For the summer, I’m going to tempt you to discover the wonderful state parks in your home state by talking about our adventures visiting all fifty-six of Tennessee’s state parks. For June, I’ll talk about the East Tennessee parks, in July the Middle Tennessee parks, and in August the West Tennessee state parks. … My husband J.L. and I had such a fabulous time for two years visiting all our state’s parks.
How did we get started with this idea? … In 2013, when the national parks shut down, J.L. and I, as avid hikers in the Smoky Mountains, found ourselves with no familiar Smokies trails to enjoy. Looking for alternatives, we decided to try hiking in some of the nearby state parks. So we started looking for a guidebook, similar to our guide created for trails in the Smokies. We couldn’t find anything. Nada. We scoured the library, bookstores, Internet sites, and more. Of course, the Tennessee state park service had a great website telling about the parks … but we wanted a book we could carry with us. Not finding one, we decided to write one.
We thought about our new idea for a guidebook for a few years, before starting any park visits, because our 2013-2015 season was a very busy one professionally. Our hiking guide THE AFTERNOON HIKER came out in April 2014, my 6th Smoky Mountain novel DOWN BY THE RIVER in June 2014, published by Kensington, and my novella “A Smoky Mountain Gift” published in Kensington’s Christmas anthology WHEN THE SNOW FALLS. In addition to those three books, my 7th novel MAKIN’ MIRACLES debuted in early January 2015 and my 8th book SAVING LAUREL SPRINGS in the fall of 2015. Whew! It was a hectic publishing season! In addition I was still teaching at Tusculum and J.L. was continuing to run his business, getting out his monthly fishing and hunting guide magazines and handling UT sports sales products. Neither of us could scrape out a lot of free time. But in the summer of 2015 we finally started our explorations and from 2015 to 2017 we visited all the parks in the state.
J.L. and I decided to start our visits in the far eastern corner of Tennessee, working our way across state to Tennessee’s western border on the Mississippi River. Before each park visit, we did a lot of research. I looked up information about the upcoming park we planned to explore, printed a park map, read about things to do and see in each park. In addition, I read related website articles and descriptions about the park, its trails, sites, and history so we could know as much as possible for our upcoming visit. J.L. researched the best driving route to each park and studied our maps, the state park website, and other information, as well. For every large state park, we planned a four-page write up and for smaller parks we used a two-page spread. Our goal was to tell readers about the most interesting things we found within each park, along with providing a good general description of what any visitor would find.
The first four parks we visited were Warriors’ Path, Sycamore Shoals, David Crockett Birthplace, and Roan Mountain in the Tri-Cities area in upper east Tennessee. Each were an hour-and-a-half to two hours drive from our home in Knoxville, but by heading out early, we still had the entire day in which to enjoy the park before heading back home. For all the East Tennessee state parks, we made day trips to the park on a pretty day and then drove back home to spend the night in our own bed—with no journey a difficult one.
Warriors’ Path was a beautiful lake park on the Patrick Henry Reservoir on the Holston River. The lake views throughout the park were gorgeous and we ate our first picnic sitting at a picnic table on the hillside above the marina, watching the boats come in and out. We generally took picnics to the parks, so the only cost to us was a little gas and time. The park had ten great hiking trails, a stunning golf course, a riding stable, cabins, campgrounds, a beautiful Olympic swimming pool, and an award-winning children’s park with wonderful play structures including a giant tree house—a favorite of all the children. If there hadn’t been so many children playing in the tree house the day we visited, I’d have climbed up in it myself…. And I loved the interactive walkway around the park with statues from The Chronicles of Narnia.
In contrast Sycamore Shoals in Elizabethton was a historic park, one of many we would find around the state. The visitor center had a museum, an interesting historic film, and spreading over the grounds was a large replica of Fort Watauga to explore. J.L. and I learned a lot of history at this park as well as having a good time … and felt guilty for all the times we’d driven right past the entrance to this park while working sales and deliveries in the area. Traveling to David Crockett Birthplace park another day introduced us to more history of Davy Crockett’s life. This is a replica of Crockett’s family’s cabin above. Later we would visit another park dedicated to Crockett in middle Tennessee and stop by the last home where Davy Crockett lived in west Tennesse before he was killed at the Alamo.
Roan Mountain State Park reminded us of the Smokies with its mountain streams and blue mountain ranges. We really loved this park and enjoyed learning about the Peg Leg Iron Ore Mine and the area’s history. We also enjoyed visiting the old Miller farmstead and cemetery, and hiking many of the nice trails. Roan Mountain is famous for the annual Rhododendron Festival held every summer above the park at Carver’s Gap but we didn’t know all this land and more once belonged to General John Wilder. In 1870, he bought 7000 acres of Roan Mountain land for only $25 an acre. He mined iron ore, farmed, and built a lavish resort on top of the mountain called The Cloudland Hotel which we enjoyed seeing old pictures of. It was incredible to imagine all this vast property once belonged to one man.
After visiting these first four parks we were hooked … and couldn’t wait to get away from our work to visit another park whenever we found a free day with nice weather. Wanting good photos and a fine day to visit, we planned our parks visits carefully, watching the weather reports, and in the winter we disbanded our visits, not wanting park photos with bare branches and little greenery. Our next parks were north of Knoxville—Big Ridge State Park, an old favorite from our childhoods, Norris Dam, Cove Lake, Panther Creek, Indian Mountain, Seven Islands Birding Park, and Frozen Head. Panther Creek proved to be a big surprise for us. We’d expected it to be low along the Cherokee Lake with lots of lake access, but instead it sprawled across high hills and bluffs above the river. Our favorite trail there was The Seven Sinkholes Trail wandering along deep natural sinkholes in the earth, the first time we’d seen geologic structures like these. We ran into more sinkholes at later parks, like at Pickett State Park near Jamestown, in Cedars of Lebanon Park, and in the South Cumberland State Park.
Our last East Tennessee park visits took us south to Fort Loudon near Maryville, to the Hiwassee and Ocoee River Park, famous for whitewater rafting, to Harrison Bay and Booker T. Washington state parks on the Chickamauga Lake above Chattanooga, and to Red Clay State Historic Park. We loved Fort Loudon for its huge fort and scenic beauty on a peninsula in the Tellico Lake and we found Red Clay fascinating, too. It sits on Cherokee sacred ground where the last Cherokee councils were held before the Trail of Tears began. Hiking up The Council of Trees Trail at Red Clay through the woods, J.L. and I turned a corner to suddenly see this huge limestone structure on a hill in the middle of nowhere. This tall castle-like structure, called The Overlook Tower, sits high on a ridge literally in the middle of the forest. No one knew how it came to be there, who built it, or why. Unexpected wonders like this were some of the factors that made exploring every park so much fun.
The last two parks we visited in East Tennessee were actually saved until after we completed visiting all the other state parks as both were still in construction stages. The Justin T. Wilson Cumberland Trail State Park is still under construction today. It’s a linear park angling from the Kentucky/Tennessee border above Harrogate to a point below Chattanooga on Signal Mountain. Somewhat like the more familiar Appalachian Trail, the trail will span over 330 miles through Tennessee with plans to some day link into a north-south trail tentatively called The Eastern Trail. When we finished our book over 95% of the land for the trail had been purchased and about 65% of the trail had been completed. We learned a lot about this projected trail, its history, and all the volunteer groups who had and still are working on it. We visited several sections of the completed trail to sample it, starting at the head of the trail at Cumberland Gap. There we hiked up past the Iron Furnace to the Tri-State Peak Pavilion where the borders of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia meet—an interesting spot with fantastic views. We visited other spots along the trail in middle Tennessee near Cove Lake and near Crossville at 110-foot Ozone Falls.
The final East Tennessee park we visited is one of the newest in the system, added in 2012, Rocky Fork State Park. One of the park rangers, early in our journey, suggested we wait until some of the trails could be improved and the bridges and parking areas repaired before we visited. Like Seven Islands, another new park to the system, this park doesn’t have a formal visitor center yet or restrooms, but it’s a beautiful place for hiking. The 2,037 acres of park land lie in a sweep of wilderness bordered by the Cherokee National Forest. Like Roan Mountain park, the trails feel like those in the Smoky Mountains, climbing along rushing mountain streams with cascades, waterfalls, and wildflowers in the spring. The Rocky Fork Trail is an easy, broad, well-developed trail to follow along the stream passing several falls and leading to a historic site.
Finishing the eighteen parks in East Tennessee, we were eager to next explore the parks in the middle region of the state – featured next month. We hope you might look for our guidebook DISCOVERING TENNESSEE STATE PARKS to help you to better locate and enjoy all these wonderful parks – still free to visit in Tennessee.
Happy adventuring!… See you next month with more park discussions.