Hops and Skips

Tennessee State Park Tour: Dunbar Cave & Port Royal

Since we’ve embarked on this mission to visit all the Tennessee State Parks, I have come to realize that there is no real catch-all to define exactly what a “state park” is or offers. Obviously, they are plots of land owned and managed by the state; and most people would probably next label them as nature preserves, or spots to enjoy the outdoors. But I’ve learned that the history, purpose, and features of each park vary to a surprising degree, and it’s well worth exploring the uniqueness of each. 

Dunbar Cave and Port Royal State Parks are perfect for a 2-in-1 day trip destination. In fact, after visiting, I’d actually discourage a visit any other way; they are both on the smaller side, and you’d be stretched to find enough to fill a full day at each. I first got a hint these weren’t your typical state parks when I did my standard preliminary research on the TN State Parks website and discovered their Activities pages to be a bit devoid of its usual listings. You’re not going to find some of the standard features of a state park you may expect, like extensive hiking, picturesque views, bird-watching, or other outdoor activities. Instead, you’ll find two patches of land that are preserved for other reasons.

DUNBAR CAVE STATE PARK

Typically, my checklist for visiting a state park includes a hike, a visit to the visitor’s center, and, if possible, a chat with a park ranger. But more importantly, I believe that, in this mission of ours, we should be looking for the extraordinary, inimitable features of each park, whatever they may be. Before visiting Dunbar Cave, I found that its website does list hiking as an activity… but with a name like Dunbar Cave, do we think its three miles of hiking trails are the real draw?

If you’re visiting Dunbar Cave, you’d be remiss to skip the actual cave. The park offers daily tours with the recommendation to make reservations ahead of time online. Unfortunately, children under the age of four are not allowed in the cave, and with our two-year-old, a tour was out of the question. Instead, I reserved spots on a shorter guided walk-and-talk with a park ranger on the cave’s history as a sacred space.

After a fairly mild summer up to this point, on the mid-July Saturday of our excursion, it was hot – the kind of hot where the air is heavy, immobile with humidity; heat emanates from any paved surface; pests circle your ears and, if they land, are stuck in your sweat. We met Marley, our guide, at the Visitor’s Center, and began the short walk down a paved path to the cave’s entrance. In the modern era, the cave was first settled by Thomas Dunbar in 1784 and has retained his name ever since. Development boomed after the Civil War as a natural springs resort, and the two-story Idaho Springs Hotel was built. The area in front of the cave was enlarged as a dance floor, and it became a popular spot for musicians and dances.

In the 1930s, the resort was expanded even further. The cave’s stream was dammed to form Swan Lake, offering fishing and boat rentals; a bridge was built across the lake to open up land for nature hikes; a swimming pool and bathhouse were constructed. (Today, the original bathhouse serves as the park’s Visitor’s Center.) Because the cave’s temperature remains a consistent 56 degrees year-round, the cool air that blows from its mouth served as a respite from the heat before modern air-conditioning. Needless to say, it was very popular during the hot summer months – one of the area’s most popular nightspots during the 1940s, in fact, featuring famous performers such as Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Lena Horne.

But obviously the cave area was inhabited long before the Civil War, and its uses far pre-date Big Band dances. This year, the park has focused its entire mission on highlighting the Native history of the cave and surrounding area. Evidence of inhabitants date as far back as 8,000 BC, but the most telling evidence is from the Mississippian era (800-1500 AD). Cave drawings from this time indicate the cave was used as ceremonial space; Marley, our guide, shared details about its spiritual importance, as well. These Native Americans divided the world into three realms: the earth on which we live; the sky and heavens, which we (unlike winged creatures) cannot access; and the underworld, which is also forbidden to us. The cave offers access to this unattainable underworld realm, and for allowing this temporary admission, the space was considered a sacred one.

Like the Hidden Lake Resort in Harpeth River State Park, it’s difficult to vividly picture this space as it existed in decades past. Structures remain, but the twinkle of music notes from bygone eras have long been reclaimed by Mother Nature.

Oh, and we did finish our visit with the 1ish-mile Short Loop Trail. It was a short, pleasant hike that loops around the cave and finished along the lake. Tack on the Recovery and Grassland Trails for a much larger loop.

PORT ROYAL STATE PARK

These two parks are close, just about 12 miles apart, so after a quick lunch in Clarksville, we headed over to Port Royal State Park in time for a 1PM historical tour, aptly named “From Commerce to Collapse.” I say “aptly” because you’ll realize the second you drive up to this small parking lot next to an old, seemingly vacant building that its heyday was long in the past; whatever this once was, it obviously must’ve “collapsed” at some point.

I’d highly recommend taking advantage of this weekly Saturday and Sunday tour (reservations required online). Without the information it provides, you’d struggle to contextualize the history of the area and certainly miss its markers of significance. Our tour began next to the old lodge, which also serves as the Visitor’s Center, though its interior is currently under massive renovation. The town of Port Royal was established in 1797, shortly after Tennessee earned statehood, as a tobacco inspection point; its strategic position on the Red River provided passage for trade heading down to New Orleans. What began as a small port continued to grow with the construction of a silk mill, general store, churches, taverns, etc. Our guide led us down the original Main Street, across the (present-day, modern) road from the lodge, which just looks like a gravel path. It’s hard to imagine this road once lined with buildings and busy with commerce!

Port Royal’s history is not only linked to river trade, though; the town was the final stop on the Trail of Tears before the Cherokee left Tennessee via the northern relocation route. Here, they camped and replenished supplies on their way to Oklahoma in 1838-1839. A small portion of the route is featured in the .5-mile River Bottom Trail.

The Park Rangers here are historians, storytellers. After our walking tour along Old Main Street (don’t miss the 1889 Pratt Truss Bridge at the end), we returned to this derelict building that once served as a general store and Masonic Lodge to hear more of its story. The town was built with enslaved labor, the bricks of the remaining lodge crafted by hand. A thumbprint recently discovered in one of the building’s bricks may be the only remnant of a life that contributed to this history that lingers. The Rangers are renovating this old building to be the park’s hub of information. They’re rebuilding it by hand, using old construction methods for authenticity, basing designs off the evidence of what remains – no contractors or renovation crews. It’s a slow process, one that takes great pains to discover the hidden histories and share the everyday experiences of lives long forgotten. (The park’s Facebook page is a fantastic source to explore these stories.) There’s no deadline or projected date of completion, but this space will truly be a treasure when it’s done.

CHECKLIST:

Date: July 2020
Count: 6 & 7 of 56
Must-See: Take a guided tour of both; you’ll miss out on a lot of history and context otherwise. 

GETTING THERE:

Both parks are located near Clarksville, TN, about 45 minutes from Nashville. Take I-24 W, heading to the Kentucky border. For Dunbar Cave, take exit 8 and turn left onto Rossview Road. After 3/4 mile, take a left onto Dunbar Cave Road, and follow through the light at Warfield Blvd. The entrance to the park, and its Visitor’s Center, will be on the right. To access Port Royal from I-24 W, take exit 11 onto TN-76 E. After 3 miles, there will be a split; take the left fork onto Old Clarksville Springfield Road. The parking lot at the Visitor’s Center will be on your right just before hitting Port Royal Road.

Click here to read more of our adventures in Tennessee State Parks!

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