Discover Tennessee's Natural State
From caves and canyons to swimming holes, celebrate the Tennessee State Parks 75th Anniversary by taking your family out for a week — or weekend — of fun
Hear reenactors tell Civil War history
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The diversity our state parks system offers is unparalleled. From Civil War battlefields and cypress swamps, to pristine waterfalls, beautiful mountains, lake swimming, even horseback riding, you’ll find lots to enjoy this summer at Tennessee's 53 state parks. And much you can do here is free. The parks also offer a few programs you may be unaware of. The Junior Ranger Programs (see below), seasonal promotions, and state employee discounts make a state park vacation an unbeatable value. (About that state discount: it’s 25 percent off in-season, 50 percent November to March, and applies only to reservations made 30 days or less in advance. Don’t try to book, cancel, and rebook. I asked.) We explored the parks and uncovered some hidden gems as well as a few that explore Tennessee history.
We'll start here, in our own backyard. Seldom crowded, T.O. Fuller State Park (25 minutes south of Midtown), boasts a playground, camping, and lovely picnic shelters. Though Fuller’s golf course closed last year, a hiking trail visits wetlands and the Chucalissa Indian Village. It’s historic, too, as the first park east of the Mississippi to welcome African-Americans.
But Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park, 40 minutes north, appeals for its hiking and biking through lush, rolling terrain. Here, the shady campground is popular, there's a junior Olympic swimming pool, and you can even catch views of the Mississippi River. Kids will also enjoy the fine nature center next to Poplar Tree Lake, where you can fish year-round. Canoe floats explore the park’s cypress swamp on summer Sundays at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. (free but call 876-5215 to confirm). On the way home, enjoy a cheeseburger on the deck of the Shelby Forest General Store. The huge resident rooster thrills some kids — and spooks others.
Best-kept secret: Both area state parks offer Junior Ranger Programs ($20 per week, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. June 4-7 & June 8-21), which combine safety education, stewardship, and adventure in weeklong summer programs. Go to tn.gov/environment/parks/junior_ranger/ for more info.
Adjacent to Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, Pickett State Park (6 hours away), offers rustic, historic stone Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) cabins (which you'll find at a number of parks). Other lodging options include modern, spacious family villas, and year-round camping.
Take a kid-friendly hike through a magical landscape revealing caves and canyons delved into the sandstone of the Cumberland Plateau. Afterwards, cool off in a lake spanned by a natural stone arch. Trout fishing and canoe rentals are available, too. Early summer offers wild blackberries and blueberry picking. Return in winter, when visitors lucky enough to get snow will truly understand the meaning of “winter wonderland.”
Best-kept secret: This remote wilderness area is where the people who work in Great Smoky Mountains National Park go to get away from it all. For an extra dose of excitement, cross the border to Kentucky’s Big South Fork Scenic Railway (bsfsry.com, 800-462-5664), where a Rivers & Rails package gets you a ride on a vintage train to a defunct coal-mining camp, then a 5-mile paddle downstream through Class I and II rapids.
Roan Mountain State Park (9 hours away) may not be a secret to East Tennesseans, but it’s about as far from Memphis as you can get without leaving the state. (In fact, the park’s namesake peak is in North Carolina.) But breathtaking vistas with unique geology, a vast stand of rhododendrons, and the highest-elevation swimming pool in the Tennessee state system make this destination worth the trek.
Enjoy the shade from a rocking chair on the front porch of one of the park’s 30 cabins, all equipped with wood-burning fireplaces for cooler nights. Wildlife includes salamanders, bears, and turkey; recreation spans trout fishing and tennis. The Miller Farmstead preserves a century-old way of life and hosts folk life events on summer Saturdays.
Best-kept secret: Park superintendent Pat Gagan says the park’s lack of cell phone service is a plus for visitors who want a real getaway. He also suggests taking a moonlight hike to Round or Jane Bald, where the absence of ambient light allows you to show your kids zillions of stars usually dimmed by city light. — Liz Phillips