This 350-acre Tennessee State Natural Area administered by Tennessee State Parks features four waterfalls down which the Falling Water River drops more than 250’. The area also includes a section of the river’s deep gorge, sheer limestone bluffs, and a diverse mixed forest community.
The first of the four waterfalls, Falling Water Cascades, is located just downstream of the old Burgess Falls Dam; here, the river drops 10’ over a series of ledges. Just downstream, the river drops another 30’ over Little Falls. The river then bends to the north before dropping over the 80’ Middle Falls. It then turns west and finally crashes over the 136’ Burgess Falls into a deep gorge surrounded by 200’ high bluffs. Protruding rocks in the middle of the falls break up the water to form a mist around the base of the falls. This is the ninth tallest waterfall in the state.
The falls are located on the edge of the Eastern Highland Rim. The river drops over hard and resistant cherty limestone of the Fort Payne Formation resting on Chattanooga shale into the gorge it carved out of softer limestones from the Catheys and Leipers formations. Here one can view the geologic processes that helped form the Highland Rim and the Central Basin below.
The mixed forest around the falls features a number of Eastern hemlocks; this location and Cummins Falls to the north in Jackson County represent the western fringe of this tree’s habitat. Also found are umbrella and cucumber magnolias, also more representative of East Tennessee forests. Other trees more typical of the midstate include basswood, buckeye, hickories, oaks and tuliptree. The vibrant spring wildflower displays include shooting stars, columbine, Solomon’s seal, trout lilies, trilliums and much more.
The park also preserves a number of historic structures associated with the falls. Burgess Falls was named for Tom Burgess, an early settler who was deeded the land in 1793 as partial payment for his service in the American Revolution. Burgess’ family operated a gristmill at the site; there was also a sawmill that helped turn the original forest into lumber. In the early 1920s, the City of Cookeville acquired the site and constructed a dam and powerhouse to supply electricity to the city. This was the first municipally owned hydroelectric facility in the country. The dam washed out in 1928 and was rebuilt. Power generation continued until 1944 when the massive TVA dams and power plants rendered the facility obsolete. The dam, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, stills stands and impounds a small lake.
Several hiking trails are located within the park. The one-mile Ridge Top Trail has scenic views down into the river canyon; it leads from the park’s parking area down to Burgess Falls. The section from the top to the base of the falls is very strenuous. Many hikers prefer to return to the parking area on the River Trail/Service Road Loop, an easy 1.5 mile walk over a graveled service road. All park trails are open to foot traffic only; horses, bicycles and vehicles are prohibited.
Fishing is another popular pastime; the most popular spots are the lake above the dam, the tailwater below the dam, and the area below the main falls. Largemouth and smallmouth bass and bream are often caught. Boats are allowed only in the lake above the dam; however, due to silting and the lack of a boat ramp, it’s not a desirable place for boating. Only trolling motors are allowed. Center Hill Lake backs up to the base of Burgess Falls at full impoundment; however, there is no boat ramp for the lake in the park.
Restrooms and a small playground are located in the main parking area. The park also offers a number of environmental education programs; contact the park staff for more information.