Hops and Skips

Tennessee State Park Tour: Nathan Bedford Forrest

Our three-year-old is a certified Curious George addict. Few days pass without tuning into an episode (or three or four…), and I’m okay with this because she learns about so many new things from it. Seriously, her knowledge base has grown drastically from all the places, people, and experiences featured in George, and she frequently wants to take those stories and make them her own.

One such experience is camping. For Christmas, she asked for a sleeping bag and tent, spending nights in her bedroom floor or the den by the light of her new solar-powered camping lantern. But once the weather warmed up, we knew it was time to venture out for real. Our Spring Holiday just before Easter was the perfect opportunity, but an extraordinary amount of rain in the area caused the campsite we had booked to flood. Rather than postpone, we swapped destinations for a last-minute stay at Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park.

As you drive away from the sprawl of Nashville, things start to get very rural rather quickly. And once you’re off the interstate, there may be miles and miles of scattered houses or farms with no sign of business or industry in sight. I always imagine how these residents fill the time. Where do they work? Do they go out with friends? What do they do for fun? You’ll suddenly stumble upon signs of life, evidence of a community: a bank, an elementary school, a Dollar General, or, if it’s big enough to be called a town, a Main Street or town hall. And just as quickly, you’re back to long stretches of empty road.

This was the drive through Camden, TN, and then the even smaller town of Eva, as you approach Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park. The two-lane country road veers toward Kentucky Lake to its east, eventually hugging its shores as it leads into the park.

The land’s history has surprising military significance. Prior to the Civil War, the Nashville and Northwestern Railroad ran from Nashville twenty miles west to Kingston Springs. When the Union army occupied the city in 1862, the line was extended another fifty miles to Johnsonville, located on the eastern shore of Kentucky Lake (and just across the way from what is now park land). The railroad served as a supply line for federal troops and stored large amounts of food and munitions. As Sherman was marching south to Atlanta in 1864, the Confederates aimed to attack the Union’s rear and sever their supply lines. General Nathan Bedford Forrest was sent to attack the Union depot at Johnsonville, alarming the Union army; they believed Forrest’s Confederate forces were more superior and would capture the depot, so the federal army destroyed its supplies to prevent seizure. (Neither assumption proved true.)

The park’s land, once family-owned, was donated to the state in 1929, and a large granite obelisk was erected on the top of Pilot Knob, a memorial to the Battle of Johnsonville. In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration constructed the roads and park facilities, and it operated as a local park until designated a state park in 1963.

We arrived in late afternoon as shadows were beginning to lengthen. The early-April sun was warm but not enough to shake the chill of the shade. There was no rain on the horizon, but the forecast projected a late frost; overnight temperature were dropping to an unseasonable 30°, just in time for our 3-year-old’s first camping trip. After a warm welcome at the Visitor Center, we ventured off to find our home for the night. We were staying in the park’s Happy Hollow Campground with the RVs [rustic, tent-only sites are available at the Lakefront Campground, but they were also flooded] and lucked out with site 23, situated on the bank of a babbling brook and generously spaced from campsite neighbors.

There’s a short 1-mile trail that runs along the creek just behind the campground – the Girl Scout Interpretive Trail, built by a local Girl Scout that includes signs highlighting the nature found along its path. It was the perfect small adventure for our arrival. As the sun dropped lower, a quiet descended on the forest surrounding us; nature began to settle in for the night. We hustled back to our site to finish setting up and eat before darkness fell.

Our first night camping as a family went surprisingly well. Grilled hotdogs, roasted marshmallows, and Smores inspire the kind of excitement that comes with novel experiences, and our daughter, clearly worn out from it all, decided for herself when it was time to go to bed. We snuggled into our 3-person tent, piled with blankets, and hunkered down for a cold night. When we woke with the rising sun, the only one to complain about the cold was Colin!

Had we departed immediately after breakfast, we would have missed a more complete picture of this park’s terrain. We headed up to Pilot Knob where the Interpretive Center hosts the Tennessee Center Folklife Museum, sharing the life of customs of people living along the lower Tennessee River in the 19th and 20th centuries. Pilot Knob is one of the highest points in West Tennessee, and the lofted view over the river makes it clear why this was a strategic position in battle.

It has been with some consternation that I have spoken, and now write, of this experience; to non-Tennesseans, the name Nathan Bedford Forrest probably means very little, but it’s one increasingly heard in our local news. Forrest was a General in the Confederate Army, yes, but post-Civil War he became the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. He is our local poster-child for the partisan political battles that have enflamed the nation over the cancellation or continued memorialization of such historical figures. I do not support the further ovation of Forrest (especially since, here specifically, his only connection to the place is a 160-year-old battle attack), and I especially find it unfortunate that such a lovely natural space – a space that is characteristically apolitical and fundamentally harmonious – is marred by his name. It’s 2021 and time for a name change.

That being said, that unfortunate link should not deter outdoor enthusiasts from visiting the quiet spot along the lake. The area is flush with local history; there are more than 20 miles of hiking trails; and the lake invites water sports and birdwatching. The campgrounds and cabins, like the park itself, offer a peaceful and secluded lakeside respite.


Date: April 2021
Count: 13 of 56

From Nashville, head west on I-40 for about 75 miles, crossing the Tennessee River. Take exit 133 and follow Hwy 191 N for about 15 miles. Turn left at the intersection with Hwy 70 BUS W; follow as it turns into Forrest Ave and enters Camden. Turn right on E Lake St (Hwy 191 N) and continue as it turns into Pilot Knob Rd for 8 miles until you reach the park entrance.

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

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