Rare hikes & paddles at Reelfoot Lake state park this fall
When we planned our late-September camping trip to Reelfoot Lake State Park (near Tiptonville in northwest Tennessee), our timing seemed off.
It wasn’t fall enough to witness how cool weather colors the bald cypress. Not winter enough to invite the eagles.
(The eagles, you see, may as well be Reelfoot’s mascot. So many of the birds winter here, the park fills eagle-sighting tours throughout January and February.)
Yet there we were in late September, the bald cypress soaring above us, their beauty transcending seasons. Once you’ve stood next to one, it won’t surprise you to learn it’s a redwood relative. It won’t matter to you whether the feathery foliage is dusky green or incendiary orange. The trunk is so sculptural; the canopy so paradoxically wispy and weighty, you’ll be moved to grab a sketchbook or camera to document it.
The trees ring Reelfoot Lake and rise inland at random. Their sawed-off trunks punch through and lay across the lake’s surface. While the eagles come and go, the trees endure. They’ve stood watch before this land was tamed by anyone – before it was divvied into a state park and national wildlife refuge; before farmers tidied it into puffy rows of cotton; before the lake even existed.
Research, records and legend tell the story, one that began with tremors along the Mississippi Valley in late 1811 and ended in early 1812 with what is likely the strongest earthquake ever recorded in North America. It’s a story so tumultuous, eyewitnesses recount the ground rising 20 feet; the Mississippi reversing on its course and crashing over the forest, submerging the bald cypress and creating 18,000-acre Reelfoot Lake. There’s an arguable amount of creative liberty woven into this Chickasaw account, but I find it a mesmerizing tale of Chief Reelfoot’s punishment for stealing a wife from the neighboring Choctaw tribe. Imagine, amid the marriage celebration, the earth rocking in rhythm with the drums, the Great Spirit stamping his foot and the Father of Waters (Old Muddy) filling the footprint – burying Chief Reelfoot, his star-crossed lover and all of their village at the bottom of the lake.
The park’s R.C. Donaldson Memorial Museum is free and packs a surprising amount to see, including a seismograph, fantastic nature photography of the area and a number of animals (fish and snakes inside; bald eagles, owls and a red-tailed hawk outside). A boardwalk behind the museum leads to the lake and its cypress-y fringes:
I’m no angler, but I know that a sunken forest marks fishing gold. October into winter is said to be a good time for catching crappie, and the park offers plenty of piers, boardwalks and banks to fish from, as well as cleaning stations and proximity to bait and tackle shops and boat rentals. Just be sure to have your fishing license and lake permits in order before you cast.
We had no trouble finding a lakeside spot in the park’s South Campground, but the park also operates a few apartment-like units (and there are several inns within walking distance). For a hike, we traced the 1.5-mile Keystone Trail, the park’s only lakeside route. Look for the trailhead where the lawn gives way to the forest, beyond the pavilion/picnic area and pier. Fellow visitors raved about seizing the rare chance to explore Little Ronaldson Slough on foot – one of the largest stands of old-growth bald cypress in Tennessee, the traditionally-submerged area is currently open for ranger-led walks due to this year’s historically low water levels.
Enchanted by the lake, we joined a guided canoe float instead. Our ranger accompanied us to the end of the pier and trained his spotting scope on a group of fuzzy-somethings in the middle of the lake: American white pelicans. We teetered into our canoes, paddled close and got an eyeful, some with binoculars and fancy cameras. We angled toward the shore on an uncharted course (low water levels exposed more cypress stumps and knees than ever, and we found fun in dodging them). There, the ranger pointed to egrets and great blue herons. And then it landed: a bald eagle atop the tallest bald cypress in our panorama. Perfect timing.
Reelfoot Lake State Park’s Old Growth Cypress Forest Hikes and Guided Canoe Floats are available by reservation select Saturdays and Sundays. The ranger-led tours are free, though donations are always welcome. Call 731-253-8003 for details and reservations.
Bonus: In southwest Tennessee, board a Fall Color Pontoon Trip at Natchez Trace State Park. I can attest to how pretty a summer sunset reflects in the park’s Pin Oak Lake, and can only imagine how magnificent the place looks dressed in its fall finest. Reserve your spot at least one week in advance by emailing Alisha.Weber@tn.gov, and arrive early the evening of your trip for supper at the park lodge.
What’s your favorite spot in West Tennessee to watch the leaves change?