Story × Photos by Ryan Johnson
360 Magazine visited the Upper Cumberland Area of Tennessee this October. Just in time to catch the transformation of the leaves into fall colors. This region of Tennessee is located between Nashville and Knoxville, 1 hour drive each way. The flagship towns in the area, Crossville and Cookeville, not only capture beauty of small towns on the fringe of picturesque landscapes, they provide access to a multitude of incorporated businesses. The combination of affordable shopping with the low cost of living and no state tax make this a hidden gem prime to visit for the traveler interested in an authentic experience, maybe more. If this isn’t explicit enough, it’s the only place I’ve been in the states I’m seriously considering moving to. That realization stuck in three days.
We spent most of our time in the state parks. Natural beauty wasn’t the only consistent theme. Each park was fitted with Jackson Kayaks, a local company that not only leads the sport but also the industry. The kayaks provided to the parks were offered at a massive discount to ensure everyone visiting would have the opportunity to try it themselves. A philosophy that says everything about the community and values of Jackson Kayak. This company created by Eric Jackson, a lead competitor in the sport, started the company with a kayak for his son. A product which at the time did not exist for someone that young, giving all kids the change to try it out.
In true pay it forward style, this collective effort in the community is full circle. One direct example being the contribution of outdated signs and details from the state parks to furnish a local brewery, Happy Trails Brewing Company. This brewery, headed by Jessica, a working Kindergarten Teacher in the community. Similar to all good breweries is a product of its surroundings. Another notable taste is Red Silo, a brewery that started as the winner of the home brew contest at the local WCTE PBS Station Blues & Brew fundraiser. Calf Killer is another local legend that brings a taste that will make your taste buds melt. These obvious must tries are only half the adventure, you could spend the day with the home brewers and be the judge yourself.
It’s easy to follow the well-traveled highways in between Nashville and Knoxville. You won’t regret taking an exit and heading to the green on the map. The state parks are vastly accessible, overlooks and access is a high priority brought forth by the pioneering effort of the CCC. The Civilian Conservation Corps healing gesture was an organized effort by the Roosevelt Administration in the wake of the great depression. If this doesn’t paint the picture, don’t worry. There’s a set of tourist binoculars that give people who are colorblind the ability to see colors for the first time, which in the fall will bring a loved one to their knees.
While most of the sites are accessible to all, there’s another layer for the more adventurous. Fairly strenuous hikes to the base of the many waterfalls are always buried beyond the overlooks. Some that were only made accessible by Disney in the production of the 1994 film “The Jungle Book” which created roads to some surreal and recognizable locations in the film. Justifiably integral to the jungle aesthetics the film demanded. Likewise, Tennessee is the one of two places in the world that offer the spectacle of synchronous fireflies. The other being in Southeast Asia.
With solid views and tasty beer, naturally comes great food. The care and attention restaurant owners put into their work makes the meals feel family style without the crockpot. Notably the buffet at Homestead Harvest in Cumberland Mountain State Park carries as much depth as the hike on Pioneer Trail around Byrd Lake. If you really feel like earning your meal, rent a Jackson Kayak to enjoy the cool breeze off the water. Whether you’re camping or staying in the luxury cabins at the top of the hill, wake early and catch the fog on the lake first thing in the morning.
Great things are made in Tennessee, you could be too.
As always, reach out on Instagram @360travelfood to see the best spots. Here’s a listed on vetted local flavors and experiences:
• Jackson Kayak, founded in 2003 based in Sparta, TN (jacksonkayak.com)
• Cumberland Mountain State Park, Crossville, TN (tnstateparks.com)
• Broast, TN Coffee Roasters, Cookeville, TN (broasttn.com)
• Blues & Brews Craft Beer Festival, Cookeville, TN (wcte.org/brews)
• Sunset Marina & Resort, Monroe, TN (sunsetmarina.com)
• Rock Island State Park, Rock Island, TN (tnstateparks.com/parks/rock-island)
• Fall Creek Falls State Park, Spencer, TN (tnstateparks.com/parks/fall-creek-falls)
• Ozone Falls State Park, Crossville, TN (tnvacation.com/local/crossville-ozone-falls)
• Black Mountain Overlook, Crossville, TN (cumberlandtrail.org)
• Homestead Harvest Restaurant, Crossville, TN (tnstateparks.com/parks/restaurant)
• Happy Trails Brewing Co., Sparta, TN (happytrailsbrewing.com)
• Red Silo Brewing LLC, Cookeville, TN (tnvacation.com/local)
• Calfkiller Brewing Company, Sparta, TN (calfkillerbeer.com)
• CrossFit Mayhem, Cookeville, TN (crossfitmayhem.com)
• Cumberland County Playhouse, Crossville, TN (ccplayhouse.com)