August 2018 – “West TN Parks”

In my June and July blog posts, I talked about my husband J.L.’s and my visits to the wonderful state parks in East and Middle Tennessee, and this month I walk to talk about our travels to the West Tennessee parks. We explored all the 56 state parks in Tennessee over a two-year period to write our state parks guidebook Discovering Tennessee State Parks. If you’ve missed buying it, you can pick a copy up or order it at your favorite bookstore or online at: https://www.amazon.com/Lin-Stepp/e/B0028OJMPA

Many East Tennessee parks snuggled among the hills and mountains common to that area, while Middle Tennessee parks offered a more diverse terrain. The parks in West Tennessee tend to lie on flatter land, tucked in rich forests or along lakes or rivers. With these parks, further from our East Tennessee home, we planned trips of several days at a time. On these travels we stayed mainly at park lodges as we could so we could take late evening walks to enjoy the sights and pleasures around the park grounds even after dinner. Park lodges and cabins offer discounts of several kinds, like senior and military discounts, and anyone can get on an email list from the state park office to receive discounts being offered. We used these at almost every visit to the park inns and lodges.

Our first parks visited were clustered along the Tennessee River, the Kentucky Lake, and the nearby forests and natural areas—Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park, Paris Landing, Big Cypress Tree State Park, and Natchez Trace.  Paris Landing proved to be one of our favorites … a boating, fishing, waterskiing, and swimming paradise on a gorgeous expanse of the Kentucky Lake near Tennessee’s northern border. The marinas and view of the lake here were stunning, and we enjoyed staying overnight at the lodge.

We also stayed overnight at the Pin Oak Lodge at Natchez Trace State Park. This vast park with over one thousand acres was fun to explore. It had three pretty lakes, miles of hiking and equestrian trails, beautiful campgrounds, a diverse variety of cabins, a great swim beach, and a zillion places to picnic and fish. We talked to many visitors who come back to this park year after year to vacation. I enjoyed learning, too, about the interesting history of Natchez Trace which helped to explain all the kudzu we saw—often encroaching over the hiking trails we wanted to try and nearly covering many trees.

The kudzu invasion was nothing, though, compared to the insect invasion at Pinson Mounds State Park. It is a historic, archeological site in Madison County below Jackson, but the park spreads across a low lying, rather swampy area, a haven for wetlands insects. To see this park, you have to walk on paths and raised bridges through the grounds and cypress swamp areas. Shortly into our walk, the mosquitoes and swarms of large black dragonflies found and attacked us. Youch! We spent a lot of time swatting mosquitoes, running from the dragonflies, and regretting we had not taken a bath in insect spray before setting out! So be sure to douse yourself in repellent when you visit! This park is interesting historically, and you will see Indian mounds and barrows in the 400 acres of the archeological complex. Also, the park visitor center and museum building [below], was built to look like a giant mound and  is filled with great  artifacts and exhibits.

One thing we learned about state parks, especially in West Tennessee, is that many of the visitor centers, museums, and restroom areas close long before listed closing hours. Also park maps, even when we took one with us, were often unclear, without street names and signs to help us find our way to different points. However, the West Tennessee parks had their own special interest and charm. … We loved exploring Chickasaw State Park, Big Hill Pond, and Pickwick Landing near the Mississippi border.

Pickwick Landing was our favorite of these with another beautiful lodge, cabins, two campgrounds, and a stunning marina on Pickwick Lake. As a golfer, J.L. liked the fine golf course here, too, and also the golf courses at Montgomery Bell and Paris Landing. We both loved the blue expanse of the lake, meeting us at every turn throughout the park. If you love to fish, boat, and get out on the water, this is the park for you. … In contrast to all the other parks in West Tennessee, Big Hill Pond and Big Cypress Tree Park were both very small parks with few amenities, and the Big Hill Pond showed signs of neglect with most of the trails overgrown and picnic areas poorly maintained. The draw of Big Hill is for those wishing to trek for miles into the park’s rugged, snaky backcountry trails, that wind their way through Dismal and Cypress Swamps. Visitors shouldn’t attempt either if not properly dressed for hiking and a backcountry adventure.

The last leg of our parks’ visits took us to four parks either along or not far from the Mississippi River on Tennessee’s western border—starting with T. O. Fuller near downtown Memphis and following north up the Mississippi to Meeman –Shelby Forest State Park, Fort Pillow, and ending at Reelfoot. If you are visiting historic downtown spots in Memphis like Beal Street and Elvis’s home at Graceland, T.O. Fuller has a beautiful campground to consider and the park is as clean and neat as a pin. Up river Meeman-Shelby spreads over 12,539 acres, an immense park, although not all of it is readily accessible to the public. We enjoyed hiking several of the trails there, finding immense,old growth trees with vast diameters, driving down to the river, learning the history of the area, and exploring around pretty Poplar Tree Lake.

Don’t despair in looking for Fort Pillow State Park. The route to it is a long one from the interstate, taking you back through farmlands and straight through the grounds of a prison—perhaps not a good place to stop and explore! But not far from the prison you will find the little park on a high bluff above the river, and its museum and grounds, with great cannons and rifle pits, are great spots to visit, especially for history buffs.

Reelfoot Lake State Park, which we’d always wanted to visit in the far northwest corner of Tennessee was a perfect place to end our travel journey. We were both fascinated with the history of this park and how an earthquake, causing the earth’s surface to rise and fall, had pushed a rampage of water from the Mississippi River into a now sunken area to create a huge 15,000 acres lake. Even more interesting was how many species of fish had been swept into the new lake, creating a fisherman’s paradise. The old cypress trees below the new lake’s surface didn’t die out like other trees and vegetation, either, so you will see them out in the lake—a fascinating sight.  In many places around the park, as at the visitor center, you can walk out on long boardwalks to see the lake, its submerged trees, and birds, eagles, and wildlife more closely. This park is a fun place to visit … and proved a happy ending to our trip and tour exploring all the 56 parks.

We hope you will get out to visit the many parks in Tennessee—or in your own home state—to enjoy the beauty and diversity that each holds and to have some adventures of your own. You won’t regret it! And maybe we’ll run into you there!