A yearlong celebration is currently underway to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Tennessee State Park system.

The Tennessee Department of Conservation was created in 1937 and charged with managing state parks, monuments and recreation areas. In 1991, it was renamed the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Harrison Bay State Park officially became Tennessee’s first state park when the property was leased from TVA in 1938. The first parks were created through Depression-era programs involving work by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration and Tennessee Valley Authority. Fall Creek Falls, perhaps Tennessee’s best-known state park, was similarly developed by the CCC and WPA, and given to the state by the National Park Service in 1944. It wasn’t until 1972 that every state in America had a state park system.


Tennessee State Parks began significant growth in the 1960s. There were only 20 state parks in 1962. Today, there are 56, ranging in size from the 19-acre Bicentennial Capitol Mall in Nashville to South Cumberland State Park, now consisting of over 30,000 acres in at least 10 units scattered over four counties. Fall Creek Falls remains the largest state park in a single tract, with over 26,000 contiguous acres. The Justin P. Wilson Cumberland Trail State Park became Tennessee’s first linear state park in 1998, managing approximately 185 miles of completed trail and 40 trailheads over 11 counties. Rocky Fork State Park in Northeast Tennessee was designated as Tennessee’s 55th state park in 2012. Seven Islands State Birding Park in Knox County became Tennessee’s 56th, and thus newest, state park in 2013.

According to the officialwebsite, Tennessee’s 56 state parks contain 1,100 miles of trails, 365 cabins, 36 campgrounds and over 80 waterfalls. Hiking, biking, camping, fishing, birding, paddling and horseback riding are just some of the activities available at state parks across Tennessee. Many have restaurants, six have inns and conference centers, and eight feature golf courses.

Experiencing Tennessee’s parks for yourself
To help celebrate the 80th anniversary of the parks, Tennessee State Parks has put together a list of 80 adventures to help you experience the parks for yourself. They are broken down into six categories and include something for each of the 56 state parks.

See the complete list here.

There are also events scheduled throughout the year.

“We’re going to have events all over the place and showcase the wonderful things that we as Tennesseans have right on our doorsteps to go and enjoy,” Brock Hill, TDEC’s deputy commissioner for parks and conservation, said.

Tennessee State Parks in running for award
Tennessee State Parks has been named a finalist for the 2017 National Gold Medal Awards for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management. The awards are organized jointly by the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration and the National Recreation and Park Association.

“To be named a finalist for this prestigious award validates the commitments made by the department, our parks staff, Gov. Haslam and the Tennessee General Assembly to ensure the protection and preservation of our natural, cultural and historic resources in Tennessee,” TDEC Commissioner Bob Martineau said. “We have worked hard over the past six years to add three new parks and more than 30,000 acres to our system, to protect and preserve our resources, and to enhance the visitors’ experience at our parks with improved facilities and expanded interpretive programming. We are very excited and proud that these efforts are being recognized at the national level.”

Improvements across the state since 2011 have involved renovating or constructing 30 park facilities, including 10 campgrounds, and making Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant upgrades at four parks. They include a new visitors center at Bledsoe Creek State Park, a new group camp at Booker T. Washington State Park and a converted interpretive center at Cumberland Mountain State Park. During that time, visitation to the parks has increased by nearly 15 percent.

The award finalists for 2017 will compete for Grand Plaque Award honors this summer, with seven Grand Plaque winners being announced in September.

Tennessee Promise Saturday
This Saturday, Tennessee State Parks will be hosting volunteer events at parks across the state to help Tennessee Promise scholars log community service hours.

Students who plan to use the program this fall are required to complete eight hours of community service by July 1.

Volunteer projects being offered include litter cleanups, trail maintenance, invasive plant removal, summer event assistance and more. Tennessee Promise mentors and the general public are invited to participate in these projects as well.

One such event scheduled near Chattanooga is at South Cumberland State Park. Livin’ the CCC Lifeis an opportunity for area high school and college students to work on the Grundy Day Loop at the northern end of the Fiery Gizzard Trail. Learn more here(scroll down to the lower left corner).

Click herefor all Tennessee Promise events scheduled.

Whether you want to volunteer at a park, participate in a guided outing or explore the outdoors on your own, the Tennessee State Parks systemhas something for you.

Bob Butters explores nature and the outdoors, primarily in and near the South Cumberland region, and publishes the blog www.Nickajack-Naturalist.com. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.