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Things to do in Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau

By Andrew Kyle Saucier

Tennessee’s South Cumberland Plateau surprises visitors with its scenic beauty, architecture, food and more.

Cumberland Caverns concert
Live music at The Caverns, Pelham (Credit: Tennessee Tourism)

Running diagonally across Tennessee, just east of Nashville and immediately west of the major Appalachian spine, the Cumberland Plateau is a comparatively shorter range—it rises roughly 1,000 feet (300m) above the surrounding countryside, as opposed to 4,000 to 6,000 feet (1,200 to 1,800m), more common in the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge—but no less beautiful. This plateau range consists of gorges, waterfalls, arches, sandstone outcroppings, natural bridges, and deep-cut valleys, many of which are called gulfs and/or coves and contains much of the eastern United States’ forestland, filled with pines, hickory and oak trees. Crisscrossing the southern portion of this landscape are many preserved natural areas, the most notable of which are part of the South Cumberland State Park system.

Monteagle, perched on the ledge of the Cumberland Plateau, is your gateway to the entire southern plateau region. And amazingly, all of this is located within a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Atlanta, Nashville, Birmingham, Chattanooga and Knoxville.

Mountain Goat Market

The funky artistic renditions of goats participating in various forms of goat merriment that adorn the building’s exterior will be what draws you into the Mountain Goat Market first. But it’s the food that’ll keep you coming back. They’ve got breakfast, an espresso bar, artisanal sandwiches, desserts and even awesome pizzas. And all around the store are eclectic finds of all kinds that you’ll want to bring home. When you roll into Monteagle—your best jump-off point for all the South Cumberland Plateau has to offer—snag your breakfast and coffee here. You’ll be fueled up and ready to kick the exploration into overdrive. 

Sewanee – University of the South

Stepping onto the 13,000-acre (5,200-hectare) grounds of Sewanee really is like a walk through another time and place. This liberal arts college was founded before the Civil War by delegates from 10 dioceses of the Episcopal Church and while it retains a world-renowned School of Theology to this day, it is also well known for the School of Letters where students study creative writing and American literature. The handsome stone architecture (particularly the All Saints’ Chapel) and the Memorial Cross have become iconic photo spots. And conveniently to visitors, the on-campus Sewanee Inn may be the region’s best lodging option.

Jim Oliver’s Smoke House Restaurant

Since 1960, Jim Oliver’s country cooking has attracted locals and visitors alike. Oliver himself passed away in 2007, but the restaurant and lodge he developed and maintained from the ground up has remained in the family. Today, Jim Oliver’s is considerably more than it was when they first opened their doors over 50 years ago. It’s gone from diner to full-on smokehouse, a trading post filled with all sorts of Southern staple treats and gifts, well-appointed lodging for out-of-town guests, and even houses the Louvin Brothers Country Music Museum, which celebrates the lives and careers of the Grand Ole Opry legends and Country Music Hall of Fame member duo.

Dutch Maid Bakery & Cafe

The Dutch Maid Bakery & Cafe has a history as rich as its baked goods. First opened in 1902 by a couple of Swiss immigrants, it is Tennessee’s oldest family-owned bakery. Many of the tools of the baker’s trade—mixers, ovens and the like—are original to the bakery’s early days, a nod to its heritage from the bakery’s new owner. Pastries, breads, eclairs, fritters and all else behind Dutch Maid’s glass counters are each made from scratch, on-site and by hand. And the adjoining cafe’s soup, sandwich and salad offerings make this a perfect refueling stop after a trip hiking or climbing in the South Cumberland State Park.

Foster Falls and Denny Cove

Speaking of South Cumberland State Park—this 30,845-acre (12,480-hectare) site is really nine individual areas of preserved wilderness that constitute one of Tennessee’s greatest and most underutilized natural resources. The notorious Fiery Gizzard Trail is a 13-mile (21km), one-way trail that Backpacker Magazine has listed as one of its favorite hikes in the country. Stone Door is a geological wonder that cannot be properly contended into words and featured in a photograph. And opportunities for rock climbing abound. At Foster Falls and Denny Cove are world-class sports climbing spots that range in grade across nearly 250 routes. These challenging sandstone bluffs attract climbers from all over North America, and for this reason, Tennessee State Parks requires all climbers to obtain a permit, which are available online or by calling the park office itself.

The Caverns

The Caverns, an underground music pavilion created by water over eons, is the new home of “Bluegrass Underground”, a nationally-syndicated PBS television series featuring roots, country, bluegrass and folk artists from all over the world. Even when the series isn’t being filmed, a regular series of concerts are held. Attending a concert at the Caverns is an unforgettable experience, and the perfect way to end your visit to the South Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee. 

Unique structures both natural and man-made, homemade dishes and desserts, history and music are just waiting to be discovered in Tennessee’s South Cumberland Plateau.