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Photo contributed by Robin Bell / Robin Bell at Burgess Falls State Park in Sparta, Tennessee.

Robin Bell had been hiking plenty — but even so, she didn't quite understand what she was getting into when she signed up for the 56 Tennessee State Parks Challenge.

The challenge was to visit all 56 Tennessee State Parks within 365 days. Bell, a 58-year-old grandmother, was new to Tennessee, having moved to Johnson City in 2019, and she had been looking for a pandemic-safe activity that would give her some camaraderie.

Soon enough, she found Girls Who Hike Tennessee, a nonprofit that organizes meetups for women via a private Facebook group, boasting 12,000 members across the state. In an effort to support state parks, the group announced the state park challenge in late 2020.

If visiting all 56 Tennessee State Parks within 365 days sounds like a lot — it is. And while Bell admits that she found the challenge interesting, she didn't start out thinking she'd finish.

"I figured worse case scenario, you go out, and you see a bunch of great places, and you don't finish. But whatever, you still have a great experience," says Bell.

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Photo contributed by Robin Bell / Alongside her state parks passport, available for free at most park offices, Robin Bell tried to collect patches from every park that she visited.

She embarked on her journey in January 2021, first hiking parks in East Tennessee, then gradually making her way west. The more parks she visited, the more motivated she was to see the next one on her list. With each new park, she added a new stamp to her state park passport, provided by Tennessee Parks Services as an incentive to visit. She enjoyed overlooks at Cove Lake State Park and waterfalls at Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park and jokes that she met her "prince charming" — a friendly toad — at Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park.

"The more I started hiking all these different trails, it really [became] almost like a cravingand an obsession, in a sense," she says. "I quickly realized the challenge wasn't in physically hiking but rather the hours of driving to get to the trail."

She began to plan further in advance, mapping out vacation days, studying maps and reserving camp sites, hotels or stays with friends who lived nearby certain parks. Preparedness was key, but she was learning as she went.

Bell remembers one March night where she was woefully underprepared for her night of camping at Pickett State Park near the Kentucky state line. She hadn't taken into consideration how precipitously the temperatures on the ridge drop at night, and she didn't have enough firewood to keep warm. The temperatures that night got as low as 23 degrees F.

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Photo contributed by Robin Bell / In August 2021, Robin Bell became the first member of Girls Who Hike Tennessee to complete the 56 Tennessee State Parks Challenge.

"I woke up with frost accumulation on the inside of my tent," Bell says, adding that her air mattress had frozen solid. "I felt defeated at 4 a.m., one big block of frozen grandma!"

The mishap made her rethink her quest.

"I was beating myself up between the ears, going 'What are you doing? Why did you take this on?'" Bell says.

But the next day, following her hike, she forgave herself and promised herself she'd be better prepared next time.

And in late August, Bell became the first member of the group to complete the challenge. By the end of 2021, she had hiked 100 different trails throughout Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, South Carolina and Virginia.

"This challenge has given me an eye for wanting to experience something new," she says.

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Photo contributed by Robin Bell / The waterfall at Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park in Manchester, Tennessee, was one of Robin Bell's favorite stops.
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