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FALL CREEK FALLS STATE PARK
Fall Creek Falls State Park, Tennessee’s second-largest and most visited
state park, sits atop the Cumberland Plateau off TN 30 between Pikeville
and Spencer. The park includes 26,000 acres of the Cane Creek watershed, with many steep and narrow gorges. Cane Creek drains the western Cumberland Plateau between its headwaters on Little Mountain, near
Sequatchie Valley, to its confluence with the Caney Fork River on the
eastern Highland Rim.
To access Fall Creek Falls State Park from Pikeville, take TN 30 west for
15 miles toward Spencer. Ordovician-age Stones River Group underlies
the road for about 0.5 mile west of the turnoff. The Mississippian-age Pen-nington Formation forms the hills north of the highway and west of the
turnoff for TN 402, at the base of the plateau. Sandstone, siltstone, shale,
and coal belonging to the Pennsylvanian-age Gizzard Group crop out
along the road as it climbs the hill. Near the top, thick-bedded sandstones
of the Sewanee Conglomerate form cliffs. The unit, which is well exposed
at Shoemate Gap, dips 45 degrees westward along the western limb of the
Sequatchie Valley anticline. The steep dip flattens very quickly so that strata
nearly lie flat on top of the Cumberland Plateau.
Pennsylvanian-age shale and sandstone of the Vandever Formation of
the Crab Orchard Mountains Group underlie the highway between Shoemate Gap and Fall Creek Falls State Park. Rockcastle Conglomerate forms
higher areas, while Newton Sandstone underlies major drainages. In many
larger drainages, including at the bottom of Cane Creek Gorge west of the
park, erosion has cut down to Mississippian-age limestone. Where this is
the case, streams disappear into caves that developed in the soluble limestone along stream bottoms. Many of these streams reemerge along the
western base of the plateau as springs.
Cane Creek Gorge, with its many tributaries, waterfalls, rapids, and
grottoes, is the focus of the park. Cane Creek gradually incised the Cumberland Plateau, beginning about 200 million years ago, through headward
erosion. The stream moved farther upstream over time as it naturally eroded
in the direction opposite its flow. Headward erosion lengthens and widens
a stream valley to include more drainage area, as the stream captures neighboring watersheds. Cane Creek erodes the shales and soluble carbonates
that underlie the plateau’s resistant caprock. This erosion undermines the
caprock, which then breaks and falls off.
Fall Creek, a Cane Creek tributary, falls 256 feet over the resistant
Sewanee Conglomerate and Warren Point Sandstone at Fall Creek Falls.
Falling water excavates the amphitheater at the contact between the Warren Point Sandstone and the underlying shales of the Raccoon Mountain
Formation. Rocks surrounding the falls are highly susceptible to physical
weathering processes. Water vapor easily penetrates the porous rocks, and
they then expand and contract with the temperature changes, particularly
during winter freeze-thaw cycles. This expansion and contraction widens
joints in the rocks over time, and eventually rocks break off. This physical
process is also part of the stream’s headward erosion. Look for the large
blocks that litter the bottom of the gorge, evidence of headward erosion
in progress; the amphitheater itself will migrate upstream over time. The
Base of the Falls Trail provides a close look at the Sewanee Conglomerate
and Warren Point Sandstone, as well as a view of the falls from the bottom.
There is also an overlook of the falls not far from the parking area.
Three of the six large waterfalls
at Fall Creek Falls State Park
are plunge-type waterfalls. They
spill over a cliff of resistant rock
into a plunge pool surrounded
by an amphitheater carved
from more easily
Fall Creek Falls, the centerpiece of Fall Creek Falls State Park, is the highest plunge-type
waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains at 256 feet high.Fall Creek Falls (left) and Coon Creek
Falls (right) cascade over Pennsylvanian-age Sewanee Conglomerate and Warren Point Sandstone. The amphitheater at the base of the falls occurs at the contact with shales of the underlying
Raccoon Mountain Formation. (35.665830N, 85.355830W) —Chuck Sutherland photo
Roadside Geology of
400 pages • 6 x 9 • color
$26.00, paper • Item #203