A Spectacular Tennessee Swimming Hole
September 19th, 2016
Cummins Falls – A very crowded masterpiece
Cummins Falls is a 75 foot waterfall in the Blackburn Fork River. It is rated the # 8 swimming hole in the world by the Huffington Post – and we had to come try it out late in a very hot Tennessee summer. Cummins Falls is part of a 211 acre State Park created in 2011, created through the purchase of land which had been in the Cummins family since 1825, and had been the site of a flour mill until the great flood of 1928. This is a very busy park on a hot Sunday in August – normally receiving 3,000 visitors per weekend day, and 5,000 on a holiday. The parking area is huge, and the supervision by Park Ranger at the swimming hole both evident and engaged – whistles, shouted commands etc.
Quiet walk up the Blackburn Fork to the Falls
The path down to the river is 1-1.5 miles (depending on the route that you chose) and is pretty much single file each way. Near the river, the trail gets pretty steep, with switchbacks and stairs. This is a family friendly place, and the trail gets jammed up with slow moving family units including very small children and very old people. If you come on a busy weekend, come early. The walk up the stream to the falls is about .5 miles, and most of it through the water. The stream bed is slippery, and there are lots of rock. Teva style sandals are great footwear for this application, flip flops poor, bare feet uncomfortable and dangerous. There is slippery algae on many of the flat rocks, and hiking poles are a great idea to prevent a fall.
This is a dog and kid friendly outing. Dogs must be on a leash, and kids are encouraged to wear life jackets, but other than those sensible rules, this scene is comfortable chaos. Alcohol and coolers are prohibited, but policing seems pretty light – this was one big family picnic.
Martha, Dick & Sarah prepare for the march upstream
Geology is Destiny for water falls and swimming holes – and the geology of the Cumberland Plateau is the rich uncle that endows middle Tennessee. The Cumberland Plateau is part of a large and long geological feature that runs along the western side of the Appalachian Mountains from Pennsylvania all the way to Alabama. In Tennessee, the plateau is defined by 350 million year old sandstone/conglomerate capstone. The underlying rock is mostly limestone which is much more susceptible to chemical erosion (particularly acidic water) and tends to erode rapidly where exposed, creating spectacular overhangs and waterfalls – like Cummins Falls. The plateau is 500-800 feet above the surrounding country in most of Tennessee, resulting in steep sided valleys defined by rapid erosion. The sandy capstone tends to be fairly impermeable, and the steep topography promotes rapid drainage, resulting in frequent drought stress for the local vegetation. In periods of normal precipitation, however, the plateau tends to get more than the surrounding countryside, due mainly to adiabatic cooling of moisture laden wind from the Gulf of Mexico.
The Cumberland Plateau is the longest (north to south) hardwood forest in the world, and the steep and deep river valleys in the plateau produce unique micro-climates. As a result the plateau is one of the most bio-diverse places on earth. Many local species of amphibians and fish are geographically unique to the area. The Cumberland Plateau’s rivers and streams sustain some of the country’s greatest variety of fish and mollusk species, and ravines and deep hollows are among the richest wildflower areas in southern Appalachia.
State issued map of the Park
Swimming Hole & Falls
What makes this place special for swimming, is a deep and clear swimming hole, juxtaposed with a user friendly stair step series of short falls, leading up to the main fall. The swimming hole is roughly circular, about 150 feet across and rimmed by large boulders pushed up by high water and ice. The boulders create a natural amphitheater, and they are lined with picnickers and spectators.
Martha at the swimming hole
Martha enjoying the warm water
A very crowded Labor Day
One of the wonders of the water in Tennessee, is that is wonderfully warm – particularly for a guy from Maine. One of the best treats is climbing up behind the falls, and enjoying the power washing afforded by standing directly underneath the falls.
View from behind the falls
Mary behind the falls
Martha in the falls
Wes swimming upstream against the current
Steve getting a power-wash
Cummins Falls is a crowded but spectacular swimming hole. The fact that it is a mob scene is a tribute to its appeal and the desire for summertime fun. This is a 5 star swimming hole, a 3 star waterfall and a one star hike. If you visit, come during the week – the weekend crowds are over the top.
A Word of Caution
This is a terrific swimming hole, but it is a natural setting with untreated water. Towel dry upon leaving the water, and shower when you get home to minimize the risk of swimmers itch. Swimmer’s itch (cercarial dermatitis) appears as a skin rash caused by an allergic reaction to certain microscopic parasites that infect some birds and mammals. These parasites are released from infected snails into fresh and salt water (such as lakes, ponds, and oceans). While the parasite’s preferred host is the specific bird or mammal, if the parasite comes into contact with a swimmer, it burrows into the skin causing an allergic reaction and rash. Swimmer’s itch is found throughout the world and is more frequent during summer months.
Adios from Cummins Falls