By Mike Steely
If you’ve never been to Rock Island State Park, you’ve missed a very different park that has just about everything you’d expect plus some very special sites.
Rock Island is located between Cookeville and McMinnville in the mountains along the Caney Fork and Collins Rivers. It’s best reached west of Knoxville off I-40 at Highway 111 in Cookeville to Rock Creek Rock Island Road. Many other state parks are in that region including Burgess Falls, Cummins Falls, Virgin Falls, Fall Creek Falls and Old Stone Fort. But none of those parks has what Rock Island has.
The park is located on both sides of the Caney Fork River and on the north side of the river is the Twin Falls, a series of waterfalls coming not from the top of the bluff but from caves on the face of the sheer bluff. Other falls are nearby but that cascade is unbelievable. It’s difficult to find access to those falls and you have to leave the park and go back to Rock Island Road, then take Power House Road for a long drive to two parking areas. From there you descend stairs to the riverside walk, and then walk down for the best view of the unusual falls.
Years ago my wife and I visited the park and drove to the falls. Now you can’t drive all the way to the falls but end up in a parking lot across from the power station and have to take the stairs and walk the riverside. It’s not accessible to wheelchairs and not easy for elderly visitors.
The park’s first impression for most people is at the main entrance where you’ll see the historic cotton mill building and, across the road, is the castle, or Spring House, that once provided water for the industrial works and resort there. The spring house has the appearance of a castle and may be the second most popular photo snapshot place, aside from the falls, in the park.
There are also several overlooks and other very good places to snap a photo. The little town of Rock Island has a market, post office, a few cafes, and a general store.
Inside the main area of the park are several picnic shelters and tables scattered here and there, a park office and gift shop, cabins, camping sites for 50 RVs plus a tent area, and lots of walking trails. Many trails are posted as difficult. Fishing is permitted there year-round.
If you’re thinking about camping or renting a cabin you may want to plan well ahead and contact the park at (931) 686-2471. You can also find the park online.
On the far end of the park is a large beach area where swimming is allowed. Near the entrance to the park is the Great Falls Dam and TVA hydroelectric plant.
Rock Island State Park has 883 acres and offers planned programs during the summer including canoe floats, wildflower hikes, history tours, talks by park rangers, live animal presentations and much more.
The park is just 15 miles southwest of Sparta and that small town is an interesting place to visit and a worthwhile stop off place for park visitors to eat or stock up on supplies. Sparta has many historic homes and is the burial place of Confederate militia raider Champ Ferguson.
Rock Island is about 90 minutes from Knoxville via I-40 and there’s lots to see on the way like Monterey’s historic Standing Stone, Ozone Falls, the huge flea market in Crossville, and the odd places in Cookeville including the large elephant statue and a bicycle arch at the Depot Park there.
Get out of the house, grab your masks, and take the family on an outing. It gives the week a destination day and keeps you safe as well.