With sleepy rivers, winding trails, and reminders of early American history, South Central Tennessee is a haven for adventure lovers like me. Much of the region’s outdoor recreation can be found within its five state parks, each of which has its own unique history and must-do activities.
Whether you're seeking solitude in the woods, a relaxing float down a river, or a chance to learn more about the state’s history, you can find the perfect escape in one of South Central Tennessee’s state parks. Here are some insider tips on the best ways to experience each of the area’s five unique parks.
David Crockett State Park
Just outside the little town of Lawrenceburg, David Crockett State Park is situated on the banks of Shoal Creek and Lake Lindsey (sometimes called David Crockett Lake). David Crockett was a well-known pioneer and politician who served as a state representative in South Central Tennessee in the early 1800s. Where the state park is today, Crockett once ran a powdermill, a gristmill, and a distillery.
Because I love history, one of my favorite things at this park is the museum, which depicts the fascinating details of Crockett’s life and houses a replica of his original water-powered gristmill.
Of the park’s eight miles of hiking trails, the most popular is the Waterfall Trail, which leads to the slide-like Crockett Falls. While it’s possible to park within two-tenths of a mile of the falls, I prefer to approach the waterfall from the Shoal Creek Trail for a three-mile round-trip hike. I’ve often spotted deer on this scenic hike, which is generally easy, except for the fairly steep staircase that leads to the falls.
Water-lovers will also find plenty to enjoy here, as the park offers paddleboard, kayak, and fishing boat rentals for exploring Lake Lindsey. No motorized boats are permitted on the lake, and I always love how the water is peaceful for fishing and paddling. There is also an Olympic-sized swimming pool open throughout the summer, as well as a home-style restaurant with beautiful views of the lake.
Henry Horton State Park
Visitors to Henry Horton State Park will find one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems in the smooth waters of the Duck River, as well as a network of trails woven through unique natural features like cedar glades and sinkholes. A great way to experience the diverse terrain is on the Hickory Ridge Nature Loop, a 2.5-mile trail that highlights a variety of the incredible ecosystems within the park.
The Adeline Wilhoite Horton River Trail leads to a 20-foot observation tower, as well as a number of great fishing holes where anglers will find no shortage of largemouth and smallmouth bass.
While the natural beauty of Henry Horton is certainly appealing, many visitors come to this state park for its more “luxurious” amenities. Within the park, you’ll find an Olympic-sized swimming pool, trap and skeet shooting ranges, and a manicured 18-hole disc golf course. If all that isn’t enough, Henry Horton also boasts the Buford Ellington Golf Course, a challenging course sprinkled with hardwood forests.
Mousetail Landing State Park
Tucked into the banks of the winding Tennessee River, Mousetail Landing State Park offers its visitors opportunities to do a little bit of everything, from boating, fishing, and swimming to hiking and biking. Legend has it that the park received its name during the Civil War when a nearby tannery caught on fire. So many mice were seen fleeing the burning tannery that the area was known from then on as Mousetail Landing.
Fortunately, modern visitors don’t need to worry about swarms of mice at this state park. I love visiting Mousetail Landing when I want to sneak in quick backpacking trip on its eight-mile overnight loop, which has shelters that can be reserved. If I don’t have time for an overnighter, I can still enjoy the park’s three-mile day hiking trail. This park is the perfect place to come and spend a playful day with family or friends, as it offers volleyball courts, basketball courts, a baseball field, and screened-in picnic pavilions large enough for dozens of people.
Fishing on the Tennessee River is an enormously popular activity at Mousetail Landing, where bass, bream, crappie, catfish, and stripe are common catches. The park offers two boat launches, and fishing from the riverbanks is permitted anywhere within the park. Spring Creek Bay, a branch of the river, is Mousetail Landing’s pristine beach area that’s open to swimmers year round.
Old Stone Fort State Archeological Park
Mounds and earthen walls blend into cliffsides to compose the Old Stone Fort, an ancient structure that makes this state park truly unique in Tennessee. The Old Stone Fort was built by Native Americans as many as 2000 years ago during the Middle Woodland Period, and archeological evidence shows that the area was used continually by humans for 500 years. To me, these details make this one of the most fascinating places in Tennessee.
Despite its name, the Old Stone Fort isn’t really a fort at all. The 1.5-mile wall forms an enclosure on a hilltop, with the entrance at the exact place where the sun rises on the summer solstice. Archeologists believe that the Stone Fort was used by Native Americans as a ceremonial gathering place for this annual event.
The most popular activity in the park is to hike the Old Stone Fort Enclosure Trail, which traces the wall and features 12 interpretive panels explaining the history and significance of the remnants. Another thing that makes this trail great are the views of the park’s three largest waterfalls: Step Falls, Blue Hole Falls, and Big Falls.
Like Henry Horton, this park is situated along the Duck River, making fishing for bass, bream, and catfish another popular activity.
Tims Ford State Park
Tims Ford State Park is yet another favorite among all types of water-enthusiasts, as it sits on the shores of gorgeous Tims Ford Lake. The lake is formed by an enormous dam in the Elk River and offers more than 200 miles of picturesque shoreline for the enjoyment of boaters, swimmers, and fishermen. At the Lakeview Marina, visitors can rent pontoon boats as well as canoes and kayaks to enjoy a day on the water.
There are about seven miles of hiking trails within Tims Ford, where you can explore the beautiful lake and woodland landscapes that make this park so special. For the most well-rounded hiking experience, I recommend that you combine the Lost Creek Overlook Trail and the Marble Plains Loop Trail for a 3.7-mile tour of the forest where you’ll have nice lake views and traverse photo-worthy swinging bridges.
Biking is another favorite activity at Tims Ford, with its seven miles of paved pathways connecting the major areas of the park, as well as a 16-mile out-and-back route along the reservoir shoreline.
And, of course, fishing is an ever-popular pastime at Tims Ford, which is known for a variety of bass and holds several tournaments each year. The park also boasts the Bear Trace golf course and an Olympic-sized swimming pool for summer guests.
Whether you like to rough it or prefer something more civilized, you’ll find many great places to stay among the park’s cabins, campgrounds, and island campsites.
Whether I’m camping out or just escaping for the day, I’m always impressed by wide range of places to explore in this part of the state. From its calm lakes to its rocky cedar glades, this part of Tennessee is home to an amazing array of landscapes and ecosystems. Whether you love to chase largemouth bass, trek to waterfalls, or wander among the relics of Native Americans and pioneers, you’ll find the perfect adventure in the state parks of South Central Tennessee.
Written by Madison Eubanks for RootsRated Media in partnership with South Central Tennessee.