Spring is on the way, and in many places that means one thing: rain. Lots of rain. In Chattanooga, where we receive an astonishing 53 inches of rain per year, this is especially true. From February through April, nearly-constant precipitation turns the trails into sloppy mush and makes many outdoor activities more challenging—or, at least, less pleasant.
We know April showers bring May flowers, but before the world turns green and those Spring flowers bloom there is a silver lining to all this rainfall: it’s the best time for waterfall hikes. This time of year, all of the local creeks are flowing nicely, and eastern Tennessee has no shortage of impressive falls.
With so many options, we’ve decided to put together a list of the largest and most spectacular in the area. We’re talking big, tall, powerful waterfalls; every falls on this list features at least 50 feet of free-falling water, and some considerably more than that.
Here’s our top ten. How many have you visited?
1. Lula Falls
Height: 110 feet
Driving Distance to Trailhead: 12 miles
Not to be confused with Noccalula Falls in Gadsen, Alabama, Lower Lula Falls is one of the very best in the Chattanooga area and is part of the Lula Lake Land Trust’s core property. The upper falls is excellent as well, with a particularly nice cascade spilling into the lake which gives Lula Lake its name, but the lower falls is the real crowd-pleaser of the pair.
This waterfall flows year-round, and after a good winter rain it’s absolutely thunderous, with spray often wafting up out of the gorge and onto the trail above. A recently-constructed access trail, featuring extensive rockwork and stone staircases, leads to the base of the falls.
Lula Falls lacks the deep plunge pool found at some of the other large falls in the area, instead smashing down onto large boulders and flat bedrock. This fact makes the falls un-runnable for even the most adrenaline-happy kayakers, though the trail to the bottom of the falls is a popular put-in for navigating the remainder of Rock Creek.
At present, Lula Lake is only open a couple of days per month in order to minimize impact; restoring this area after years of heavy logging and mining has been a thirty-year project, and its current state is a true conservation success story. Visit the Lula Lake Land Trust website to check open dates, which vary.
2. Greeter Falls
Height: 50 feet
Driving Distance to Trailhead: 59 miles
The Greeter Falls Loop Trail at Savage Gulf (part of South Cumberland State Park) is one of the best waterfall hikes in the area, perhaps the best. In a state park absolutely bursting with waterfalls, this short loop trail leads to three incredible waterfalls: Upper Greeter Falls, Lower Greeter Falls, and Boardtree Falls.
Lower Greeter Falls is the one pictured here, and the highlight of your hike. After descending into a gorge so steep that the trail includes a spiral staircase, you’ll scramble down a sometimes-slippery wooden ramp to the edge of a picturesque pool at the base of a massive waterfall. This is one of the best swimming holes around, and you sure can’t beat the scenery.
It’s worth the short side trip to Upper Greeter Falls while you are here, and Boardtree Falls is definitely nice enough to justify the very short loop hike instead of heading back the way you came. This is classic Cumberland Plateau hiking, with beautiful blufflines and rocky, undulating terrain.
Those with more time, or seeking a more ambitious trip, would be well-served to visit Ranger Creek Falls on the same hike, at the end of a spur from the Big Creek Gulf Trail. Ranger Falls is particularly majestic after a rainfall, although those water levels make crossing the creek to reach the spur trail rather tricky. As for the creek itself, it disappears completely underground into a karst feature at the base of the falls. Weird!
3. DeSoto Falls
Height: 80 feet
Driving Distance to Trailhead: 51 miles
DeSoto State Park is a bit of a drive from Chattanooga, but it’s worth the short trip down to the Mentone / Fort Payne area just for DeSoto Falls. Pair with a trip to Little River Canyon to see the very nice Little River Falls, or spend some time exploring the rest of the state park, to maximize your bang-for-buck factor here.
Please note: while named for the same Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto, this DeSoto Falls is in Alabama and is NOT related to the Georgia waterfall of the same name. While the GA version—at DeSoto Falls Recreation Area—is indeed another pleasant waterfall, it’s much too far from Chattanooga for this list!
One of the more accessible options, a short paved path from a small parking lot leads to an overlook adjacent to this impressive waterfall. Water spills over a concrete dam at the very top, then down a broad, impressive cascade before plummeting 80 feet off a shelf into a plunge pool the size of a small lake.
The 80-foot height we’re publishing here refers specifically to the free-fall portion of the waterfall; including the cascade would make it 104, a figure we’ve seen elsewhere. In the hottest parts of summer, you may see cavers on the far side of the falls, where a 100-foot free-hanging pitch may be rigged for rappelling right into the lake (special permit required).
As mentioned above, this park also includes trails which are worth exploring, including several very nice (though smaller) waterfalls. There are approximately 25 miles of trails inside the park, 11 of which are also open to mountain bikes.
4. Falling Water Falls
Height: 110 feet
Driving Distance to Trailhead: 12 miles
Falling Water Falls State Natural Area is a tiny parcel of land with an even tinier parking lot, with a single trailhead and a short trail… leading to the top of a very, very tall waterfall.
It’s actually tough to get a great view of this one, although in low enough water it can be possible to cross the creek and peek down at the falls from an overlook on the far side. Try this at your own risk, though, because it’s 110 feet straight down onto a pile of jagged rocks at the bottom of this waterfall.
Like several of the other waterfalls on this list, Falling Water spills off of a sandstone shelf at the edge of the Cumberland Plateau and plunges straight down to a rocky gorge below. It may be accessed from the bottom, for those seeking to take a better photo, but there is no trail and the terrain is extremely rugged. Like with Laurel Falls below, the spray also tends to make photography challenging at spring water levels.
Falling Water Creek doesn’t drain a particularly large area, so the creek can flash quickly during periods of heavy rain and the water levels often recede just as quickly. The terrain at the edge of this very exposed cliff face is tilted, slippery and dangerous, so take extra care to watch your step.
5. Laurel Falls
Height: 80 feet
Driving Distance to Trailhead: 40 miles
The Laurel-Snow State Natural Area in Dayton, TN—part of the Cumberland Trail—is one of the most picturesque sections of trail at the southern end of the Cumberland Plateau near Chattanooga. Its unquestionable highlight is the towering Laurel Falls, at the end of a 2.4-mile spur trail with 900 feet of elevation gain along the way.
The trail begins by following the beautiful Richland Creek, then climbing up the hillside to cross Laurel Creek. The 50-foot steel bridge across Laurel Creek, unfortunately, has been mangled by a recent tree-fall. In high water, when the creek is unsafe to ford, the bridge is still usable for the sure-footed and daring, but ferrying children or large dogs across is a no-go.
Once across, the trail is especially rugged, weaving through and around large boulders alongside dozens of cascades along the creek. A trailside pool offers a great spot to take a break. Keep climbing, and at the top of the steepest part of the creek you’ll find Laurel Falls tumbling off of the cliff above.
6. Fall Creek Falls
Height: 256 feet
Driving Distance to Trailhead: 72 miles
We’re not going to jump into describing the actual route to Fall Creek Falls in great detail. Why not? Well, first, we’ve already written about Fall Creek Falls hiking for the site; second, it’s a state resort park, which means you’re not going to need a compass or an overnight bag to make your way from the parking lot to any of the waterfalls here.
That shouldn’t deter you, though. You may not end up with a tale of epic adventure to tell around the campfire, but you will definitely get to see a 256-foot high falls that moves an incredible amount of water in spring. It’s the highest free-falling waterfall in the eastern U.S., and directly adjacent to it is the only-slightly-shorter (though usually less impressive) Coon Creek Falls at 250 feet tall. Fall Creek Falls Lake ensures a steady, year-round flow for the park’s namesake.
In fact, there are several more waterfalls within the park that would qualify for this list on their own if we weren’t able to lump them together here: Piney Creek Falls (95 feet), Cane Creek Falls (85 feet) and Rockhouse Falls (125 feet). Bring your camera, visit after a big rainfall and you won’t be disappointed.
7. Ozone Falls
Height: 110 feet
Driving Distance to Trailhead: 72 miles
Like Falling Water Falls, Ozone Falls has its own SNA—the Ozone Falls State Natural Area, of course—and it hurtles 110 feet off a sandstone shelf into an imposing gorge. It’s along the Crab Orchard Mountain segment of the Cumberland Trail, with trail access to both the top of the falls as well as the bottom.
The pool below the falls is, predictably, another popular swimming hole. The combination of this waterfall’s height, its landing directly in a pool, and the shape of its natural amphitheater tends to keep the air filled with mist, a wonderful feature on hot summer days.
While the creek which feeds Ozone Falls is named Fall Creek, it is not related to the source for Fall Creek Falls, some distance away.
This waterfall is the furthest from downtown Chattanooga of those on this list, but its proximity to I-40 makes it very easy to access as a day trip. Despite this, it’s actually one of the lesser-known falls in the region taller than 100 feet.
8. Foster Falls
Height: 60 feet
Driving Distance to Trailhead: 36 miles
Okay, everyone has heard of Foster Falls. This is partly because it’s a major sport climbing destination in the Southeast (with nearly 200 sport climbing routes), partly because of its location along the deservedly-popular Fiery Gizzard Trail, and partly because it’s simply one of the best waterfalls near Chattanooga.
If you haven’t been to this one yet, make it a priority. The Foster Falls Small Wild Area includes seasonal camping, and trail access to the bottom of the falls as well as to multiple overlooks. The entire area below the falls is beautiful, and a short hike combining the climber’s loop at creekside with the Fiery Gizzard Trail atop the cliffs is a great way to work up a sweat before taking a dip in the pool below the waterfall.
The waterfall itself is one of the very best, hence its place as one of the iconic outdoor destinations within striking distance of Chattanooga. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and others on this list may be prettier, but the setting here is unmatched. Of course, this also means it’s a popular spot, so expect a crowd. At least there’s no fee to park!
9. Hemlock Falls / Cherokee Falls
Height: 90 feet / 60 feet
Driving Distance to Trailhead: 28 miles
Never heard of these? Yeah, neither had we, but they’re the official names for the two excellent waterfalls along Daniel Creek at Cloudland Canyon State Park. It’s only a short hike to access both of them from the main parking lot at the lip of the gorge, but it’s a truly steep one—like, six-hundred-stairs steep.
That said, these waterfalls are both absolutely worth the stairs, and the Sitton’s Gulch Trail starting at the bridge over Daniel’s Creek is equally spectacular as it follows the water down the canyon. Cloudland Canyon is just a few minutes down the road from the Lula Lake Land Trust core property, so it’s easy to visit each in a single day, and it’s possible to hike from one to the other along the Cloudland Canyon Connector Trail.
Cherokee Falls, the shorter of the two, is especially picturesque, with a lovely grove of trees at the edge of its plunge pool. The spur trail to the monstrous Hemlock Falls ends at an observation platform, which offers a great view but no actual access to the base of the waterfall. It’s instantly recognizable for the massive boulder perched directly between the platform and the falls itself.
Since this one is a state park, there’s a $5 fee to park and hike to the waterfalls.
10. Rainbow Falls
Height: 60 feet
Driving Distance to Trailhead: 9 miles
So, this one is a little tricky. Where do we start? Rainbow Falls is beautiful, and it’s the closest waterfall on this list to downtown Chattanooga. It’s a no-brainer, and we would be remiss to leave it off.
Except… don’t go. Seriously. Don’t go to Rainbow Falls. Please.
Why? Well, for one, it’s not really allowed. There are signs on the Cumberland Trail which state that pretty clearly from above the slope. That’s trespassing, and we don’t encourage trespassing. It’s also super dangerous to try to access the falls, which has nothing resembling an actual trail down the slick, precarious slope from above. There has been more than one rescue (and one fatality) from this area in the last couple of years.
But the most important reason is that it’s become a conservation issue. The rogue “social trail” down from the CT is eroded badly. It gets worse with every rainfall, and there’s no shortage of rain in Chattanooga. Frankly, it’s a mess, and it’s one RootsRated admittedly helped create. We’re looking into long-term solutions here, but in the meantime we’ve removed our directions to the falls and are strongly discouraging visitation. Just don’t go.
Special thanks for Alan Cressler to granting permission for the use of his photos.
Rock/Creek’s official rules to prevent “up a creek” syndrome:
- Make sure to bring an insulated jacket. In case you are caught in cooler weather than expected. You should always bring a rain jacket regardless of the weather because it can also be used as a wind breaker. Avoid cotton layers and invest in quick drying fabrics like nylon, polyester, or merino (our favorite.)
- Waterproof shoes are a good idea during winter months. Wool socks are the standard selection for hiking footwear. Cotton is not acceptable!
- During winter months, there’s a high probability that snow or ice in the higher elevations has melted and re-frozen, so be sure to take Yaktrax with you regardless of the weather in town.
- We rarely enter the woods without extendable hiking poles. They are a safety measure when navigating difficult terrain. They also save your knees on the downhill portions of trail.
- You deserve a good meal! Treat yourself to something tasty and take a small backpacking stove and pot to make something warm for lunch. This will ensure that you take a second to really sit and enjoy the scenery.
- If you are going to be hiking past water sources, there is no need to carry a gallon of water. Instead, carry a water filter and refill. Never drink unfiltered/untreated water!
- Invest in a reliable headlamp that never leaves your pack. Make sure the batteries are good! You’ll eventually be glad you did.
- Pack a first aid kit capable of dressing a wide variety of wounds. Make sure you are able to treat blisters.
- Leave a note telling where you are going, which trails you will be hiking, which trail head you have parked at, who you are with, and when you expect to be back.
- No matter how many times you have been on a trail, it’s a great idea to carry a map in case of emergency.
- Take your phone and either turn it off or put it on airplane mode to conserve battery life. Put your phone in a zip lock bag or a waterproof container. If you really want to get fancy, invest in a Spot.
For more info and suggestions from the guys who have made all of these mistakes and more, visit any Rock/Creek location or call customer service to chat with one of our local gear experts.