Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge

Stop 129: Tennessee Travels

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

We started our exploration of state #46, Tennessee, in the Chattanooga area. (Technically, we actually were in Tennessee briefly when we visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a few weeks ago.)

Tennessee became the 16th state of the United States in 1796, and later left the Union to join the Confederacy in the Civil War. It earned its nickname, The Volunteer State, during the War of 1812 when volunteer soldiers from Tennessee displayed marked valor in the Battle of New Orleans. The state’s slogan (adopted in 1965) is: “Tennessee – America at its best!”

Mining, manufacturing, and music dominate much of the state, as does farming (soybean, tobacco, and cotton). Of course, tourism is also a growing industry. Nashville is the capital and largest city, recently surpassing Memphis — both of which we will visit during our travels in the state. (If you’re wondering, Chattanooga is the fourth-largest city in the state.) The state flower is the Iris and the tree is the Tulip Poplar.

After visiting Gettysburg earlier in our travels and Kennesaw Mountain (and the fall of Atlanta) just a few weeks prior, we were not expecting to encounter another pivotal Civil War battlefield in Tennessee — until we pulled into our RV park and watched a DVD about it. We discovered that two 1863 battles for Chattanooga marked a major turning point in the war. It turns out that Chattanooga was known as the “Gateway to the Deep South.” The Confederates were victorious at nearby Chickamauga in September, but two months later, Union troops prevailed in renewed fighting and took control of the Chattanooga area — a major loss for the Confederate and a critical point in the war.

In the proper order: The Civil War begins in 1861. The Union prevails in Gettysburg in July 1863; the Union defeats the Confederacy at Chattanooga in November 1863; the Union and Confederacy fight to a draw at Kennesaw Mountain in June 1864, but Atlanta falls to the Union in July 1864. The Civil War ends with surrender in April 1865.

The next day, we visited the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, a 9,000-acre park that consists of four main areas: Chickamauga Battlefield, Lookout Mountain Battlefield, Missionary Ridge, and Moccasin Bend. It is the oldest and largest of the Civil War parks. We started at the Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor Center, which includes extensive exhibits, the Fuller Gun Collection, an orientation film and fiber optic map, maps of hiking and biking routes, and information on how to experience the Civil War history offered within the park units.

We chose the Lookout Mountain Battlefield as our main unit and drove up to first hike the Glen Falls Trail, a fairly short (1-mile RT) and relatively easy forested hike to a very interesting waterfall. Along the way, you will also pass some stunning cliffs and boulder fields. The falls themselves are pretty enough, but do NOT miss climbing up the rock steps located across the bridge past the falls — which lead to a narrow cutout/tunnel above the pool, with views of the creek above. The trailhead for this hike is a small pull-off on Ochs Highway. (See pictures from the hike in the first collage, above.)

Lookout Mountain

After the hike, we continued the drive to the top of Lookout Mountain to visit Point Park and continue with more hiking of the mountain. Point Park Gate (shown in the collage) was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is a replica of its insignia and is the entry to the park. Several cannon batteries mark locations of the sieges. The massive New York Peace Monument dominates the area. (Fun fact: The materials used include Tennessee marble and Massachusets pink granite as a symbol of reconciliation.) At the very north end of the park — down a series of stone stairs and a pathway — sits the Ochs Memorial Observatory (which offers views of Chattanooga and Moccasin Bend, as well as a small Civil War museum).

From the observatory, one can proceed to hike one of several trails on Lookout Mountain; we had planned to hike the 4-mile Bluff Trail. (The other main trail is the 1.5-mile Mountain Beautiful Trail.) We were only about a quarter mile into the trail when we received a phone call; believe it or not, but we had to call a mobile RV repair service to deal with more complications from the repair of our trailer back in Georgia. The dealership had winterized our trailer (without our authorization) and in doing so, had loosened some connections that led to flooding in and under our trailer, and we wanted a professional to evaluate and fix the issue… so, when they called to tell us they were on their way, our hiking for the day was over.

Fun facts about Lookout Mountain: it is a mountain located at the northwest corner of Georgia, the northeast corner of Alabama, and along the Tennessee state line. Both Lookout Mountain and Sand Mountain (to the southwest) are part of the southernmost end of the Cumberland Plateau. And, amazingly, like so many other places we have visited, the area was lifted from an ancient sea. (And while you may not be able to see the detail, the one boulder in the collage definitely looked like it was once underwater.)

The Lookout Mountain area also includes touristy places like Ruby Falls, Rock City, and the Incline Railway.

Before we left the area, we stopped by a Costco Wholesale (Store #1083) in nearby Ringgold, GA, and not only bought groceries and filled our gas tank, but we also refilled our propane tank — one of the excellent benefits Costco has added to many of their locations!

By the way, we did not have the time to visit any of these waterfalls, but there are several within about an hour or more from the city, including: Falling Water Falls (Falling Water Falls State Natural Area), Great Falls (South Cumberland State Park), Laurel Falls (Laurel-Snow State Natural Area), and Foster Falls (South Cumberland State Park).

Music City… or… Nash Vegas


From Chattanooga, it was time to visit Music City… Nashville, the state’s capital and most populous city (and growing in size daily) — and the 24th largest city in the U.S. The city was founded in 1779 and named for Francis Nash, a general in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Continuing with our Civil War history, in 1862, Nashville was the first state capital in the Confederacy to fall to Union troops. 

And believe us when we say that the unofficial nickname of NashVegas works… the city is crowded with people (even on a cold day in early March) and along Lower Broadway (known as Lower Broad, the city’s touristy area with 50+ bars), people are standing, siting, and riding on trucks, buses, and trailers pulled by tractors drinking and having a good time to a plethora of music. We encountered multiple bachelorette parties drinking and dancing to the music. (Maybe Nash Orleans is a better nickname.) We also encountered simply too many people — and while we had hoped to find an uncrowded bar/saloon to sit and enjoy some music, the scene was just too overwhelming for these two introverts with sensitive ears.

We stayed at the Nashville KOA Resort, not far from the Grand Ole Opry. The campground was decent; the section we stayed in had “deluxe patios” but also an older, beat up bathroom and weak Wifi. On the plus side, a downtown shuttle picks up daily on the hour and operates to early in the morning — which makes traveling to the city center much easier and cheaper than driving. The campground also has a “concierge” who helped give us some ideas for spending a day downtown — including a discount coupon for a 1-hour Gray Line City Tour. We thoroughly enjoyed the bus ride and seeing the sites — include the 1897 replica Parthenon that resides in Centennial Park, the city’s premier urban park. (Fun fact: The re-creation of the 42-foot statue Athena is the focus of the Tennessee Parthenon just as it was in ancient Greece. The building and the Athena statue are both full-scale replicas of the Athenian originals built for Tennessee’s Centennial Exposition.)

Nashville, TN

Nashville is also known as the Athens of the South because of its 20+ colleges and universities; the Buckle of the Bible Belt because of its 700+ churches; and the Hot Chicken Capital because of its specialty cuisine of very spicy chicken. By the way, the Music City nickname does NOT come from its deep history of country music and recording studios, but dates back to the late 1800s and the Fisk Jubilee Singers from Nashville’s Fisk University, when they sang for the Queen of England and she proclaimed that the marvelous singers must come from the “Music City.” Interestingly, the first music venue in Nashville, the original Ryman Auditorium, was built in 1892 when riverboat captain Tom Ryman completed what was originally named the “Union Gospel Tabernacle.” (It was renamed in his honor after his death in 1904.) In 1925, the establishment of radio station WSM and its launch of the broadcast that would be called the Grand Ole Opry further secured Nashville’s reputation as a musical center — and Music City. Of course, there’s also Music Row, a key focal point of Nashville’s music industry for almost 70 years. (Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, B.B. King, Ben Folds, Faith Hill, Miranda Lambert, and Keith Urban and are just some of the artists who have made great music on Music Row.)

Nashville is located along the Cumberland River, the almost 700-mile long river that originates in the Appalachian Mountains before its confluence with the Ohio River near Paducah, KY… which then drains into the Mississippi River. As we stood on the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge in Nashville — listed on the National Register of Historic Places (because of its unique truss design) — we again witnessed a river overflowing its banks and flooding streets and pathways. By the way, the bridge is pretty awesome and provides some great views of the Nashville skyline. (Fun facts: the bridge includes four scenic pedestrian overlooks that, in the metal of the railing, have artistic renderings of the history of life on the Cumberland River. The bridge is also lit at night.)

Funny aside, the day we strolled around Nashville we went looking for a public bathroom, which was hard to find and strange since there are SO many people drinking on the party buses (and everywhere)… and Google led us to a park (Public Square Park) that was supposed to have restrooms. We never did find any there, but we did hear part of what would become the last major rally for former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. (In case you were concerned, we snuck into a nearby hotel and used a restroom there.)

Sofar Nashville

In terms of finding great music in Nashville, our musician friend Logan Pilcher turned us on to something new to us… Sofar Sounds, a music event organization that brings together musicians and audiences in mostly intimate settings… just what we were hoping for when we planned this stop in Nashville.

Sofar events are a cool concept… three artists perform — with no opener or headliner. Each artist has the same amount of performance time. Also intriguing for those of us considering purchasing tickets (if we are invited to do so)… the line-up for a concert is not disclosed until the event starts; also, while you learn of the general location, the actual address is not disclosed until 24 hours before the show. Most events are BYOB and focus on audience respect for the artists.

The Sofar Nash event we went to was wonderful. It was held in a co-working facility, offering a limited number of chairs and sofas, and audience members were encouraged to bring blankets and pillows for additional floor seating. Nashville local Jack Schneider started the performances with a nice mix of songs, followed by the gentle keyboardist and singer Sam Mooney, who hails from Mississippi. The show ended with a scaled-down version of Birmingham’s Oxford Con with frontman Connor McCullum.

Sofar Sounds is not yet in Spokane… but we hope to help make that happen when we get back to the area!

As an aside, we left Nashville just two days before the March 3rd tornados that hit the city and surrounding parts of Middle Tennessee. Officials say the storms left 25 dead and damaged or destroyed homes, businesses, schools, and churches across four counties. A charity concert was performed on Monday, March 9th: To Nashville, With Love.

Elvis Presley’s Memphis

Graceland - Elvis Presley

We traveled from Nashville to the western edge of Tennessee for a visit to the state’s second-largest city, Memphis — located along the (flooded) Mississippi River. Pre-Civil War, the city was known as a major center for the slave trade; after the war, lumber and cotton became major industries. It is now one of the nation’s leading commercial centers in transportation and logistics — with FedEx the largest employer.

Like Nashville, Memphis is also known for its music scene — with historic blues clubs on Beale Street. And while Nashville has its hot chicken, Memphis has its barbecue. It is also where the King of Rock and Roll lived most of his adult life.


Our main goal for this stop was a chance to visit Graceland, the former residence of Elvis Presley. A number of tour options are available, but our goal was to see Graceland, Presley’s car collection, and two of his airplanes… so we went with the Elvis Experience Tour. FYI: Parking is not included in the price of the tickets, so be prepared to spend another $10 on parking.

The tour starts with a short orientation film. Then you are given an iPad and headphones and loaded on a bus that takes you to the actual estate. The entire tour is narrated and guided via a program on the iPad. The mansion is really rather modest — but it was also purchased (for $103,500) by Elvis back in 1957 when he was not quite the King, and pivoting from concerts and performances to movies… and just a year before he was drafted into the U.S. Army. The Colonial Revival style mansion was built in 1939 and named Graceland by the original owners.

The tour only covers the first floor — and various outbuildings. The second floor of the mansion is off-limits; these rooms were Elvis’ private quarters and the family keeps those private… which is fine because the tour has plenty — on the first floor, you get to see the living room, dining room, kitchen, and Jungle Room, while in the basement, the media room and pool table room, make it all worthwhile. You also get to tour several outbuildings (including a racquetball studio) and the meditation garden, which includes the graves of Elvis and other family members. Everything here was left largely the way it looked at the time of Elvis’ death in 1977. (The entire complex is operated by Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., which is owned by Authentic Brands. The Presley family retains ownership of Graceland and its original items.)

Presley Motors

After the house tour, we took the bus back to the Graceland Complex, moving on to Elvis’ vehicles and a beautiful exhibit called Presley Motors housed within a large building called Elvis Presley’s Memphis. Besides the wonderfully restored cars (including several Rolls Royces, as well as a Lincoln Mark 3 and Mark 4, Cadillac, MG, Ferrari, and Stutz Blackhawk), the museum includes his motorcycles (including an old tractor used on the farm), a massive archives collection, a section housing memorabilia from his days in the U.S. Army, and a cool exhibit called ICONS: The Influence of Elvis Pressley, which includes quotes and memorabilia of country and rock stars influenced by Elvis. In terms of cars, Elvis supposedly owned more than 100 Cadillacs during his lifetime — giving many away to associates and friends.

The last piece of our Elvis experience was taking a tour of his two planes, which are parked in a lot just outside the complex. You gain access (if you have paid for it) through a gift shop titled Graceland Air. (If you only care about seeing the planes, you can easily do so from the parking lot… for free.)

Graceland Air

The exhibit includes two planes that you can tour … a 1958 Convair 880 called the Lisa Marie that features a living room (with quadraphonic 8-track stereo system), conference room, sitting room, and private bedroom, as well as gold-plated seat belts, suede chairs, leather-covered tables, and 24-karat gold-flecked sinks in the two bathrooms. Elvis nicknamed the plane the “Flying Graceland.” He also sometimes referred to to the plane as “The Pride of Elvis Presley Airways.” You can also tour a smaller Lockheed Jet Star, customized by Elvis with a yellow and green interior, and which was primarily used for taking Elvis’ manager and his staff from city to city on his concert tours. Elvis’ famous TCB — “taking care of business in a flash” — logo can be seen on the tails of both planes.

The one sad part of the complex is the amount of trash that sits in a creek between the planes and the main exhibits… with all the money the Presley family and Graceland charge for entrance (and the additional revenues from the gift shops, restaurants, parking, and concerts), it seems they should be able to afford to have someone pick up all the trash in the creek on their property.

By the way, somehow we missed this piece of information, but if your goal is seeing Graceland, the complex actually includes an RV park — from which you can walk to everything. (We stayed at a “Memphis” KOA about 20 miles from Graceland.) For those looking for a hotel room within walking distance, The Guest House at Graceland might be the best choice.

On a somber note, Memphis is also known as the location in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Today, the National Civil Rights Museum is housed in the Lorraine Motel — where King was assassinated.

Memphis also offers the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, Pink Palace of Family Museums, and a crazy Bass Pro Shops Pyramid (which was built in 1991 and which used to house a 20,000-seat arena; it now contains a mega-store, hotel, restaurants, a bowling alley, and an archery range… with an outdoor observation deck adjacent to its apex).

Back to Nature at Reelfoot

From Graceland and Memphis (and still recovering from NashVegas too), we traveled to Reelfoot Lake State Park, a 25,000-acre park located in the northwest corner of Tennessee near the town of Tiptonville — to immerse ourselves back into nature. Amusingly, as we traveled up to our last stop in Tennessee, we drove in parts of Arkansas and Missouri, following the Mississippi River (yet again).

Reelfoot Lake State Park

Reelfoot Lake is a rather large (15,000 acres), but shallow (maximum depth of 18 feet and an average depth of 5.5 feet) lake — formed in the early 1800s when a series of violent earthquakes caused the land to sink and the Mississippi River to flow backward for a short period of time, filling the sunken land. (In fact, the lake is referred to as a submerged forest, and Cypress trees and tree stumps are still in the lake.) The lake is a perfect natural fish hatchery (for large-mouth bass, catfish, bream, crappie, bluegill, and other species of fish). Amazingly, it is the only large natural lake in Tennesse. In 1966, Reelfoot Lake was designated as a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service. The lake and surrounding area offer opportunities to see 14 rare bird species, including Bald and Golden Eagles, Swainson’s Warblers, Peregrine Falcons, and Mississippi Kites.

We especially enjoyed the South Campground at Reelfoot Lake State Park, where for the vast majority of our time camping there, we were the only folks in the entire campground! In fact, the most visitors we saw were wildlife, including a pair of bald eagles, bluebirds, cardinals, robins, and lots of squirrels. Not surprisingly, several of the campsites were completely flooded from all the rain. The state park has two campgrounds, as well as a small number of cabins for rent.

Reelfoot Lake State Park visitor center

Even if you don’t camp at the state park, you really should make a stop at this wonderful state park — including visiting the R.C. Donaldson Memorial Museum and Nature Center. The center’s attractions include non-releasable raptors (bald eagles, hawks, and owls), snakes, and other wildlife of the area. There’s also a lovely and short (.45-miles) boardwalk hike along the southwestern edge of the lake. The park contains 404 acres broken into 10 segments situated along 22 miles of shoreline (and with several boat launches and day-use areas).

We happily discovered that Company 1453 of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was tasked with the development of the state park. Their work included general improvement of all land around the lake, removing dead and fallen trees, clearing land, building roads, and constructing docks, park stands, a keeper’s lodge, and picnic shelters. (The young men of the CCC were paid $30 per month — of which $25 was sent home — and also received housing, food, medical, and dental care, as well as education benefits.)

Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge

Besides the state park, Reelfoot Lake is so important that it also has the Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge, a 10,428-acre park that was established in 1941 for protecting and managing the upper third of Reelfoot Lake as a refuge for migratory birds — and to serve as a buffer zone, protecting parts of the lake that were not protected by state land. The entire lake and wetlands serve as a major stopover and wintering area for waterfowl of the Mississippi Flyway (a migration route that generally follows the Mississippi, Missouri, and Lower Ohio Rivers.) We enjoyed hiking the Grassy Island Hiking Trail, a 1-mile in and back (or loop along the roadway) trail through a forest. (You access the trailhead via the Grassy Island Auto Tour — which ends at an observation platform overlooking Reelfoot Lake and provides an awesome view of sunsets over cypress filled waters, as shown in the collage.) 

The next day, we tried to do more hiking in the state park, but we were warned that most of the other trails were under water or extremely muddy from all the rains, including the 1.5-mile Keystone Trail and the 2-mile Black Bayou Trail. We did attempt a hike in the Reelfoot Lake State Waterfowl Refuge, but did not get that far.

Next up, we head into our second-to-last state on this 48-state adventure… venturing into Kentucky.

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