Waking up to bright blue skies one Saturday morning with nothing on the day's agenda, I knew an adventure was in order.
Sometimes, you just want to experience something new.
With such an abundance of marvelous trails right at our doorstep — Lookout Mountain's Bluff Trail, Lula Lake Land Trust, Signal Point, Stringer's Ridge — it can feel like there's little reason to venture farther afield. Some of the country's best state parks, Cloudland Canyon and Fall Creek Falls, are also just short drives away.
But Chattanooga is also lucky to have several lesser-known but no less stellar state parks within a few hours' drive.
Even if you're not an experienced lover of all things outdoors, these area parks come with the bonus of additional elements of interest, such as history, Native American culture or great restaurants nearby. And it's cool to see how much the landscape can change a little outside of town, and how your mindset changes when you realize you're driving on a road you've never driven before and laying eyes on a place for the first time.
Whether you're looking for the perfect picnic spot, day date destination, family outing or solo excursion, here are a few state parks worthy of a few hours on a sunny Saturday.
Rock Island State Park
1.5 hours from Chattanooga, near McMinnville
Located on the headwaters of Center Hill Lake, where the Caney Fork, Collins and Rocky rivers meet, this 870-acre park is known for its unique waterfalls. The 80-foot, cascading Twin Falls are fed by underground runoff from the Collins River, which flows out from cracks in the rock of the gorge.
Plan on spending at least three hours here, and visit both sides of the Caney Fork River's massive limestone gorge. The gorge is sometimes closed to hikers, but the Downstream Trail, a 1.6-mile loop featuring views of Twin Falls, is the park's most scenic trail and is open year-round. Although described as "strenuous" by park signage, it's appropriate for hikers of most abilities. And if you're not really up for a hike, some of the best views are just steps from the parking lot.
Other popular park activities include picnicking, fishing, boating and freestyle kayaking. (The park has hosted the U.S. Freestyle Kayaking World Championships.) There is also a sandy beach and plenty of prime spots to swim, although swimming near the dam is prohibited because of potentially deadly currents and unknown depths.
Want to make it an overnight trip? Rock Island boasts some of the nicest cabins among Tennessee state parks, with amenities such as Wi-Fi, fireplaces with gas logs (winter only), satellite TV, DVD players, and washers and dryers. They book fast. Open year-round, the park's 10, three-bedroom, two-bath cabins can be reserved up to a year in advance, and some allow pets.
The park is home to an old textile mill that operated there in the 1890s, along with the Great Falls Dam and hydroelectric plant built just downstream in 1917. Rock Island at that time thrived as both a village for employees and as a resort. TVA took over the plant in the 1940s and leased land to the state for the park, which opened in 1969.
Don't miss Foglight Foodhouse, which boasts an eclectic menu of Cajun style dishes, steak and seafood served up with spectacular waterfront views. It's not unusual for the wait to stretch as long as three hours during the warmer months, though you're likely to have to wait no matter when you go. People rave about the stuffed mushrooms, and my husband thought his rib-eye was among the best he's had.
Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park
1 hour from Chattanooga, near Manchester
At Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park, you can check out a prehistoric Native American structure and beautiful waterfalls on two rivers, all in a 1-mile loop.
The park is named for the wall-like mound built there nearly 2,000 years ago during the Middle Woodland Period. Made of tons of earth and stone, the wall was part of a network of "hilltop enclosures" that archaeologists believe the Woodland people built as ceremonial spaces. The entrance of the enclosure at Old Stone Fort directly aligns with the sunrise on the summer solstice.
Stop in the visitors center for a short film about the wall along with a few exhibits, then take the easy and mostly level main loop around the enclosure where you'll find a series of plaques with more information on the history.
Good to know
The park is open until sunset.
Dogs are allowed on a leash.
Red Clay State Historic Park
50 minutes from Chattanooga, near Apison
Red Clay is a great place to bring a picnic and spend a few hours exploring the cultural displays and walking around. Located on the one-time meeting ground of the Cherokee Tribal Council, the park is home to landmarks including a spring of an otherworldly shade of blue, and the Eternal Flame, which remembers those who suffered and died on the Trail of Tears.
To escape the restrictive laws of Georgia, in 1832, the Cherokee moved from New Echota to Red Clay just over the Tennessee border and re-established their councils there. John Ross, elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, presided over the councils at New Echota and Red Clay. The Cherokee remained in Red Clay until their forced removal.
Fort Mountain State Park
1 hour from Chattanooga, near Chatsworth, Ga.
Fort Mountain State Park's 3,712 acres include 60 miles of recreational trails fit for everyone from the most casual hiker to hard-core mountain bikers.
The most popular is the Stone Tower Trail to Stone Wall Loop. The hardest part of the otherwise easy 1.5-mile loop is the initial climb up the stone steps to the tower. You then circle the stone wall toward a panoramic overlook of Blue Ridge mountain peaks, a restored 1930s fire tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and an 885-foot prehistoric stone wall — the park's namesake. Estimated to have been constructed between 500-1500 CE, its purpose is a mystery, but it's thought to have been either a fortification against hostile tribes or a ceremonial space.
The park's seasonal amenities include a 17-acre lake for swimming and a sand beach, mini golf, and water sport equipment rental such as kayaks, canoes, paddleboards and rowboats.
Good to know
The CCC Stone Fire Tower is open for touring Saturdays and Sundays from 1-4 p.m. (weather permitting).
The park has a $5 parking fee.