Height: 136 feet
Trail Type: Dirt and gravel
Hike Distance: 1.5 miles round trip
Waterfalls that sit on watersheds controlled by a dam not far upstream are rarely worth seeing since the dam chokes the bulk of the water that can flow downstream. But in the case of Burgess Falls, the nearby dam may actually be a benefit. When I first visited the falls, it had been raining heavily the night before and the Falling Water River was gushing. But even if you look at every picture and video of Burgess Falls, nothing can truly prepare you to see it in person.
Unlike seemingly every other waterfall that drops down a forward-slanted concave slope, Burgess Falls comes to its edge on an arrowhead-shaped slope, which then seems to slant back in toward the riverbed with the exception of a few multi-level ledges at the bottom. Even on days of less-than-normal river flow, the width and depth of the river makes for an impressively powerful falls. Like Cummins Falls, the limestone gorge rises 200 feet from the riverbank below and extends downstream out of sight.
From Exit 286 off of Interstate 40 in Cookeville, drive south for about 8.5 miles and turn left onto Burgess Falls Road just after the bridge crossing the Falling Water River. The road ends at the parking lot for the trail.
There are two ways you can get to the top of Burgess Falls. If you only want to see the main falls, you can walk the level gravel road that meets the end of the actual trail at an overlook a few dozen feet above the top of the falls. I recommend taking this trail back to your car because you miss out on two other substantial falls on the main trail.
The first falls along the main trail is Little Falls, a 30-foot drop located right at the start. About halfway down the trail is Middle Falls, which is a larger, wider 80-foot drop over innumerable ledges. The falls don’t look that big from the overlook, but I am assured that it is indeed that big. The trail unofficially ends at the overlook for Burgess Falls I mentioned above. However, the trail does continue. There will be more than one sign warning you of how strenuous the trail is about to become, but I didn’t have a problem with it.
The trail brings you right to the riverbank where you can get as close to the edge of the falls as you feel comfortable with. There is then a metal staircase that brings you down to a ledge where you can get down to the base of the falls. It’s this part of the trail that makes these falls the most rewarding. The sound of the waterfall drowns out any other sound and the spray coming up from the base provides a cool refresher on a humid day.
One quick note regarding the metal staircase: There are times when the park service closes this part of the trail when the river is especially volatile. There have been several occasions where the staircase has been completely wiped out from the overflowing falls. When you see the falls in person, it’s difficult to fathom how violent the river must get in order for it to destroy that staircase.