It's hard to beat free, and that's the price of admission to any one of Tennessee's 53 state parks, an outdoors treasure trove.
Some of the parks charge a fee for special activities such as boating, fishing, swimming, horseback riding or overnight camping, but not for such pleasurable basics as hiking, wildlife-watching, picnicking and photography.
Last year my wife and I visited Cedars of Lebanon, Long Hunter, Bledsoe Creek, Standing Stone, Fall Creek Falls, Henry Horton, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Pickwick Landing, Montgomery Bell, Edgar Evins, Alvin C. York, Cumberland Mountain and Radnor Lake.
Some, like Bledsoe Creek State Park, we visited numerous times. We hiked the park's miles of trails, and visited such nearby historical sites as the Bledsoe homestead -- where icy water still gurgles through the 230-year-old spring house. There's also the nearby Cavern of Skulls, and a pioneer cemetery alongside still-visible Avery's Trace.
The Bledsoe Fort Colonial Fair is May 2-4, offering visitors a glace into the 1700's. Castilian Springs is the cradle of Middle Tennessee history.
Another personal area favorite is Long Hunter State Park, and its two-mile walking trail around Couchville Lake. The trail is level and paved, suited for strollers. Long Hunter, like most other state parks, has a fascinating nature center/museum.
Speaking of park museums, the best I've seen is at Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park, on the Tennessee River near Camden. Its expansive River Museum features an authentic century-old flatboat, along with other artifacts and photos chronicling life on the river. Another section of the museum is devoted to the area's Civil War combatants -- primarily Forrest and his troops, and the Federals who fought against them.
Forty-two of the state's 53 parks offer fishing opportunities. Some included boat rentals, others have bank fishing and fishing piers. Park fishing can be productive; the state-record-tying bluegill was caught from the Fall Creek Falls lake in 1977. (Which also features a restaurant that draws diners from several surrounding counties.)
Years ago a friend and I caught a stringer of big crappie from the Montgomery Bell State Park lake. As a youngster I spent countless summer days fishing in Cumberland Mountain State Park's Byrd Lake and its Byrd Creek feeder river. It teemed with bluegill, and offered up an occasional big bass or catfish. In recent years the lake has been stocked with rainbow trout.
Last summer during a hike along the creek that empties from Standing Stone State Park lake, we saw schools of big bluegill and several smallmouth bass fining in clear pools.
The same applied to the stretch of the Duck River that runs through Henry Horton Pike -- we spotted one smallmouth that would have weighed at least three pounds.
A Sportsman's License or Lifetime License covers all park fishing fees, except boat rentals. Kids fish free, while a standard fishing license or nominally-priced daily permit is required for adults. Some have bait shops and other services. Check individual websites for details.
Radnor Lake does not allow fishing; its specialty is wildlife-viewing. It is an outdoor photographer's paradise, abounding with deer and turkeys, ducks and geese, hawks and owls, and an occasional fox, beaver or otter.
Alvin C. York Scenic Park is small, but steeped in history. An ancient grist mill sits beside a waterfall, and across the road is York's home-place, converted into a museum.
From history to hiking, from fishing to photography, there's something for everybody in Tennessee's state parks. And you can't beat the price.