Ultimate Guide to Family-Friendly Waterfall Hikes in Northeast Tennessee
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In the spring of 2016, I wrote about slowing down and appreciating the journey. In the blink of an eye, it's four years later, and we've been collectively forced to slow down. The last several months have been frustrating, disconcerting, and downright heartwrenching. My family continues to seek solace and comfort in the great outdoors. From the tiniest wildflowers, perfect in their exquisite detail, to breathtaking vistas, stretching beyond our view, Mother Nature reveals her timeless beauty and infinite wisdom to us. After rewarding days spent hiking in the mountains, we feel refreshed and revived, humbled and grateful to live so close to open spaces and secluded forests.
Northeast Tennessee Waterfall Guide
Northeast Tennessee has more than its fair share of babbling brooks and mountain streams that flow into spectacular waterfalls of all shapes and sizes. From challenging treks to easy hikes, there's a trail for everyone. We hiked every weekend in May, visiting tried-and-trued favorites and discovering new-to-us falls.
Pro Tip: Many of these waterfalls are low flow and slow to a trickle in summer. Plan your visit after rainfall for more volume.
Horse Creek Recreation Area
Known for its diverse wildflowers and numerous waterfalls, the Bald Mountain region of the Cherokee National Forest holds a treasure trove of family-friendly trails. Nestled in a hardwood cove, Horse Creek Recreation Area boasts two waterfall hikes.
Squibb Creek Falls
Distance: 4.5 miles round-trip
Get your feet wet on this out-and-back hike with plentiful creek crossings. From the parking lot, follow the forest road for 0.2 miles. Take a left and cross the wooden bridge to enter the Sampson Mountain Wilderness. Over the next half mile, cross two more bridges before taking a sharp right over Squibb Creek (you've gone too far if you see the Turkey Pen Cove Trail sign). From this point, all crossings involve rock-hopping. Continue following Squibb Creek upstream until you reach the 25-foot falls.
Pete's Branch Falls
Distance: 3.8 miles round-trip
Type: Out-and-back on forest road and trail
From the Horse Creek parking lot, follow Forest Road 94 a little over a mile, crossing the creek several times. Be prepared to get your feet wet.
A large, brown sign marks the right turn to multiple trails, including Pete's Branch. Continue past a primitive camping site and parking area. Immediately after the next stream crossing, Pete's Branch Trail splits left. Continue following the trail uphill to the beautiful 45-foot falls.
From Johnson City, take Hwy 67/W Cherokee Rd to TN 81. Turn right onto 107 S for 13 miles. Turn left onto Horse Creek Road and follow the signs approximately two miles to recreation area.
Three waterfalls are easily accessible from Clark Creek Road (NFSR 25), another gorgeous cove in the Bald Mountain region. We combined the short hike to Sill Branch Falls with an out-and-back on the Longarm Branch Trail, plus a side trip to Pine Ridge Falls, for 6 miles total. If you want to make a day of Clark Creek, like we did, check out this comprehensive trail report.
Sill Branch Falls
Distance: 1-mile round-trip
The trail head to Sill Branch Falls is located approximately 1.7 miles after crossing the first bridge into the Clark Creek area. Arrive early to claim a spot in the small parking lot, and knock out this waterfall before the crowds arrive. Follow the trail uphill and look for the variety of wildflowers lining the path. At the split, stay left and climb a short, steep section to the base of the 40-foot falls.
Pine Ridge Falls
Distance: 1 mile round-trip
After returning to the road, turn left and walk about a quarter mile to the trail head for the Longarm Branch Trail. After the first stream crossing, the trail forks. The left branch makes a short climb before opening into a cove featuring Pine Ridge Falls.
From Johnson City, take Hwy 67/W Cherokee Rd to TN 81. Turn right onto 107 S for 4.9 miles. Turn left onto Horse Creek Road.
Distance: 3-3.5 miles round-trip
Another scenic valley in the Bald Mountain region, West Dry Fork features the popular Margarette Falls and the lesser-known, less accessible Bailey Falls. Only a few miles from Greeneville, TN, this trail gets crowded; arrive early or on weekday to have the falls to yourself.
From the parking lot, start with an easy walk on a closed Forest Service road. After 0.5 miles, reach the end of the road at a signed trail junction; take the trail to the right. In about 100 feet, the trail forks. Stay left on the Margarette Falls Trail. The trail is steep and rocky in sections, but it's less than a mile to the falls.
If you're up for an adventure, leave the crowds behind, and continue upstream and off-trail to Bailey Falls. We had no trouble with this creek walk and had the falls to ourselves. Check out this detailed trail report for directions past Margarette Falls.
From Johnson City, take US 11E for 23.2 miles. Turn left onto TN-107/Tusculum Bypass for 2.7 miles. Turn right onto TN-351 S for 2.2 miles. Turn left onto John Bird Road, then right onto Sentelle Road for 2.3 miles. Turn left onto Greystone Road, and follow to Shelton Mission Road.
Lower Higgins Creek Falls
Distance: Varies; 2 miles round-trip to falls
Located on the northern edge of Rocky Fork State Park, it's a short 1-mile hike up an old logging road to the 100-foot Lower Higgins Creek Falls. A steep side trail takes you to the base of this sublime waterfall.
Continue past the falls for a beautiful streamside hike featuring rock hopping, cascades, abundant wildflowers, and a rusted-out logging truck.
From Johnson City, take I-26 E to Temple Hill exit #43. Turn right onto old Asheville Highway (19/23). After 0.75 miles, turn right onto Lower Higgins Creek Road. Follow to dead end and parking area. If the road is washed out, park along the road, on park property.
Dennis Cove Recreation Area
The Appalachian Trail passes through this secluded recreation area alongside Laurel Fork Creek in Carter County. Dennis Cove provides easy access to the popular Laurel Fork Falls, but the lesser-known Coon Den Falls is worth the trip, too. Combine both trails for a longer lollipop hike.
Laurel Fork Falls
Distance: 2.6 miles round-trip from Dennis Cove; 5.5 miles round-trip from Hampton Blueline Trail
Its immense size (40 feet high by 50 feet wide), deep swimming hole and picturesque setting make Laurel Fork Falls a popular destination, especially in summer.
From Dennis Cove, follow the Appalachian Trail until it intersects with a steep trail descending to the falls. From Hampton, take the blue blazed trail until it intersects with the Appalachian Trail.
Coon Den Falls
Distance: Varies; 4.2 miles (loop)
Type: Out-and-back or loop
On Dennis Cove Road, continue a mile past the parking lot at the Appalachian Trail crossing (and the upper route to Laurel Fork Falls). Pass the original trail head to Coon Den Falls and continue to the second (new) trail head. Look for the small parking area on the left side of the road, directly across from the blue blazed trail sign.
From the trail head, it's a short out-and-back trip to the falls. For a longer loop hike, walk 1 mile back up the road to the AT trail junction. Hiking this direction gets the roadwalk out of the way first. Turn left and head southbound on the AT, hiking uphill through an old farm pasture and into the forest. On the ascent, the trees open at rocky outcroppings for views of the surrounding mountains.
At 2.6 miles, turn left and head down the Coon Den Falls trail. Sections of the descent are steep and rocky, so tread carefully. After approximately 0.75 miles, turn right on the spur trail to the falls.
After admiring the falls, retrace your steps on the spur trail and continue descending the blue blaze trail. When the trail splits, stay to the right to finish at the parking lot.
From Johnson City, take I-26 E to exit 24. Merge onto TN-67 E/US-321 N toward Elizabethton. To bypass Elizabethton, turn right onto TN-362 S and follow to end at US 19. Turn left onto US 19. In Hampton, turn right onto US 321 S and then right onto Dennis Cove Road.
Rock Creek Falls
Distance: 4-5 miles, depending on starting point
Just outside Erwin, TN in the Rock Creek Recreation Area, this hike is a family favorite any time of year. Daily use fee is $2.
When the campground is open, park at the small lot next to the camping pay station. Just past the building, take the gravel access trail on the left side of the road. After 0.5 miles of easy walking creekside, you'll reach the trail head to Rock Creek Falls. From here, the trail begins with a gradual ascent and quickly enters the Unaka Mountain Wilderness.
After the first creek crossing (of four total), the trail begins its climb in earnest. After the fourth and final crossing, climb the steepest section of the trail. Definitely worth the scramble, keep an eye out for the steep side trail to the Lower Falls.
From the lower falls, it's another 5-10 minute climb to the end of the trail and the two-tiered, 50-foot Rock Creek Falls. Make quick work of the descent, or meander slowly, stopping to admire smaller cascades, natural rock slides, and swimming holes along the way. For a faster return, cut through the campground and follow the road back to the parking lot.
From Johnson City, take I-26 E to exit 36. Turn left and then right onto TN 107. Turn left onto Rock Creek Road/TN-395. Follow 4 miles and turn left into Rock Creek Recreation Area and Campground.
What to Wear
Waterfall hikes are great for children, young and old, because there's nothing more refreshing than dipping yourself - head to toe - in an icy mountain stream on a hot summer day. Dress in quick-dry materials to stay cool and comfortable all day long.
- Lightweight shorts like the Freeflex Short dry quickly.
- Loose, organic cotton tops and tanks like the W's Acacia Tank and M's KUL Tee absorb sweat for quick evaporation.
- For open, exposed hikes, consider a lightweight long-sleeved shirt with sun protection like the AIRKÜHL Hoody.
- Trucker hat protects face from harmful UV rays; mesh back provides cooling ventilation.
- Water shoes, like Chaco or Keen Sandals, are perfect for rock hopping and creek wading. For longer, rougher hikes, I love the Nike Pegasus Trail running shoe. It drains well and dries quickly.
What to Pack for Day Hike
- Comfortable day pack
- Plenty of water
- Lots of snacks. These homemade oatmeal bites are delicious and filling.
- First aid kit, including Benadryl for bee stings
- Knife or multi-tool
- Bug spray
- Hand sanitizer or hand wipes
- Trail map (download to your phone before leaving cell service)
Nicole's idea of a perfect vacation involves hiking, trail running, SUP and secluded beaches with her husband and two daughters. She writes about travel, raising KÜHL kids and her obsession with outdoor apparel for KÜHL.