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Responsible Recreation in Our Cumberland River Basin

February 16, 2022

By Erin O’Farrell

What is the Cumberland River Basin?

The Cumberland River Basin is a drainage area made up of 14 sub-watersheds that span over 18,000 square miles of Tennessee and Kentucky. 

Our basin is considered to be among the most biodiverse regions in the world! The Cumberland River basin boasts diverse geography, wildlife, culture, and history and offers a wide range of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Roaring rivers, limestone caves, breathtaking waterfalls, and rolling terrain make for ample places to hike, paddle, cave, fish, climb, and partake in other activities.

Public lands throughout Tennessee and Kentucky help conserve natural resources and make exploring these sites an accessible and rewarding experience. Tennessee is home to 56 state parks that offer free admittance to visitors and have received accolades and awards for their exceptional management and outreach efforts.

Kayakers at Big South Fork National River and Recreational Area.                Photo: Jeff Moore

The Cumberland River Basin is home to more than 2 million people, with vibrant communities that have deep connections to the area. The basin region has some of the best food and artisan goods in Tennessee and Kentucky, along with deep, complex histories tied to the land and the people who have occupied it. 

Introducing the Cumberland River Basin Field Guide!

Click here to explore the Field Guide!

Our work at the Cumberland River Compact aims to enhance the health and enjoyment of the Cumberland River and its tributaries. All of these beautiful and unique places throughout the basin rely on clean and abundant water in their streams, rivers, and lakes. That’s why we developed the Cumberland River Basin Field Guide.  

We created the Basin Field Guide to encourage people to explore all that the basin has to offer. We hope that by connecting with these valuable places, you will understand the importance of enhancing and protecting them. The field guide offers many resources to help you explore the basin, including locally curated explorer guides, watershed maps, public lands pages, highlights of local businesses, and more!

We also hope that in your exploration of these unique and wonderful places, you will make connections to the communities within the basin, along with all the incredible resources and experiences they offer.


Why interact with local communities?

Calfkiller Brewery- located in Sparta, TN- as featured in our “White County Views and Brews” explorer guide

Along with recreational opportunities, the Cumberland River Basin is home to some of the best restaurants, breweries, shops, and historical sites in the South. Interacting with local communities throughout the basin will help you gain a deeper understanding of the history, culture, and sense of place of the area you’re visiting. Engaging with local communities while recreating also helps you gain a more well-rounded understanding of the places you’re in, leading to a deeper appreciation of the land and making you a more conscientious traveler.

COVID has had a devastating impact on rural communities throughout the basin. Although the State Parks saw record visitorship during 2020, small businesses in the state, particularly those tied to hospitality and leisure industries, were hardest hit during the first stages of the pandemic. Today, there are 40% fewer small businesses in Tennessee than before COVID. This drop in small business numbers shows why it is important, when you’re out exploring amazing places around the basin region, to pay a visit to the surrounding towns. 

Why is water stewardship important?

Each of the 14 watersheds within the Cumberland River Basin contain a unique set of streams and rivers that all drain into a single, larger body of water. Eventually, the water from all these watersheds drains into the Cumberland River. The connection of all the waterways within the basin means it is imperative to keep this water clean and abundant; one action upstream will impact many downstream.

In a recent poll by The Nature Conservancy, Tennesseans identified the stewardship of our natural areas and access to drinking water as top conservation concerns for the state. When you are out exploring the basin, there are steps you can take to ensure that you are being a good steward of the water and the land throughout the region. Read more below about how to apply good stewardship principles to your outdoor adventures.

Responsible Recreation Tips:

Follow Leave No Trace principles

The Leave No Trace principles are a set of 7 practices, developed by outdoor enthusiasts, that help ensure the sustainability and longterm enjoyment of our natural spaces. The principles focus on actions to take to leave the places you travel the same, or better, than you found them. Following the 7 LNT principles is a good rule of thumb while recreating outdoors- read up on them before your travels!


Avoid heavily-trafficked areas, when possible

The abundance of beautiful sites across the basin region draws in many people who want to partake in recreational activities, especially during the warmer season. This influx of visitors to state parks and popular natural attractions creates a strain on trails and routes, often times creating erosion and contributing to litter and sedimentation in nearby waterways. 

Cummins Falls on a crowded day

If you can, avoid popular sites at their busiest times in order to create less stress on these trail systems and waterways. There are many lesser-known, but beautiful places to explore in the region. Check out our explorer guides and consider planning a trip to a less busy area next time you’re heading out to recreate.

Practice responsible trail use

Follow designated trail routes and stay on the trail, especially in heavily-trafficked areas. Responsible trail use prevents erosion, keeping these trails intact and keeping soil out of our waterways.

Pack out trash and waste

Clean up after yourself and make sure that you take out all trash that you create on your travels to prevent litter and harmful pollutants from entering waterways. And if you see litter that’s not yours – help our parks by picking it up. 

Use the bathroom, camp, cook, and clean dishes far away from water sources

If nature calls during your time outdoors, make sure to use the bathroom away from water sources in order to prevent contamination- 200 ft is a good rule of thumb. If you’re planning for an overnight stay, be sure to cook and clean away from waterways for this same reason.

 Properly filter water before drinking

Photo: Mina Guli

Bring your own clean water to drink if you can during your trip. If you are headed on a longer adventure and anticipate the need to drink from streams and rivers along your route, make sure to properly filter harmful bacteria from your water source. There are many methods to creating safe drinking water, including the use of filtering straws, sterilizing pens, iodine tablets, and boiling methods.

Before you head out on an adventure where you’ll be drinking water from local sources, check out the health of the streams along your route using our iCreek tool. If a waterway is heavily impaired, it is best to avoid drinking from it, even if you have tools for sterilization.


By following Leave No Trace Principles, practicing water and land stewardship, and supporting local businesses, you can ensure that you’re recreating responsibly throughout the basin. Visit our new Basin Field Guide to plan your next adventure, and be sure to keep these tips in mind when you’re out exploring.


Happy exploring!

Erin O’Farrell is the Communications Coordinator at the Cumberland River Compact, where she leads storytelling efforts across the organization’s programs and supports marketing and communications initiatives. Erin has a degree in Environmental Studies from Bates College. Originally from Vermont, Erin lives in Nashville with her partner, Zoe, and their pets, Emmylou and Pepper.  She enjoys spending time outdoors, reading, and exploring the beautiful Cumberland River basin.