Burgess Falls State Park in Tennessee is notorious for its four prestigious waterfalls, which can each be viewed alongside the park’s short hiking trail.
While its 20-foot cascades, 30-foot upper falls, 80-foot middle falls, and its crown jewel 136-foot lower falls all make a pretty great backdrop for a 1.5-mile trail, did you know that you can launch a kayak and paddle to the base of the tallest, Burgess Falls?
The paddle to Burgess Falls is one for the books. If you’re ready for an unbelievable paddling adventure to the base of one of the tallest and most spectacular falls in Tennessee, this guide is for you.
In this complete guide to paddling to Burgess Falls, I will share with you everything you need to know to prepare for and execute your adventure, including what to bring, where to launch, what to expect on the paddling journey, the experience at the falls, when to visit, exactly what water levels mean, and how to have the safest and most enjoyable paddle possible.
Complete Guide to Paddling to Burgess Falls
Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. If you click on the links, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. As always, all opinions are my own. Thanks so much for your support!
What to Bring
- Paddleboard or kayak with paddles
- Electric pump (if your paddleboard or kayak is inflatable)
- Life jacket
- Dry bag or waterproof backpack
- Plenty of water and snacks
- Sturdy shoes. Water shoes with traction are ideal for a paddling/hiking combo.
- Bathing suit
- Sunhat, sunscreen, and sunglasses
- The 10 Essentials
Where to Launch
There are two main ways to access Burgess Falls:
- Cane Hollow Recreation Area
- Cookeville Boat Dock
Cane Hollow Recreation Area: The Shorter Route
Paddlers interested in getting to the falls along the quickest route possible should launch their watercraft at Cane Hollow Recreation Area.
To access the boat ramp, take Cane Hollow Road down until you reach the water. There will be a gravel parking lot, a paved ramp to launch non-motorized and motorized boats, and two portable restrooms.
This route is for you if you:
- Want the quickest paddle
- Want to see Burgess Falls only
- Don’t require a full-service marina
GETTING THERE: Type 36.033169798277406, -85.62118594671249 into your GPS or route to Cane Hollow Recreation Area.
TOTAL PADDLE MILES: 4 miles (2 miles each way)
Cookeville Boat Dock: The Longer Route
Paddlers interested in taking a longer route to the falls, and even adding a bonus waterfall to their adventure, should launch their watercraft at Cookeville Boat Dock.
Located a few minutes from Cookeville and just off I-70, Cookeville Boat Dock is a full-service marina with fuel, slip rentals, boat rentals, a store, a floating restaurant, a service department, and of course, a launch and boat ramp.
This route is for you if you:
- Want a longer paddle
- Want to see Burgess Falls and Fancher Falls
- Desire all the amenities of a full-service marina
GETTING THERE: Route to Cookeville Boat Dock or 13800 Cookeville Boat Dock Road Baxter, TN 38544 on your GPS.
TOTAL PADDLE MILES – not including Fancher Falls detour: 10 miles (5 miles each way)
TOTAL PADDLE MILES – including Fancher Falls detour: about 12 miles (5 miles each way for Burgess, and 1 mile each way for Fancher)
TOTAL PADDLE MILES – Fancher Falls only: 3 miles (1.5 miles each way)
The Paddle to Burgess Falls
From Cane Hollow Recreation Area
From the Cane Hollow Recreation Area launch, you’ll paddle straight ahead and veer to the right once you’ve passed Tibbs Hollow cove. You’ll wind around many bends through the narrow creek.
Follow the curves; don’t take any of the forks that veer to the left; those paths may be blocked with debris anyway.
In the spring and early summer, you’ll be able to paddle right to the base of Burgess Falls.
In the late summer, fall, and winter, you’ll have to beach your kayak or paddle board and hike through the river the remainder of the route to the falls. The reason for this is that the water level will be too low for any kind of boat – even kayaks and paddle boards – to glide over.
If you’re paddling when the water level is lower, you’ll know when to beach your kayak when the rocks protrude from the water’s surface, creating little rapids and sharp obstacles that are impossible to paddle through.
From here, ensure that your boat and gear are pushed up far enough onto the rocky shore; you don’t want a current or rapid to pull the watercraft down the creek while you’re exploring the falls! Tuck your paddles and other loose gear safely in or under your kayak, and take any valuables with you on your hike to the falls.
Depending on where exactly the water level tapers off, you may have to walk up to a half-mile up the creek to the falls.
Ensure that you’re wearing the proper footwear; you’ll need sturdy hiking boots or water shoes with excellent traction. I recommend a shoe like these Merrells!
Your excursion will include a slippery jaunt along the rocky creek and even dips in the water when the shoreline thins. You’ll likely have to battle debris along the way; fallen trees, large boulders, and protruding branches may stand in your way. Watch out for babbling rapids, swift currents, and uneven water levels as you creep closer to the falls; the water can be an unpredictable beast. It is nature after all!
From Cookeville Boat Dock
From the boat launch, you’ll head left down the creek past Mose Hollow. Pretty early on you’ll pass the boat slips and then come to a fork. If you want to see Fancher Falls – what most paddlers who launch from Cookeville Boat Dock choose to do – paddle to the right into the cove.
Fancher Falls, also known as Taylor Creek Falls, is an 80-foot waterfall that will be at the end of this route – about one mile into the cove. A narrower waterfall, Mist Falls, can be spotted beside Fancher.
Once your adventure is complete at Fancher Falls, turn around, head back down the cove, and turn right at the fork to make your way toward Burgess Falls. You’ll paddle for a couple of miles around the twisty creek, past Peter Cave Branch, and eventually, you’ll pass the Cane Hollow ramp on your right.
From here, you’ll follow the route from Cane Hollow Recreation Area to Burgess Falls. Refer to the directions in the above section – From Cane Hollow Recreation Area – for information on that route and how to finish your paddle to Burgess Falls!
The Experience at Burgess Falls
So you’ve made it to the base of Burgess Falls! What you can expect?
What is Burgess Falls?
Burgess Falls is a 136-foot waterfall nestled in Burgess Falls State Park. While any visitor can view the falls from above – along with the three other smaller ones inside the state park – the only base access to Burgess Falls is via paddle. There is no hiking trail or land access.
Its flow volume will vary based on the current weather and recent rain activity. Warmer, sunnier days in the middle of summer might cause the waterfall to produce less of a flow than a spring morning following significant rainfall, which would cause the water to rush in torrents. No matter which season you go, or how little or much it rains, you’ll see a magnificent waterfall year-round!
Go For a Swim
Anyone who paddles to Burgess Falls can choose to swim at the base of the falls and even climb the slippery rocks tucked behind the waterfall. Get the ultimate refreshing shower by standing underneath the rushing curtain and drenching your skin in the endlessly flowing water.
Take caution as the currents underneath the falls can be swift, the weight of the falls can be crushing, and the rocks underneath and behind the falls are extremely slippery. It’s advised to wear a life jacket when swimming, especially when the water level is high.
When to Visit Burgess Falls
In the late spring and summer seasons, when the boats – even motorized – are able to cruise all the way to the falls, you may not be alone. It’s a popular spot for summer parties and lazy afternoons.
Try to begin your paddle early in the morning and go in the late summer, fall, early spring, or winter, and on a weekday. There are tours that depart almost every day, so the earlier you start, the higher the chance you’ll have of getting some alone time with the waterfall.
We launched around 9:30 AM, and there were only a few other vehicles and trailers in the parking lot. Most were fishermen, and two or three of them were drawing their boats out of the water. Other than a tour that showed up as we were launching, we were alone. Since we paddled faster than the tour, we paddled the two miles in silence, and we arrived at the falls before the tour group did, so we got to relish in the solitude for a solid twenty minutes.
Water Levels and Generator Schedules Explained
You should know that access to the falls isn’t always available. While the waterway can be very narrow or low, making it unpassable, it’s important to note the generation releases.
There are many different waterways intertwined and the names can get jumbled and confusing, but the waterfalls are technically part of Center Hill Lake. Since Center Hill Lake is a reservoir constructed with a dam to control flood levels and electricity production, large amounts of water can be discharged at any time.
While there is a pattern and a schedule that paddlers can adhere to, water release schedules can change without notice due to unanticipated water changes or power system requirements. When water is about to discharge in a dam or reservoir, there are typically signs like strobe lights or horns. Understand the dangers, know how to evacuate, and educate yourself on dams, water levels, and generation releases before your trip.
Tips for Paddling to Burgess Falls
Watch Out For Creek Hazards
Debris often lurks just beneath or floating at the surface of the water and could cause damage to the bottom of your paddleboard or kayak. Avoid protruding logs and boulders. Slice across algae with care as the green scum inhibits vision of the surface.
Never Enter the Rocky Rapids on a Kayak or Paddleboard
If the water level is low, pull your kayak onto the shore and hike the rest of the way to the falls. Never attempt to navigate through the low rapids as it could cause damage to the bottom of your kayak.
Bring a Life Jacket
As always, it is required to have a life jacket on board every watercraft, including kayaks and paddle boards. While it’s not necessarily mandatory for paddlers to wear it, it is advised, especially if the water level is high and currents are swift.
Don’t Overestimate Your Physical Ability
If you’ve never kayaked 10+ miles before, don’t attempt to paddle to Burgess Falls from Cookeville Boat Dock. While you can paddle from Cane Hollow for a shorter route, the route can still be strenuous, especially when you’re paddling against the wind and/or the current. Be prepared for a full morning and/or afternoon on the water.
Don’t Forget to Wear Sturdy Shoes
Take caution on the slippery rocks leading to and underneath the falls.
Bring Enough Snacks and Water
The heat, sun, and physical exertion from this paddling adventure warrant a crucial need for plenty of snacks and water. Fuel up on salty snacks, gulp electrolytes, and consume plenty of water.
These are the best-tasting electrolytes, in my opinion!
Pay Attention to the Water Levels and Generator Schedule
Water levels and generation releases can be unpredictable.
Discover Your Next Adventure
Where to next? I’ve got some suggestions! (Spoiler: they all involve waterfalls! 💦)