Children’s Fun in Upper East Tennessee
“Deer like the taste of the water lilies,” explains park ranger Bob Culler as he steers the barge closer to the deer standing shoulder-high in the water. Water lilies spread across a quiet inlet on this 44-acre lake at Bays Mountain Park by Kingsport.
Most of our ride is serene—watching great blue herons, cormorants, and giant vultures. Suddenly a stowaway deer mouse skitters between the rows of chairs and escapes into the water with a giant leap. He swims against the current and reaches the sandy bank, much to our relief. A young boy in our group worries about snapping turtles, and Bob tells him that they do like to eat mice.
The youngster—perhaps five years old—offers comments throughout Bob’s talk, making us listen all the more. A knowledgeable naturalist, Bob tells us about three beaver dams on the reservoir. He also mentions the red-eared sliders sitting on logs and the Eastern phoebe nest resting in an eave on the barge. He explains how the lake was originally built to supply drinking water to Kingsport until demand exceeded the supply.
“If we started taking water out of here right now—the way we use it today—this lake would be drained in three days,” he says during our 45-minute barge ride.
The staff at Bays Mountain has been teaching people about animal and plant life since the 3,550-acre city park opened in 1971. Children from five states pour in during the school year to visit the outdoor classroom, nature center and planetarium. Especially in the summertime, families come for picnics, hiking and mountain biking. They watch the bobcats, raptors, reptiles and amphibians in their habitats, the wolf enclosure being most popular since the birth of four pups. A highlight of our visit is the planetarium, a $1.3 million theater with a 40-foot dome. The film “Back to the Moon for Good” is showing through September.
We see plenty of families “making the loop” on the 2.5-mile Lakeside Trail, where benches, bridges, and overlooks encourage dawdling. The nature preserve has 40 miles of trails; some lead to ridgetop overlooks and a fire tower. Farmsteads and ropes courses are also part of the park.
Kingsport has two more attractions perfect for family fun in the summertime. A water playground is just down the mountain. The pools and lazy river of the Kingsport Aquatic Center are jam-packed on this hot day. Youngsters are dangling from climbing structures, shooting water cannons, slipping down slides and playing splash games.
Darrell’s Dream, an incredible children’s playground, also has young people going full speed on merry-go-rounds, swings and climbing towers. They climb the tree house, get lost in the maze, and follow the pathway to Narnia, a trail based on C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The children’s complex, designed to be a boundless playground, is located at Warriors’ Path State Park. The state park offers a swimming pool, picnic tables, hiking, biking, fishing and horseback riding.
In neighboring Johnson City, the Hands On! Regional Museum holds lots of fun activities for children. East Tennessee State University Natural History Museum, located between the two cities, has activities related to the Gray Fossil Site. Children can dig for fossils, make casts of bones and play Fossil Feud, all the while learning about saber-tooth cats and other creatures that once roamed the area.