n 1937, the Tennessee legislature created the State Parks system with the idea that everyone needed places to get away from cities and experience nature. Now, 75 years later, people are using the parks - including the system's first park 25 minutes from Chattanooga - for just that.
A year after the parks system was created, the fledgling agency leased land from TVA near the town of Harrison. Documents from the time describe what was then Harrison Islands State Park's "exceptional bays and inlets" and closeness to Chattanooga as reasons for its creation. Though it's changed names to Harrison Bay, those features are still what attract campers to the park.
"This is pretty much our home park and it's important to us," says Cleveland resident Angie Underwood, who spent 30 nights with her kids at Harrison Bay in 2010. "If we even mention camping that's where they think of."
Underwood, a member of the Friends of Harrison Bay State Park group, says when she camps there, the family enjoys the park's three trails (4.5 mi., 1 mi. and 0.5 mi.), volleyball court, interpretive programs and picnic areas.
The park also offers a marina and golf course, but many people like Underwood find one of its daily natural features to be the most alluring.
"I'm a photographer so we do enjoy the sunsets," she explains. That combination of beauty and recreation is what officials had in mind when the parks were created, according to Tennessee State Park Chief Historian Ward Weems. He says many of the same ideas driving the national parks were present in Tennessee at the time.
The West had been settled; people were looking at nature for mental and physical health benefits; and there was a sentiment that everyone needed a little beauty in their life.
"All of those things were just coming together into and before the Depression Era," Weems says.
Federal work programs like TVA and the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression provided the labor to get trails blazed and campsites cleared. Tennessee, along with Georgia and Kentucky, were among the early states to create parks, Weems says. Some states didn't have a parks system until 1970.
"Once Tennessee was in it they were in it pretty heavily," he says.
SOMETHING A LITTLE WILDER
Looking to get far away from RVs and playgrounds? Here are two less tame places to pitch your tent:
Hickey Gap Campground
12 mi. NE of Chatsworth
This U.S. Forest Service campground along Mill Creek has only five sites, no fees and is open year-round with miles of hiking nearby. Sites have a tent pad, picnic table and a fire grate but there is no running water. No reservations, but call the forest service at 706-695-6736.
Franklin State Forest Campground
11 miles south of Sewanee
About 40 miles from Chattanooga on the Marion-Franklin county line is another rustic, out-of-the-way campground. It's open year-round, has only five sites, no water and no fees, but loads of hiking. Also no reservations, but call 931-598-0830.