Joan Payne has visited 54 of the 56 Tennessee state parks.
Her goal of visiting every single one of our parks started almost 20 years ago, when a ranger at Mousetail Landing introduced her to the Tennessee State Parks “passport” program that enables visitors to get stamps from each park they visit.
“It wasn’t my mission to visit all of them. One of the rangers mentioned it to me, and I thought it was more geared to kids, but I wanted to do it,” said Payne, who is retired from Sears and from the Tennessee Department of Labor.
“I really enjoy the parks and the passport give me incentive to do it,’’ she said. “I think people will be surprised at how much they can do in the parks – and that each one is so different. You can look up online activities your kids might enjoy, or you can just pick up and go for a day of exploring.”
Each visit is different – she has made day outings, she has hiked as little as a mile and as far as five or 10 miles in the parks, she has camped, and she has enjoyed lodge and cabin accommodations. She has gone with friends, with her spouse, with grandchildren and alone. She even spent a weekend in a cabin at Tims Ford Park with her “dancing girls” square dancing group.
Payne, 69, who lives in Old Hickory, has taken pontoon cruises, gotten on the water in a Jon boat and in a canoe, and enjoyed a swim in some of the park lakes.
“I’m a water person and really prefer the parks that have water,” she said, noting that parks like Paris Landing, Tims Ford, and Edgar Evins are among her favorites.
She also likes a bargain and says the state park rates are affordable, and especially for her as a former state employee, eligible for a nice discount on accommodations.
Payne said she loves that she has enjoyed some fun and sometimes mildly scary adventures along the way:
On one trip to Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park outside Memphis, one evening she and her companions drove to Beale Street and got lost in the park on the way back.
“I called the ranger station and told her that we could hear a dog barking and she said, ‘don’t move, I’ll find you.’ She did and led us back to our cabin. It was scary at first and then fun.’’
At Edgar Evins’ Silver Point Lodge, she somehow got locked out on her balcony and had to get call out to a group of children on the playground to ask them to call the ranger from a pay phone” to let her back in.
She had a scary experience in a rented Jon boat at Reelfoot Lake State Park when the water turned rough and made it tough to get back to land.
And at one park, Big Hill Pond – with no ranger at the visitor center, she reached over the counter and “stamped my own book.”
And I love the story of her visit to Fall Creek Falls, where in 2016 she rented a lodge room for herself for two nights to study for an algebra exam that was part of her back to school late in life business management degree.
“I would study for few hours, take a break and go hike for 1-2 hours and repeat. And yes, I passed the test.” And she received her degree, which was a “personal goal” and “a way to show my kids and grandkids that it could be done.”
The only Tennessee state parks left for her to visit are Fort Pillow in Henning, north of Memphis; and T.O. Fuller in Memphis Her goal is to visit both of them before the end of this year, to complete her Tennessee State Parks passport with visits to all 56 parks.
Payne clearly loves our state parks and encourages others to take advantage of them. “It’s a good affordable way to get outside and hopefully plant that seed in our kids and grandkids,” she said.
54 down and 2 to go!
Some of Payne’s recommendations
Favorite park: Norris Dam in Rocky Top: There is a “wonderful two-story museum (Lenoir Museum Cultural Complex), bluegrass band, beautiful park and lake.”
Best memory: Cumberland Mountain in Crossville, “I still have a walking stick my friend made out of wood picked up along the trail there.” She said the park has paddle boats, a swinging bridge, and a museum. “And we almost burned down ‘Coon Cabin,’ ” she said explaining that the fireplace in the rustic cabin got super smoky and she and her companions eventually extinguished it and decided to just add some blankets to the bed for warmth.
Best food: fried chicken at Chickasaw park in Henderson. She also mentioned great food in the dining rooms at Cumberland Mountain, Paris Landing and at Montgomery Bell parks.
Best views: Tims Ford
Canoeing: Canoeing at Radnor Lake with seasonal ranger-led floats “ is really fun.” There are also canoe rentals at Long Hunter State Park.
Other activities: Natchez Trace in Wildersville has lots of activities and you can stop by the Minnie Pearl winery on the way. Cedars of Lebanon has square dances and a very nice pool, she said.
Most recent visits: Harrison Bay Park near Soddy Daisy, where she camped at the lake and Cumberland Trail Park on the Cumberland Plateau which she visited earlier this yar.
Payne’s advice to park visitors
• Go online to the parks’ web sites (tnstateparks.com/findapark) and find out what is going on in the park you want to visit. Most of the parks have programs, festivals and nature activities, particularly in the summer.
• Stop by the ranger station and talk to the rangers because they have lots of information about their parks and to pick up a passport.
• Take down the phone number of the ranger station in case you need help.
• Wear good shoes or hiking boots and take water with you on your hikes.
• Get a passport and enjoy exploring all of these beautiful parks.
About the Passport program
The Passport Program, which is 10 years old, was started with grant funding from the Tennessee Department of Health’s Office of Primary Prevention to encourage park visitors to explore all of the “amazing state parks,” according to Tennessee State Parks.
“Those who finish their passports by receiving all 56 park stamps can mail their passport to our central office in Nashville,” said Parks spokeswoman Kim Schofinski. “In return, we’ll send them a certificate, a letter from our Deputy Commissioner, and a voucher for a free hike with State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath (plus the passport is mailed back)”
“We also encourage people who are unable to mail their passport in to send us a short clip of them thumbing through and showing their stamps in order to receive the award,” she said. “They may also drop their passport off in-person at Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park.”
Park officials say the program is intended for all ages and said roughly a dozen people have completed and sent in their passport.
For more information, see tnstateparks.com