Alyssa has been writing about exciting travel topics for Trips to Discover since 2013. After living the big city life in Chicago, Washington, DC, and Atlanta, Alyssa sold the bulk of her possessions and became a digital nomad, living full-time in her camper and working from wherever she could find an outlet and an internet connection for her laptop.
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Tennessee is home to exciting cities like Nashville and Memphis, while it is also a place with lots of outdoor recreation to get active and find some serenity. The Great Smoky Mountains are a very popular and well-known outdoor destination, but there are also lots of other parks worth visiting in the state as well. Here are some of the best state and national parks to check out next time you’re in Tennessee.
The ancient mountains at this famous park have a diversity of animal and plant life, as well as interesting Appalachian culture. One of the best places in Tennessee for viewing fall foliage, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is actually the most-visited national park in the country. This is an awesome place to go hiking during every season of the year, with some of the most popular hikes leading to the Chimney Tops, Rainbow Falls, and Andrews Bald. This is also a great place for biking, scenic drives, waterfall views, fishing, wildflowers, and ranger-led programs. Developed and backcountry campsites are available throughout the park, as well as group campgrounds and horse camps.
One of the most-visited and largest state parks in Tennessee is Fall Creek Falls State Park. The park spans 29,800 acres across the eastern Cumberland Plateau and features gorges, waterfalls streams, and forests. The main attraction here is a 256-foot waterfall that’s one of the highest in the eastern U.S. This park is unique because it has its own 18-hole championship golf course. Other popular activities here are rock climbing, the canopy challenge course, boating, fishing, swimming, hiking, and birding. There are 222 campsites in five areas of the park, including RV hookup sites and primitive sites. Cabins are also available for overnight stays.
Spanning 125,000 acres of the Cumberland Plateau, part of this park is also in Tennessee. It has beautiful gorges, sandstone bluffs, and lots of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Whitewater paddling, hiking, horseback riding, and rock climbing are all popular activities to do here. Sections of the river can be paddled by beginners, while others should only be attempted by experts. Local guide companies can take you climbing and paddling here safely and with all the proper equipment. There are five campgrounds in the park, including two in Tennessee: Bandy Creek and Station Camp.
Reelfoot Lake State Park is in the northwest corner of the state and a great place to go boating and fishing. It has a 15,000-acre lake that was created by earthquakes in the 1800s. Here you’ll find a unique flooded forest ecosystem that is home to many different types of birds and aquatic plants. Bald eagles come here in the winter, and there’s an annual eagle festival in February. There are hiking trails that are great for birdwatching and two campgrounds with water and electricity along the lakeshore. Finally, the park has an auditorium that’s used for meetings and reunions.
Roan Mountain State Park covers over 2,000 acres of hardwood forest in Carter County, Tennessee and is known for its abundant wildlife and wildflowers. It has been a state park since 1959. It’s fun to come here to hike along the ridges and creeks or go cross-country skiing in the winter. There are about 2.25 miles of mountain biking trails and 12 miles of hiking trails here. For overnight trips, stay in the 107-site campground for RVs and tents or in one of the 30 cozy cabins. People also come here to fish for native brook trout, rainbow trout, and brown trout.
This 2,076-acre park in Unicoi County is located in East Tennessee and the southern Appalachian Mountains. Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park is a newer park that was established in 2012 and officially opened in 2015. The road here is a one-lane road with pull-offs, and there are very limited parking spaces. There are plans for this park to have many features, including a visitor center, campground, improved parking, and trails for biking, hiking, and horseback riding. But for now, there are beautiful native wildflowers growing here, wildlife living here, and a cultural site where a conflict between settlers and Native Americans took place in the late 1700s. It is possible to see bears here, so keep pets on a leash for safety.
Visit Cumberland Mountain State Park on the Cumberland Plateau to learn about this history of the area and enjoy recreation at Byrd Lake. This is a popular spot for swimming, hiking, and interpretive programs. There is also a restaurant and recreation hall here for events. Stay overnight at one of the 140 campsites that can accommodate both tents and RVs. There is also fully furnished cabins available year-around. People also come here to play golf at the 6,900-yard, par 72 golf course.
Shiloh National Military Park is part of the U.S. National Parks system and a place where nearly 110,000 American troops fought in a Civil War battle that resulted in 23,746 casualties. There is a lot of history in this area, where you can explore both the Corinth and Shiloh battlefields. Check out the interpretive centers with large exhibit spaces and watch the films to learn about war history. There is also a self-guided audio tour you can do here, as well as living history events between April and October and ranger-led programs between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Rock Island State Park spans 883 acres and is ruggedly beautiful where the Caney Fork, Collins, and Rocky Rivers meet. Great Falls is a popular 30-foot horseshoe waterfall below a 19th-century cotton textile mill. Rock Island has been a state park since 1969. The gorge here offers beautiful overlooks to see waterfalls and limestone paths for hiking and exploring. This is a prime spot for freestyle kayaking and draws in paddling enthusiasts from around the world. A popular day trip from Nashville, you can plan to stay in one of the excellent cabins overnight or you choose to stay in one of the 60 campsites across two campgrounds that host RVs and tents. Review the park website or talk to a ranger to learn about safety tips for visiting the gorge due to variable water levels.
Big Ridge State Park is a 3,687-acre park that is forested and has a beautiful lake. There are over 15 miles of hiking trails, as well as 50 campsites on or near the lake for RVs and tents. Other things to do here are sand volleyball, softball, horseshoes, tennis, basketball, and an accessible playground. Visit on the third Friday of August to check out the annual bluegrass festival.
People in the Nashville area love visiting Radnor Lake State Park because of its hiking and wildlife viewing opportunities in an urban area. This is a day-use park with 7.75 miles of trails. The Otter Creek Road Trail allows pets and bikes. You can attend a ranger-led program here to learn about wildflowers, wildlife, and astronomy. Don’t miss the visitor center to see interpretative exhibits about the history of this natural area and to watch a film about it.
Come see Andrew Johnson National Historic Site and learn about Andrew Johnson’s presidency and life after the Civil War. Start your exploration at the visitor center and then move on to see the homestead where Johnson lived before and after his presidency and also the national cemetery where the 17th president and veterans were laid to rest. This is a popular spot for field trips for school children.
Burgess Falls State Park is a day-use park along the Falling Water River that has four waterfalls that are must-see destinations in Tennessee. Come here for fishing, grilling out for a picnic, playgrounds, and to hike the River Trail/Service Road Loop to pass by the waterfalls. Something else to see here is the native butterfly garden that is adjacent to the upper parking area in the park. The park manages the 275-acre Window Cliffs State Natural Area as well, and the entrance to Window Cliffs is eight miles from the Burgess Falls entrance. Consider visiting this area on a weekday or in the winter for fewer crowds.
A beautiful spot for outdoor recreation, Norris Dam State Park is on 4,000 acres along the Norris Reservoir. You can enjoy the marina with a boat ramp, as well as the pontoon and houseboats for rent. Boating, fishing, and waterskiing are popular activities. There are two campgrounds – the east one with 25 sites and the west one with 50 sites. You can also stay in the historic and deluxe cabins. Make sure to stop by the Lenoir Museum to learn about life in Southern Appalachia when you’re here.