knoxville news
knoxville news entertainment rss linkedin twitter facebook contact smoky mountains knoxville legal notices travel knoxville sports business knoxville daily sun lifestyle food knoxville daily sun advertising about knoxville daily sun

Paddle, don’t hike, to Tennessee’s beautiful Burgess Falls
By Tom Adkinson
May 10, 2024

social media share facebook share twitter share

burgess falls
Kayakers enjoy the constant breeze that the Falling Water River creates as it plunges into Center Hill Lake. Image by Tom Adkinson

SPARTA, Tenn. – Only a select few people experience the full grandeur and power of Burgess Falls, one of Tennessee’s most impressive waterfalls. Those people see it from the bottom up after a placid kayak or canoe paddle up an arm of Center Hill Lake.

This 130-foot-tall beauty is the end of the appropriately named Falling Water River when it pours into the lake near Sparta and south of Cookeville.

burgess falls kayaking
A kayak tour group paddles away from the Cane Hollow Recreation Area for an hour-long glide to Burgess Falls. Image by Tom Adkinson

Burgess Falls State Park is on the top side of the waterfall, and approximately 200,000 visitors walk an easy 1-5-mile loop trail to look down on the waterfall. That is a wonderful perspective, but it doesn’t compare to standing in the mist the cascade creates and feeling the vibrations in the air as tons of water pour down right in front of you.

The short float trip is possible all months of the year, but it is especially popular in spring, summer and fall. Reaching Burgess Falls is a grand reward on a hot summer day.

The closest access for a paddle to the waterfall is the Cane Hollow Recreation Area, a Corps of Engineers site, which can be quite a busy place. Weekdays are less crowded than weekends, and it’s possible to have almost solitary experiences at dawn and dusk.

Beached kayaks are colorful decorations on the edge of Center Hill Lake just a few yards below where Burgess Falls pours into the lake. Image by Tom Adkinson

“The popularity of Burgess Falls blew up on TikTok,” said Ethan Wilmoth of Cumberland Kayak and Adventure Company, a provider of group tours to the waterfall. He takes a maximum of 20 people in 16 kayaks (12 singles and four tandems). A Wilmoth-led group I met hailed from Georgia to New York to Minnesota.

“I see people from all over the place – every state, Canada, England, even Russia,” said Eddie Ramos, who owns another tour operation, Kayaking Adventures of Tennessee, with his wife, Tara Hunt.

A trio of kayakers enjoys the antics of fellow paddlers playing in a smaller waterfall next to the main section of Burgess Falls. Image by Tom Adkinson

Ramos and Hunt limit their trips to 13 kayaks, and they enlist their clients in a contest during the three-hour excursions. Each kayak gets a sack to collect any litter they spot in the water or along the banks. Winners get a shoutout on the company’s Facebook page and the satisfaction of having done a good deed.

Getting to the waterfall takes about an hour of easy paddling up an arm of the lake that gets progressively narrower. Toward the end, cliffs tower 200 feet over the water. Groups tend to spread out, and conversation diminishes as you near the waterfall.


kayak flotation
Tour operators provide personal flotation to their clients, but individual kayakers who arrive unprepared find loaner PFDs at the launch area. Image by Tom Adkinson

While you paddle along, soaking in the sun and perhaps spotting a great blue heron or maybe even a bald eagle, you gradually perceive an omnipresent and peculiar white noise. Soon enough, you realize that the noise is the growing roar of the waterfall.

Where your paddle ends depends on the level of Center Hill Lake, but kayaks always will get you close. At the destination, you can enjoy a sack lunch or just perch on rocks only a few yards from the thundering water.

After that, it’s an easy hour-long paddle back to Cane Hollow and life without the excitement of a 130-foot waterfall.

cane hollow recreation area
Only a few discrete signs point you to the Cane Hollow Recreation Area after you leave Burgess Falls State Park. Image by Tom Adkinson

Trip-planning resources: Burgess Falls State Park,, and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available on The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is included in the third edition of the book, which is available at

knoxville daily sun

Knoxville Daily Sun
2024 Image Builders
User Agreement | Privacy Policy