Tennessee state parks
Angela Fox

WITH MORE THAN 50 STATE parks spread across its 41,220 square miles, Tennessee offers a different outdoor experience for every week of the year.

I grew up in the river city of Clarksville, so I started my tour of these natural preserves at an early age. Feeding the ducks and exploring the caverns at Dunbar Cave State Park in Clarksville was a favorite family ritual that continues today with my parents and their great-grandchildren. We also camped at Montgomery Bell State Park, near Dickson, and frequently return there today for family gatherings.

When my husband and I, who now live in Nashville, want to escape the big city, we head for Radnor Lake State Park, a unique retreat just a few miles from downtown. The park, with hiking trails that wind through wooded hills and around a lovely lake, provides an outdoor experience not often found in urban areas the size of Nashville.

Another of our favorites in Middle Tennessee is Rock Island State Park, near Murfreesboro and McMinnville. The 883-acre site offers scenery so compelling it even starred in a Hollywood film back in 1994. Rent The Specialist and you'll see Sylvester Stallone and James Woods playing CIA assassins at work in the park, which doubles as a South American jungle in the film's opening sequence. Today you can walk or drive over the very bridge Stallone and Woods blow up in the film and enjoy the rugged scenery that makes the park so attractive to filmmakers and nature lovers alike. The park owes its natural beauty to three rivers that converge here and then flow into a deep gorge highlighted by two spectacular waterfalls and a riverbed filled with car-sized boulders. There are 60 campsites, plus 10 modern cabins, picnic and swimming areas, and hiking and mountain biking trails.

Fall Creek Falls State Resort Park, near the golf resort town of Cookeville high on the Cumberland Plateau, also features knockout scenery (including one of the highest waterfalls east of the Rocky Mountains) and a vast array of recreational facilities. The park is one of seven designated resort parks in the state, which feature hotel-style lodging as well as modern cabins, restaurants specializing in Southern-style comfort cuisine, gift shops, and other amenities. The other resort parks are Natchez Trace, Paris Landing, Pickwick Landing, and Reelfoot Lake in West Tennessee and Henry Horton and Montgomery Bell in Middle Tennessee.

Scenery isn't the only attraction at Tennessee state parks. Ancient history, for example, is the focus at Pinson Mounds State Park, near Jackson. This site protects the prehistoric remains of 15 earthen mounds and related earthworks of early Native Americans. A great time to visit this park is during Archaeofest in September. The festival celebrates Native American culture and archaeology with craft demonstrations and Native American story-telling sessions.

East Tennessee is famous for its mountain majesty--much of it preserved in the pristine state parks that dot the region. South Cumberland State Park is an ideal outdoor getaway for anyone visiting Chattanooga, less than an hour's drive away. If you're in the Gatlinburg area, head for Panther Creek State Park, on the shores of Cherokee Reservoir. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is just 45 miles to the south, and Dollywood theme park and Pigeon Forge are also nearby. Roan Mountain State Park is another East Tennessee treasure, sprawling over 2,000 acres at the base of towering Roan Mountain. The famous Rhododendron Gardens of Roan Mountain are actually thickets of Catawba rhododendrons that at explode into pink and lavender blooms in late June. Don't miss the Rhododendron Festival in June and the Autumn Harvest in October, which highlights Appalachian music and crafts. For a glimpse of farm life the way it was 100 years ago, visit the Miller Homestead, located within the park.

For more information on Tennessee State Parks, call (888) TN-PARKS or go to www.state.tn.us/environment/parks.

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