Despite Tennessee waterfall country being in my parents’ backyard, I have done surprising little exploration of the region. I can’t remember exactly where I learned of Burgess Falls, but I put it on my must-visit list for 2022. It is something one might expect in Jamaica, not the middle of Tennessee. And as high as my expectations were, I would say the actual experience far surpassed it.
The best way to visit Burgess is via kayak. Burgess Falls drops in to the giant Center Hill Lake. We camped at Edgar Evins State Park. Though it also on the lake, by car it was nearly a 45 minute drive. The best put-in for the falls if kayaking is Cane Hollow Recreation Area. Some older reviews mention sketchy roads and parking. It seems the area has been recently updated to include pavement all the way in, a large parking area, and (dirty) port-a-johns. However, the road is still incredibly steep and the large lot was more than half full on the Saturday afternoon we were there.
For those who do not own their own kayaks, we saw multiple outfitters taking trips out. While we can’t vouch for or against any of the companies, Eddie and Tara seemed very passionate about the area and would probably be who I would suggest to friends until I learn otherwise.
Roundtrip, the paddle is just under five miles. It took us just about an hour each way but we weren’t paddling particularly hard. There was very little current and the places with strong wind cooled off the hot summer sun. Generally the route follows an old flooded valley. Dead trees emerge from the water in odd places. It can be a little eerie. Navigation on a summer Saturday was fairly easy as we just followed the crowds. On another day, I would say it would still be fairly obvious. Once leaving the parking lot, we did soon loose cell service (Verizon), so I would suggest loading maps well before arriving. It is also worth noting that boats from the main lake also make this side trip. We shared the route with pontoon boats, wave runners, and wake boats. Most were very courteous, but the occasional blow-hard had to flex his virtual masculinity by revving past paddlers. It was mostly more annoying than dangerous, but in places the passages were narrow enough where I could see it being a problem for less experienced paddlers.
As you approach the falls, there is a giant puddle of sludge composed of what I can only describe as flotsam and jetsam. Paddling through is tough and dirty work, but absolutely worth it because the bigger boats cannot make it past. Paddlers only beyond this point!
And beyond that point is truly a wonderland. After all the nature I have experienced, I consider myself to have a higher-than-average threshold for being impressed. These falls blew past my expectations. Many of the local creeks had dried up in recent weeks, but these falls came from a lush rainforest. Fresh spray tumbled over the cliff in torrents. Ferns and other plants thrived under the mist. The pool beneath was clean and refreshing. We paddled around the water and then joined others on shore for a snack.
After eating, we took advantage of the cool water and swam with our PFDs on. We were surprised to find that we could walk over rocks until fairly close to the falls before needing to swim, but we were very careful to stay safe. Keep in mind this is a very remote area with little to no cell service. We saw many people taking awful risks – climbing cliffs to jump, swimming without vests. The area used to be a mill and the skeleton of old scrap metal hides just under the surface. With a little caution, the area can be an amazing oasis, but I can guarantee the stupid carelessness there will eventually lead to deaths in the area. In the meanwhile, as conservative old ladies, swimming beneath the falls will definitely be a highlight of our summers.
The trip back went fairly quickly, but it was surprising how long we were gone as we had spent so much time at the falls. Since we were there, we decided we need to visit the top of the falls at Burgess State Park.
Burgess Falls State Park does not offer camping (although I was impressed with the Whispering Falls RV Park at the entrance), so it is rather small. Even so, we had expected to be able to stroll to the top of the falls in flip flops. Not so. As signs from the parking lot announce, the falls are a 3/4 mile STRENUOUS hike from the parking lot. I am not sure I would call the hike strenuous, but there is quite a bit of hiking.
The good news is there is a nice series of falls along the trail until reaching the main event. Right off the parking lot was a large group of pools many kiddos were wading in. Along the trail, I was repeatedly impressed with the flow of water. Reaching the final overlook was very satisfying. After all we had done, we didn’t feel the need to take the VERY STRENUOUS trail to the top of the falls, but I think it would be very doable for any hiker. We were just “fall”ed out for the day.
I honestly don’t know that there are many places in the midwest I would recommend more than Burgess Falls. But with this recommendation comes a sense of trepidation. My gut says this place is on the edge of discovery and impending Instagram success will mean it will be nearly ruined in a decade. With all that being said, I strongly encourage everyone to go, but to tread lightly. Pack out microtrash, don’t trample vegetation, and stay safe. But if you can manage to visit before this place becomes crazy crowded, it might well be your favorite place in middle Tennessee.