Rock Island State Park: Jewel of the Highland Rim

Authored By bobbutters

A short distance to the northwest of one of Tennessee’s more popular state parks, Fall Creek Falls, and about halfway between McMinnville and Sparta, is the lesser-known-but-definitely-worth-visiting Rock Island State Park. Located at the site of the Great Falls Dam, which was built in 1916 on the Caney Fork River at its confluence with the Collins River, this 883-acre park opened in 1969.

Approximately 1.75 miles upstream from its mouth, which is just behind the Great Falls Dam, the Collins River bends back to within a quarter-mile of the Caney Fork. Here, two tunnels carry water down to a powerhouse on the bank of the Caney Fork. Just downstream from the powerhouse, Twin Falls, in my opinion the most spectacular falls in Tennessee, emerges from the cliffs and cascades into the Caney Fork River. Ironically, this is a man-made falls that didn’t exist until the Great Falls Dam raised the level of the Collins River, allowing the water to take a shortcut through underground passageways.  

Paddling paradise
A park boat ramp provides access to the upstream end of Center Hill Lake, one of my personal favorites in Tennessee. Last fall, my wife, Kim, and I put in our canoe here and paddled about 2.5 miles downstream and back, a trip I highly recommend. At that time, the water level in Center Hill Lake was a bit lower than normal because of repair work on the dam, and I’m told that’s still the case. For its upstream half, Center Hill Lake is shaped more like a river than a lake as it winds a serpentine course through the limestone bluffs of the Caney Fork Gorge, formed as the river cut its way across the Eastern Highland Rim-which is basically a step between the Cumberland Plateau and the Nashville Basin.

Just west of the main park entrance and on the south side of Highway 287, the short Kings Launch Road will take you to a boat ramp on the Collins River, another excellent paddling location.

An assortment of hiking trails
The park boasts nine official hiking trails, ranging from the half-mile Blue Hole Trail (rocky and strenuous) to the 3-mile Collins River Nature Trail loop. The Downstream Trail, on the north side of the river, is a recommended 1.7-mile hike that follows a bluff line alongside the river and has views of Twin Falls, the Blue Hole and Little Falls. One of my favorites, which I just discovered on my last visit, is the Upstream Trail, also on the north side. I followed it for about half a mile beneath towering overhead bluffs to an area of flat rock and peaceful pools of water very close to Great Falls, but largely hidden from most visitors.

A detailed hiking trail map can be obtained at the visitors center.

Rock hopping adventure
For me, what most epitomizes Rock Island State Park, besides Twin Falls, is the approximately three-quarter-mile stretch of the Caney Fork River between Great Falls Dam and the powerhouse. Here, the river threads its way among boulders and calm pools, over the multiple 30-foot waterfalls from which the dam takes its name, and down through a mini-gorge within the wider riverbed. Accessed via a steep and wet trail from a picnic area and overlook near the historic Great Falls Cotton Mill, this area is a playground of interesting rock and water nooks and crannies for the adventurous rock hopper to explore. 

A word of caution: The park staff stresses to “use extreme caution in the gorge. Water may rise rapidly. Be aware of your surroundings. Leave the gorge immediately if water begins to rise or you hear warning sirens. Watch for slick rocks and swift currents. Do not jump into water of unknown depths. Swimming or wading is not allowed in all areas from the TVA powerhouse downstream to the boat ramp.”

The main campground, with 50 sites accommodating RVs, trailers or tents, is open year-round and has recently undergone extensive renovations. All its sites now include electrical service, new water hydrants, Wi-Fi accessibility and other improvements. In addition, there is a tent-only campground with 10 sites. There are also 10 cabins at the park.

The section of river near the powerhouse attracts professional freestyle kayakers from around the world. The location is popular for playboating, a type of kayaking where the paddler performs technical moves in one place, rather than traveling downstream as in traditional whitewater kayaking. A Rock Island resident, Eric Jackson, manufactures his own line of kayaks in nearby Sparta.

Wildlife viewing
Ospreys, kingfishers, black-crowned night herons and great blue herons are some of the species seen there. A significant numbers of vultures tend to hang out along the river between the boat ramp and the powerhouse. I’m not sure exactly what draws them there, perhaps good nesting sites. On my visit last fall, I spotted river otters on two occasions, once in the pool below Great Falls and again just upstream from the boat ramp. 

For considerably more information, including maps, directions, etc., visit the park’s website here.  

Bob Butters explores nature and the outdoors, primarily in and near the South Cumberland region, and publishes the blog