“I descended to the roots of the mountains. Jonah 2:6
The earth with its bars was around me forever,
But You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.
Sometimes the Best Journeys are along the Bottom of the Trail—Cummins Falls
When we set out on a six-day waterfall adventure, we knew that we would want to hike down to some the bottom of the waterfalls as much as we were able to. The bottom is where we can look up, and truly gain the right perspective about how massive a waterfall is. The bottom is where the cool, crisp, moist air refreshes us even on the hottest summer day. From previous experience waterfall chasing, we knew that some waterfalls are too powerful to get too close and others we would be able to reach out and touch, or even get under.
I could tell you about going to the base of several waterfalls, but the journey I want to focus on in this post is one to the base of Cummins Falls in Tennessee.
We had decided to go to Burgess Falls and Cummins Falls on the same day because we had already been to both parks and remembered that the trails were pretty short. These falls were on my list to visit again because we had gone in the winter, the waterfalls were beautiful but frozen, and now it was summer. I used to live in Chicago with easy access Lake Michigan, and I swam as often as I wanted. In Nashville, I don’t have easy access to water like that—and I wanted to swim! We had chosen what we thought would be an easy short day during which we could causally and slowly meander because we had hiked 7-miles the day before, and we were planning a 9-miler the next day.
We went to Burgess Falls that morning as planned, and it did not disappoint. Because of wanting to have a picnic when we could touch base with family members who live out-of-State and our slower pace, we didn’t even set out at Cummins until maybe 2:30 p.m.. We were then delayed further because we had to get a permit to go to the bottom of the falls—something else we didn’t have to do last time we were here. Seth went online and got the permit.
Just after we showed our permit to the ranger, she proceeded to tell us that the trail that went down the center of the cannon—the one that was easier and under a mile that we had done previously—was closed.
To get to the base of the falls this summer, we would have to walk to the far side of the cannon and come up the river banks through the bottom of the canyon. And there were many times when we would have to wade through the river and climb rocks. So much for a light day!
We were here, though, and we had driven more than an hour to get here. Also, this waterfall is typically very crowded on the weekends because of having a place to swim. We had taken vacation days to visit the park during the week when the park was less crowded. And it wasn’t raining—another reason why we needed to stay—it rains much in Tennessee!
This was the day. This was our time! Lord, help our aching bodies reach the falls!
So, we started down the path. We had done river crossings at Window Cliffs State Park a couple days earlier, so we weren’t worried when we heard this trail had water crossings. However, these crossings were different. The crossings at Window Cliffs were in aeras where the current wasn’t strong, and the river wasn’t that deep.
On this trail, once we got to the river, there weren’t suggested places to cross. This fact made it more difficult to know where to wade in. The rocks in the water were more slippery, and we were tired. But we kept on plodding along. Another difference was just after we crossed the river, we would have to climb over rocks…which was a really difficult with wet shoes.
At one point, when it was after 4 p.m., knowing the park would close at 5, I wondered if the falls would be worth it. Would we even make it in time to enjoy it? I thought about it enough that I even posed the question to Seth. “Should we just turn back? I’m not sure we will make it.” I kind of knew that Seth was doing this one for me. He had been here several times before in the summer. This was the place that I knew I could swim—which was one of my motivations for the trip in the first place. Then some people approached us from the other direction and said, you are almost thee—the Falls are just around the corner.
Yes, the falls were around the corner, but the trail itself didn’t get any easier. It was mostly scaling rocks on all fours, and still carefully balancing with sticks walking on slippery rocks in the River.
But then we got there—at 4:40 p.m.! We were in such a hurry to get to the water that we didn’t see the life jacket stand. We saw that people had life jackets on, and we had been told to get them from the ranger. The ranger was on the other side of the lake. It would have taken us much rock climbing and likely all the time left to get to her. She did come around at 4:50 or so to tell us the park would be closing in five minutes. Meantime, I got in the glorious water. It had large rocks under the water that were slick, but I did get to wade and play for about 10 glorious minutes—enough time to cool off.
We saw the amazing view looking up on the waterfall! There’s something amazing about being at the bottom and feeling so small, and yet knowing that we had the ability to scale and descend a canyon. It felt like we were able to enjoy nature from all angles. You’ll just have to look at my pictures to see what I mean.
We took some pictures and videos, and we felt a huge sense of accomplishment. The trail had been harder than any we had ever done (we had done some rock climbing on this trip before—but not in a river when we were wet). We did river crossings, but the water had not been that deep. That difference led to a larger WOW factor. Maybe it was an adrenaline rush?
Another plus was that it also was far less crowded at that point in the day. When we got our permits there were only 10 left, and by the parking lot, we also knew that the falls were packed, despite the fact that it was Wednesday. Our pictures have a couple people climbing on the waterfall…but usually you see people lining up all the way across the falls. I know Seth had wanted to climb on the surrounding rocks, but there just wasn’t time—and climbing the waterfall wasn’t possible without lifejackets.
We know we will be back, and we will check on the status of the center trail that goes right to the top of the waterfall for that experience.
Another thing happened on that waterfall day that made it special: my confidence grew. I was no longer scared of Virgin Falls—our upcoming 9-mile day—because Seth had said it was easier terrain wise, albeit longer.
I dried off, put on my clothes, and we started back. An adorable dog was walking with me, but I knew he wasn’t mine. He belonged to people on the other side of the pond playing behind the waterfall. The dog couldn’t see them. I also sensed that the dog was older. I was one of the older ones hiking there at that time…It felt like she saw me struggling and inching along on the wanted to make sure I was OK.
The dog’s parents were probably in their 20s, so it didn’t take them long to swim and climb back to where we were to retrieve their dog. They went ahead of Seth and me, but the dog kept hanging back with me! It was so sweet!
To help us on the journey back, the ranger was walking with us slightly in front of us. She knew the best place to cross the river and she knew the least taxing paths (although they were still strenuous). She helped us make our way through the bottom of the canyon much faster than we had traveled it on the way to the waterfall. Her presence was a blessing. A bit later on the trail, when all the other guests had gotten out of the park and we were the only ones climbing up the canyon, she walked behind us, talking with us the whole way. The same thing happened at Window Cliffs—but that time a male ranger had guided us out.
The bathrooms were not well kept, but they were building some other facility, so I’m sure in the future, the falls will be even more crowded, but also better kept. Monitoring the number of people who can go down at one time was an improvement as well
We are looking forward to a return visit. If it’s still an option, we might even choose the longer route through the bottom of the canyon again. We got our exercise, confidence and saw immense beauty from the bottom.