork of the Cumberland River offers rafters a full day’s worth of adrenaline-pumping Class III rapids which, on a guided trip, are suitable for families and beginners. The favored put-in is directly below Cumberland Falls, a 125-foot wide version of the famed Niagara Falls that offers a cooling spray to nearby paddlers.
5. Run a Local Trail Race
The abundance of trails and outdoor space in the Cookeville area have given rise to several fantastic (and challenging) annual trail racing events. Whether you’re a beginner or a veteran runner, you’re sure to find a race with the distance and difficulty to suit you.
Each summer, the Caney Fork Ultra offers 40-mile and 20k distance options and takes runners through the deeply furrowed Caney Fork river gorge. Be ready to get wet and endure steep climbs along one of the Cumberland Plateau’s most beautiful race courses on your way to earning big-time bragging rights.
Another tough competition in the area is the Cumberland Plateau Stage Race. This three-day running adventure spans three days and adds up to about 60 total miles of trail running. Also on the itinerary are excellent food, clinics, and speakers, creating a festival-like atmosphere. Runners can register for single days or for the whole shebang.
Looking for something a little less ambitious? Recreation-minded runners will enjoy the “Loop the Lake” races in nearby Crossville, with a loop course that takes runners around Lake Tansi. Competitions range from a one-mile walk to an eight-mile run, and teams are also allowed to compete in the family-friendly event.
6. Take an Epic Motorcycle Ride
The Cumberland Plateau is renowned in the motorcycle community for its beautiful backroads, thrilling switchbacks, and spectacular mountain views. Each year, Cookeville hosts the Southern Cruisers rally and serves as a major stop for Run For The Wall, an event that promotes healing for veterans and their families. Cookeville also has hosted several state and regional H.O.G. Rallies in partnership with the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.
Motorcyclists can use Cookeville as a basecamp and set out to “Carve the Cumberland,”a ride guide offering a series of diverse routes that showcase the very best riding the area has to offer. Along the way, riders will soak up stunning scenery, biker-friendly stopping points, and tidbits from the plateau’s fascinating human and geographic history.
Whether you like to explore the world from the seat of a bike or kayak, you’ll find that the Cookeville area offers unique and exciting ways to experience the outdoors. Its diverse landscapes, wild spaces, and welcoming Southern culture create a special place that will delight any traveler with a sense of adventure—and keep them coming back to discover something new the next time.
Written by Madison Eubanks for Matcha in partnership with Visit Cookeville.