This article was originally published in the September/October 2021 issue of The Tennessee Conservationist magazine and was entitled "Middle Tennessee State Parks Hiking Challenge."
“We should hike more often.” For years, this is as far as my fiancé and I got in reviving our hiking hobby. We’d agree that we should get back out on the trail, but we never even got our boots out of the closet.
Finally, we decided to turn our nebulous aspiration into a specific plan. We began 2020 with a New Year’s resolution to hike in all 26 Middle Tennessee State Parks by the end of the year. Even though I grew up in Middle Tennessee and my fiancé had lived in Nashville for years, we had only visited a handful of state parks between us and were mostly unfamiliar with the park system. Using a map from the parks’ website, we determined which parks were within Middle Tennessee. Our area of focus was bordered on the left by Johnsonville State Historic Park and Mousetail Landing State Park, and Pickett CCC Memorial State Park marked the right boundary of the area we needed to cover. With every park on our list about two hours from our home in Nashville and most of our weekends in the year spoken for, this was just enough of a lofty goal to make attaining it worthwhile without being impossible to achieve.
We lost no time! Every year, state park rangers across Tennessee host a hike on New Year’s Day. So on January 1, we joined the First Day Hike at Bledsoe Creek State Park. Even though it required an early rise after New Year’s Eve celebrations, the hike drew a crowd of people eager to begin the year with fresh air and exercise. I realize now this was my first indication of the parks’ popularity.
While this hike was a great start to our challenge, rainy weather slowed our progress. We had hiked in five parks around Nashville before our progress came to a full stop; the parks were closed for most of April 2020 because of the pandemic. While, at first, the parks’ closure seemed like a setback to our plan, it became clear that we couldn’t have picked a better year to make sure we got out and enjoyed some fresh air. Except for weekly grocery trips, our hikes in state parks were our only outings.
Maybe it was our newfound appreciation of being out of the house or perhaps our regular hikes simply gave us more of an opportunity to notice our surroundings, but we enjoyed the beauty of nature like we never had before. We noticed the harbingers of the changing seasons: fern fronds ready to unfurl, the first arrival of spring flowers, the first dark tinge in the green leaves at the end of summer. We took time to rest after difficult uphill climbs and admire stunning overlooks while catching our breath. This time spent in Tennessee’s natural beauty helped us relax during a singularly difficult year.
While hiking helped us relax and take in our state’s natural beauty, our year in the parks also surprised us with new adventures. While hiking in David Crockett State Park, we stopped on the trail after hearing rustling and grunting. We scanned the shady undergrowth and encountered an armadillo searching for food in the dense foliage. Astonished, we dared not move as three other armadillos moved through the brush. I had never before seen a live armadillo and was stunned that we had happened upon them in the wild. The armadillos were unfazed by our presence as they criss-crossed the trail in front of us. We waited until they had all moved away from the trail before we continued on, making sure they had plenty of space.
While the armadillos were the most surprising animals we encountered, they weren’t the only interesting creatures we saw. In June, we traveled to Pickett CCC Memorial State Park to see the glow worms in Hazard Cave. We arrived in the park after dark and joined a group eager to see this phenomenon. These worms are actually the larvae of the only fly species on our continent that are bioluminescent. (1) Guided by a park ranger and the narrow beams of our flashlights, we descended a series of stairs into the woods. Greeted by the sound of dripping water and cool air, we approached the mouth of the cave. After teaching us about these larvae, their habitat, and their history at the park, the ranger led us in smaller groups to the far side of the opening. Faint dots of blue light bounced on the stone surface of the cave as if someone had smeared glitter over it. I stood in awe as I looked up into the dark at these tiny glimmers of blue. But these larvae aren’t the park’s only night-time attraction. Pickett is a Silver-tier International Dark Sky Park (2), and I hope to return again one night to look up equally in awe at the stars above.
In October, we traveled to southern Middle Tennessee seeking adventure at Tims Ford State Park. Even though the trees in Nashville had lost their leaves, this scenic park on Tims Ford Lake was still in its full autumn glory. We had reserved Devils Step Island, one of six islands where visitors can camp. After spending the day hiking, we picked up our rented kayak and set out for the island. I had never kayaked before. I paddled right and left and held my breath as the water lapped a little too close for my comfort at the kayak’s sides. When we reached the island’s shore, I released my white-knuckle grip on my paddle and stepped out into an idyllic scene. We set up camp, relaxed in our hammock, and soothed our sore feet in the lake’s cool, clear water. When the sun set, we discovered others enjoy this island too: We were visited in the night by more daddy-longlegs than I have ever seen and a horde of unknown animals curious about their new neighbors. We certainly found the adventure we were seeking!
That night’s campsite was next to a nineteenth-century cemetery, a historical reminder of the people who lived in the area before the park was built. While spending the night next to a cemetery might be unique, the historical preservation aspect is not. Almost every park we visited preserved a slice of our state’s history in some way.
While Downtown Nashville’s Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park is like an outdoor museum showcasing an overview of Tennessee’s history and natural features, other parks feature different periods or aspects of life in our state. At Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park, we hiked around a ceremonial gathering place once used by Native Americans; the earthen mounds they built still exist. At Port Royal State Park, we learned about the town, closely associated with the tobacco industry that once thrived there. We even hiked along a section of the original Trail of Tears while following the River Bottom Trail. Johnsonville State Park preserves local Civil War history; this area was a Union supply station and the site of the Battle of Johnsonville. After the war, the town of Johnsonville was established until it was abandoned when Kentucky Lake was created. Harpeth River State Park features a remnant of a resort that was popular in the 1940s (3), and hikers on the Ridge Loop Trail can stand on the dance floor from this resort while taking in the view.
The parks even honor famous Tennesseans. At Cordell Hull Birthplace State Park, we saw the replica of the cabin where Hull was born. Hull served in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate before serving as Secretary of State under President F.D. Roosevelt. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945. (4)
About thirty minutes away from Cordell Hull is Sergeant Alvin C. York State Historic Park. York was a local resident decorated for his brave capture of over 130 German soldiers in WWI. (5) Here, we saw his home, and we even got to walk through a replica of a WWI trench. We also hiked to the church where York experienced his religious conversion and visited his nearby grave. (6)
When we finally emerged from the woods in our very last park, we had achieved what we’d wanted to do for years: We consistently set aside time to hike more. But along with the hikes, we gained a new appreciation of Tennessee State Parks, their role in preserving history, and the opportunities they provide to all Tennesseans.
I learned that not everyone knows about these opportunities. This inspired me to start my own blog about the Tennessee State Parks to showcase their offerings, and I still regularly visit our parks. Since the challenge, I have attended Eagle Fest at Reelfoot Lake State Park, volunteered at Radnor Lake State Park, and explored an abandoned summer camp at Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park with a ranger-led group. And, of course, I have kept hiking! In the September/October 2020 issue of The Tennessee Conservationist, I read about the Long Hunter State Park Mega-Hike, and I am excited to be training for this year’s October 23 Mega-Hike. I don’t see myself ever ending my visits to our parks; not only do I want to visit more parks in Eastern and Western Tennessee, but there is so much I still need to see and experience in the state parks in Middle Tennessee.
I hope everyone will challenge themselves to get out in our parks more often. For those who do, I have three pieces of advice gained from my experience. First, before visiting, always check the park’s website for alerts to see if any facilities or trails are closed. Second, always bring a snack and water with you while out on the trails. This is an important safety precaution, and a good snack really hits the spot when a trail is tougher than you anticipated. Finally, always take a screenshot of a park’s trail map on your phone before you set out. You may not always have a signal when you’re hiking, and if you reach a confusing section, you will need a way to consult the map.
Please be safe, support Tennessee State Parks whenever you get a chance, and have fun. Maybe I will see you out there!
(1) https://tnstateparks.com/parks/event_details/pickett/#/?event=glow-worm-hike-05-17-21 - this website no longer exists; to read more about these larvae, visit https://tnstateparks.com/blog/summer-nights-are-made-for-the-outdoors
(3) https://tnstateparks.com/parks/activity-detail/harpeth-river-hiking; https://tnstateparks.com/assets/pdf/additional-content/park-maps/36-harpeth-river-sm.jpg