The Great Stone Door in Grundy County is an enormous outcropping of stone that has a narrow, natural path leading down the bluff behind it.
BEERSHEBA SPRINGS, Tenn. — The Friends of South Cumberland State Park group has worked for decades to snatch up land that helps preserve the history of the southern Cumberland Plateau and showcase the area's stunning views.
Along Highway 56 in a quiet Grundy County community, the group is adding a new element to its mission.
Plans to develop a 700-acre parcel along the highway in Beersheba Springs signify the group's biggest foray yet into economic development.
Proposals developed by the Friends would bring camping, hiking, wildlife observation, paddling and fishing opportunities to the site, creating a central hub between two of the sprawling park's key landmarks.
And park advocates hope it also would attract new clientele for local businesses.
The project's working title is "The Stone Door Addition." The addition would offer a more typical state park experience for visitors to the Stone Door and Greeter Falls, while encouraging overnight stays in a county that could use the tourism boost.
The state recently acquired a large chunk of the land — a 585-acre tract formerly the Shady Valley Nursery — but the Stone Door addition is still in the planning phase. Park advocates are working alongside state officials to find appropriations for development and, possibly, more land purchases.
Still, Grundy County Mayor Michael Brady said he is "very hopeful" about the project's possible impact, even if an exact timeline for when it will take shape is yet to be determined.
"Everybody knows what Grundy County is like as far as economic development," Brady said. "Well, this will be the first step forward, basically, offering some lodging that caters to the folks that want to stay for a few days."
The Beersheba Springs Hotel — now a seasonal getaway for the state's United Methodist conference — attracted wealthy overnight guests from around the South during the 19th century.
But the area has since transformed into Tennessee's poster child for Appalachian poverty, culminating with a 2014 New York Times analysis determining Grundy County one of the country's 100 hardest places to live.
A project overview on the Stone Door addition from the Friends says the project should encourage local partnerships with entrepreneurs "to provide goods and services to park visitors and encourage investment to the benefit of the park and community."
"We hope this project will become a source of pride and accomplishment for all members of the Beersheba Springs and Grundy County communities, and a reliable contributor of economic benefit, even as it protects an important addition to South Cumberland State Park," the overview says.
As it stands now, the 25,000-acre park dots the map, comprising nine unconnected tracts in four counties all managed as one park.
The only drive-up camping destination is at Foster Falls, roughly 40 minutes south of Beersheba Springs in comparatively wealthy Marion County, near the site of a new 685-acre rock climbing destination.
Friends group president Latham Davis said he expects the Stone Door addition to be a family-friendly boost to a park most commonly known more for its rock climbing, backcountry hiking and primitive camping.
"What we hope now is that, even more than before, the local people will see that area as an economic opportunity and build places for people to stay and eat," Davis said.
The addition would be accessed directly from Highway 56 at the entrance to the former nursery.
Concepts for the addition developed by the Friends group also include a barn-like visitors center and the possibility for yurt and RV camping, in addition to typical campsites.
The headline natural feature is a 65-acre lake that would be a possible hub for the more passive park activities project leaders envision.
"The lake there can be used and the prairie development will offer a different kind of hiking and recreational experience," Davis said. "A lot of that is still being planned, but it's certainly going to be different and a broader experience than what the backcountry trails experience has been."
And Brady hopes it's just the start of a new experience for his county.
"If you do things the way you've always done them, you're going to get the same thing you've always had," the mayor said. "This is basically our first project like this. Once you get that and show success, the second will be easier.
"Hopefully, then, it'll go even further than that."
Contact staff writer David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.