River Trail – Burgess Falls State Park

Have you ever gone on a quick little day trip, had a lot of fun, thought it would make a great blog post and then when you started to write, couldn’t find the words (or any words) to say?  That’s how I felt initially about my trip to Burgess Falls State Park over two weeks ago.  I don’t know what exactly was throwing me off – maybe that I took the trip with dad, which is always kind of a complicated subject, or maybe it was the semi-daunting idea of trying to describe three waterfalls and a set of cascades in the same post without making them sound identical or using the words “gorgeous”, “majestic” and/or “fabulous” for each of them.  I can’t say for sure what was causing me to be blocked, but I do know that everything I typed sounded forced or false – too many metaphors, too much over-simplification, and not enough me.   Last night, however, I realized I was over-thinking this way too much; I need to relax and just type what I was thinking and feeling during and immediately after the hike and I can’t go wrong.

So, without further ado…

Before the day before the hike, I had never heard of Burgess Falls State Park.  Sure, I’ve lived all over the place, but I’ve lived in Tennessee the longest, making it the closest thing to “home” that I have.  Yet, the first I heard of Burgess Falls was courtesy of a link my Mom shared with me on Facebook: “Nashville Day-Trip: 12 Waterfalls You Have to See This Summer.”  Lately I’ve been feeling pretty restless and antsy (my vacation is at the end of this month, the first one I’ve taken since starting my current job this time last year, and the anticipation is not helping), so I decided to pick one and go the next day, a Saturday.

I chose Burgess Falls for a couple different reasons: (1) it’s an actual state park, so there would be maps, picnic tables, the whole nine yards, (2) it didn’t look too far away, so if the trip turned out to be a bust, I wouldn’t feel bad about the gas money, and (3) the website mentioned the Burgess Falls trail passed by cascades and three waterfalls, which sounded worth the time and energy.

That same night, I got a text, asking if my Dad could come along.  I hesitated, mostly because as of late, at least, I’ve become more of a solo hiker.  When I was living out west, I was going to school full time and working two jobs – when I got the chance to go hiking, I just went by myself and enjoyed the peacefulness of it all.  That trend’s continued now that I’m living and working in Tennessee.  The most relaxing thing for me is to be hiking and embracing the scenery and the quiet.  True, I occasionally do popular, crowded hikes, and occasionally I go hiking with other people, like my Mom, B- or H-, but those are usually longer hikes/trips where you generally want company.  After my *brief* hesitation, I agreed, which turned out to be a nice decision in the end, as we had a good time together.

Saturday morning I met my dad in an outlet mall parking lot, and we took my car to Burgess Falls State Park, just outside of Sparta, TN.  First impressions when we arrived was that you either come to Burgess Falls to do the River Hike and see the falls, or you’re a local in the area coming for a picnic and to let your kids play on the playground equipment – there’s really no other reason why you’d be there, no other attractions that would draw visitors.

Despite signs that read “Strenuous”, the first two-thirds of the hike really aren’t that difficult.  We got there early to try to beat the heat (and humidity) and relatively flew through the first part of the hike, the only exceptions being a few places when I slowed down to watch my foot placement in and around some tricky tree roots and one set of wooden stairs that gave my Dad’s ankles some grief.  We did stop, however, to enjoy the overlooks of the two smaller falls and to let me take pictures for this blog post any time it suited my fancy 🙂

Little Falls - 30ft
Little Falls – 30ft
Middle Falls - 80ft
Middle Falls – 80ft

The real ‘money shot’ of the first two-thirds of the hike is the Burgess Falls overlook.  The largest of the falls stands at 136 feet and plunges into a beautiful canyon, with grey walls and summertime green foliage.  For some people, the Burgess Falls overlook is the end of the line; there are some benches where they can sit down, enjoy the view, and then they either go back the way they came or via the alternative gravel trail to the parking lot.  For anyone willing (and able!), however, the trail continues downward in a steep slope, first to top of the falls, then an even steeper slope to its base.

Burgess Falls - 136ft
Burgess Falls – 136ft

View from the Burgess Falls overlook looking down
View from the Burgess Falls overlook looking down

This last third of the trail is why it’s deemed “strenuous”, but any hiker could tell you that the term “strenuous” is not a uniform term amongst all hikes that have that particular label.  It also depends a lot of individual hikers and their abilities.  Was the last third of the Burgess Falls River Trail much harder than the first two-thirds?  Yes.  Did I really have to be careful where I placed my feet, especially on the way down when we approached the falls and the trail got slick?  Yes.  Did I have to stop and rest a couple of times on the way back up to drink water and eat a couple of my little energy chews?  Yes.  Would I classify this hike as strenuous? No, and I’ll tell you why: the most difficult portion of the trail isn’t very long, and thus is relatively easy for people who are out of shape to get to and back without any major problems.  For me, my benchmark for the term “strenuous” is Ramsey’s Cascades in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – 4 miles straight up and then 4 miles straight down again; I’ve done Ramsey’s Cascades twice and both times I was in complete misery.

View from the top of Burgess Falls
View from the top of Burgess Falls

Despite the fact I’d classify the hike as “moderately difficult” as opposed to “strenuous,” the view from the bottom of the falls is equally as breathtaking as the view from the top.  Even better is that at the bottom, you have the powerful spray to cool you down and mist all your worries away.

Overall, I’d say if you enjoy waterfalls, mildly challenging hikes and/or are looking for a good day hike in or around the Nashville, TN area, Burgess Falls River Trail is worth the time and effort.

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