1. Fall Creek Falls State Park
Fall Creek Falls State Park is home to one of the biggest American waterfalls (245 ft.) east of the Rocky Mountains. Viewing for the falls is available at the overlook and on a winding pass that takes you along Cane Creek to the base. If it’s windy, expect to get wet, even from the overlook.
The park also has hiking trails, boating options, golfing, and birding areas. Plan for a full day, including time with the waterfall.
2. Reelfoot Lake State Park
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Reelfoot Lake State Park is situated around Reelfoot Lake, formed during several earthquake events from the early 1800s that caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards. The area is major viewing area for bald eagles in January and February.
If you miss the eagles in January and February, you can still canoe among wildlife and submerged cypress stumps in spring and summer, or swing by in Autumn to see the pelican migration.
3. South Cumberland State Park
This is a huge park with impressive overlooks, vistas, and cascades. At 25,539 acres, South Cumberland State Park has camping (including backcountry), hiking, and fishing. But the trails are the reason to visit here. The Fiery Gizzard Trail was rated one of the Top 25 in the country by Backpacker Magazine.
If you’re a birder or a wildflower hunter, this is a great place to explore. The park stretches through several counties and multiple ecosystems, with plateau peaks, ridges, and valleys.
4. Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park
Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park is centered around fifteen Native American mounds, used for tribal burials and ceremony. Hiking provides access to the mounds, but you should also checkout the library and exhibits provided by the park to get a better understanding of the history of the original people here.
5. Radnor Lake State Park
Radnor Lake State Park is all about hiking, photography, and wildlife. You won’t find any camping here, and it’s sometimes passed over because of that. Still, if you’re looking for wildlife viewing, canoeing, or a fun hike outside of Nashville, it’s a great place to spend a day.
6. Pickett CCC Memorial State Park
Pickett State Park has 58 miles of hiking trails. You can take multi-day journeys through the wilderness here and still manage to miss a waterfall or two.
Not a big hiker? Don’t worry. Some of the trails are geared toward day use and are family friendly. All types of camping are available (cabin, campsite, primitive), so you can take your pick of amenities.
7. Norris Dam State Park
Centered around the dam of the same name, Norris Dam State Park is a park in two parts. You’ll find hilly backcountry on the west side of the park, but longer trails connecting to the Town of Norris trail network (for more hiking beyond the park boundary) on the east side.
You have to cross Norris Dam (drive or walk) to go from one side of the park to the other — and the entire park is positioned beside Norris Lake. In addition to camping and boating, you’ll also find some great birding trails beside along the Clinch River just south of the dam. They aren’t part of the park, but they’re within spitting distance and great for a stroll.
8. Big Ridge State Park
Big Ridge State Park lies around a different part of Norris Lake. Waking here can go from a light hike to a knee-buster. Poles are suggested if you’re planning to brave the northernmost portions of the Big Valley Trail, past the Dark Hollow Trail intersection, and the overlook is worth it. The park also offers camping, swimming, and multiple picnic areas.
If you keep a close eye on the trails, you’ll see weathered gravestones sticking out of the ground. Small communities lived in this area before the Tennessee Valley Authority up-rooted them while purchasing land to create Norris Lake. Some strange occurrences, plus the old homes and tombstones, have given rise to stories that the area may be haunted.
9. Frozen Head State Park
Frozen Head State Park, nestled in the heart of the Cumberland Plateau, often gets a fair share of snow and ice in the winter. You’ll find fifty miles of backpacking here, two gorgeous waterfalls, and connections to the Cumberland Trail if you wish to hike beyond the park boundaries.
This park is best experienced on multi-day trips by moving from campsite to campsite in the backcountry, but it takes some planning. If you can make it to the Lookout Tower, it’s a great view.
10. Rocky Fork State Park
This state park takes you into the heart of Appalachian territory, and is a recent addition (2012) to the Tennessee State Park System. You’ll find horseback riding, camping, mountain biking, and hiking at Rocky Fork State Park, but this place is just as much about location, location, location as it is about the activities.
This area is surrounded by Cherokee National Forest and has trail access for the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. You’ll find amazing wildlife due to the ecosystem. Waterfalls and cascades are common, too as Rocky Fork Creek shoots end to end through the park.