Rock Island State Park is set in the Cumberland Plateau area of central Tennessee. Just north of McMinnville, off of State Highway 70, Rock Island's 883 acres of park lay above the headwaters of Center Hill Lake at the confluence of the Caney Fork, Collins and Rock Rivers. Below the Great Falls Dam is the beautiful Caney Fork Gorge, which contains scenic overlooks, waterfalls, deep pools and limestone paths perfect for hiking, swimming, fishing, kayaking and exploring. The park's whitewater sections attract professional freestyle kayakers from around the world. With some of the finest Tennessee State Park cabins available, all 10 are open year-round, with three- and two-bathroom cabins. They're located a half-mile from a natural sand beach along the Caney Fork River. There's boating access on Center Hill Lake. The park also has two campgrounds offering 60 different campsites that can accommodate RVs, trailers and tents.
The weather in this part of Tennessee is just like the rest of the southeastern United States, with four distinct seasons. Autumn is the ideal time to be there. The temperatures are fantastic, and when the leaves start changing, you get a splash of color that enhances your photography immensely. The winter can be cold, but rarely is it extreme. The area receives snowfall a few times a year, with occasional multi-inch accumulations. Spring is a great time to visit the park to enjoy wildflowers and other flora that bloom during this time of year. Summers are hot and humid, but the waterfalls flow year-round, so it's definitely worth visiting if that's the only time you can get there.
There's a ruggedness to the Caney Fork Gorge that's terrific to shoot. Great Falls is a 30-foot, horseshoe-shaped waterfall that's beautiful for photography, as are the many smaller falls and cascades in the gorge. The crown jewel of the park is Twin Falls, however. The waterfall is fed from the runoff of the reservoir that feeds a power plant below the dam. The falls are around 100 feet tall, and the roar makes a waterfall photographer's heart skip a beat. Twin Falls comes directly out of the side of the mountain through channels carved by the builders of the dam years ago. A tripod is a must if you want to shoot long exposures of moving water, as are neutral-density and polarizing filters.
The pleasant temperatures, bright colors and regular fog in the river basin create a surreal experience in autumn, my favorite time of year to visit Rock Island State Park. Twin Falls flows year-round, so anytime is a good time to visit the park, but fall is the ideal mixture of color, atmosphere and temperature. Spring is also a beautiful time to visit to see everything coming back to life. If you visit to photograph the waterfalls, shooting in the early morning, late afternoon or on overcast days is ideal.
Contact: Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, www.tnstateparks.com/parks/about/rock-island.