Our beautiful state of Tennessee is home to some of the most diverse landscapes in the east. Spanning ten distinctly different regions, the geology, geography, flora, and fauna of the state are almost unmatched in terms of diversification. Windswept peaks along the Unaka Mountains frame the eastern edge of the Ridge and Valley province, birthplace of the mighty Tennessee River. The broad tableland of the Cumberland Plateau serves to divide the Tennessee Valley from the Central Basin, home to our capital city of Nashville. The Tennessee River once again crosses the state as it cuts through the rolling hills western uplands. These finally rolling knobs finally give way to the flatlands of the coastal and Mississippi alluvial plains in the far western reaches of the state.
Within each of these geographic provinces are unique habitats home to amazing creatures, many rare, endangered, or endemic to that locale. Cedar barrens dot the prairies of Middle Tennessee, with several also being found along the ridges near our end of the state as well. Lush cove forests and grassy balds are favorite features of our eastern highlands, home to the greatest variety of trees found anywhere in the continental United States. In the shallows of Reelfoot Lake, bald cypress groves give the area an aura of allurement as well as mystery.
Many of our treasured areas are protected by state or federal lands in the form of national parks, state parks, and national forests. Wildlife refuges and management areas also provide a safe haven for the plant and animals which share the land with us. What about those areas which may be too small, are relatively unknown, or which need the protection a park provides but has a fragile ecosystem that would be damaged by the development of park infrastructure? That’s where our state natural areas come in.
Created in 1971 by the passage of the Natural Areas Preservation Act, our state currently boasts eighty-five state natural areas. The majority of these are on the Cumberland Plateau and throughout Middle Tennessee, but there are plenty of parks on either end of the Volunteer State as well. The primary purpose of these areas are to protect unique geologic formations, threatened or scarce plant communities, and vital wildlife habitats. The final goal is to have a park representing every distinctive natural community that can be found within the region.
A handful of these natural jewels have been covered in past issues of The Loafer. Ozone Falls provides breathtaking views of its namesake waterfall and will serve as a destination point along the Cumberland Trail. Closer to home, Bays Mountain Park is also registered as a state natural area and is probably more developed than most others. Others in our area include Hampton Cove in the highlands of Unicoi County, Watauga River Bluffs near Elizabethton, and Morril’s Cave in Bluff City.
This week serves as the Tennessee State Natural Areas Celebration Week, an annual celebration of these wonderful but often unappreciated parks. Between April 1st and the 9th, residents and visitors alike are encouraged to drop by one of these parks to reconnect with nature. Guided hikes, walks, and other special programs will be conducted by park rangers and staff that are free for all to attend! If you can’t make it to one of these remarkable excursions, we highly encourage you to still put aside some time to visit. Whether you have the time to embark on a weekend backpacking trip or just pause for an hour of meditation alongside a stream, it will be time well spent.
If you are open to suggestions, we have a couple of recommendations for this week. Watauga River Bluffs State Natural Area is on the smaller side at fifty acres but has a beautiful hiking trail which meanders along the river’s edge. Take your time to enjoy the sounds of the water rushing by on its way to Boone Lake. Fishing is allowed and easily accessible from the trail itself. Keep your eyes open for the extremely rare Carolina pink, which should be blooming this time of year.
If you’re up for a bit more adventure, you might want to venture over to Bays Mountain Park or further to House Mountain. Located near northeast of Knoxville, the peak is the highest point in Knox County and provides great views of both the Cumberland Plateau and the Great Smokies as well. 5.8 miles of trails allow for a great day of hiking. Two smaller nature trails make great family walks as they venture out from the main parking area, while the Mountain and West Overlook Trails are a real grind for even experienced hikers. The views from both overlooks and along the Crest Trail are well worth it. We’re sure you could spend hours sitting on the rocks just like us, soaking in the sun and enjoying the breezes which often course over the mountain.
For more information on the state natural areas system as well as a full schedule of events during this week’s celebration, please visit the following website: www.tennessee.gov/environment/article/na-na-events.
Photo: From atop House Mountain, hikers can see all the way to the Great Smoky Mountains to the Cumberland Plateau.