Tennessee as a state is known for many things, from Jack Daniel’s and moonshine to country music and the blues. Our state is also known for its natural beauty, with icons like the Smokies always coming first to mind. Another state favorite which draw thousands a year are the dozens of lakes and reservoirs that dot the entirety of the state. They attract professional fishing tournaments, ordinary vacationers, and wildlife enthusiasts from near and far.
If you traveled back in time a hundred years ago, the state’s countryside would present a much different picture. Natural lakes are almost nonexistent across the Volunteer State, with Reelfoot Lake on the western Tennessee border being the sole exception. Man is responsible for all others, with many resavoirs being constructed in the 30’s and 40’s as electric power was in high demand for factories as well as the Manhatten project in Oak Ridge. More dams were erected in later years to control flooding, enable barge transport, and supply yet more power as city populations boomed.
Cove Lake, a small impoundment of several hundred acres located in Caryville, Tennessee, was one of the earliest such projects to be constructed. Its lake filled in 1936, just after the nearby Norris Dam project was completed. In fact, TVA constructed the Caryville Dam to protect the town from the rising waters created by the much larger dam just a few miles to the south. As part of a project to create public recreation areas on condemned land around the Norris Lake region, Cove Lake State Park was established at almost the same time. Park facitlities were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a government organization which provided jobs for young men who were unemployed due to the Great Depression.
Located just at the foot of the Cumberland Mountains and underneath the rocky pinnacle known as Devil’s Racetrack, Cove Lake State Park is easily accessible directly off Interstate 75. The entire park centers around the lake, with the main facitlities located on the eastern shore of the lake. The western end of the park is composed of natural woodlands, with a hiking trail and connections to the Cumberland Trail the only facilities available. Compared to most other state parks, Cove Lake lies on the smaller side, with just over six hundred acres included in the park boundary. Still, there is more than enough opportunties for exploration and enjoyment that the park’s size will have no impact on your visit.
The centerpiece of the preserve is, of course, the lake itself. This is one of the few instances where a man-made lake may actually have benefited local wildlife populations, for the shallow waters provide a home for a multitude of creatures, with waterfowl extremely plentiful throughout the marshy areas and on the main lake itself. Great Blue Heron, kingfisher, geese, duck, and a variety of other birds paddle the placid waters, and we even caught sight of a magnificent whooping crane on our recent visit! The park has constructed an observation tower on a portion of the lake to allow birders an optimum location to view the wildlife without disturbing them. Be careful walking to it, however, as high waters can sometimes turn the path into muck.
The park’s main walking trail borders the lakeshore on two seperate sides and also makes a scenic loop through a portion of its wetlands. Hold onto small children, but stop and wonder at the beauty of a landscape that we have all too little of here in East Tennessee. If you want an even closer look, you can ply the waters in jon boats you can rent from the park, or you can bring your own canoe. Fishing is allowed, with bass and crappie some of the species you can expect to catch.
Park activies don’t all involve the lake, of course. A great restaurant within the park seats over one hundred guests and is open year-round. The olympic-sized swimming pool is open during the summer months, and a nearby ball field is a great place to get together for a good ol’ game of baseball with the kids. The usual picnic pavilions and campground are provided, as they are at most other state parks. Here you can also make the jump over to the Cumberland Trail state park, which climbs southbound up the steep sides of Cross Mountain or to the rocky crags of Devil’s Racetrack northward. This park is also a great Pokemon nest for those of you who still play Pokemon Go. (Yes, we are still playing that game, belive it or not!) We caught upwards of twenty of the extremely rare and elusive Onix there on our visit last week, so head on up before the nest changes with the next Pokemon migration!
For park info, rental information, and hours, please visit tnstateparks.com/parks/about/cove-lake. Directions: From I-81’s terminus at the I-40 interchange, take I-40 West 28.5 miles toward Knoxville. Take exit 393 for I-640 west and follow this 6.5 miles. Use the right lane to take exit 3A for I-75 North, and follow it 26.4 miles to exit 134 (Caryville/LaFollette). Turn left at the exit and then turn left after 0.8 mile to enter the main park road.
Photo: Cove Lake has a many different animal and plant species that will make your trip more enjoyable.