It’s a rule you only need to learn once: Never go camping during a Southern summer. It’s oppressively hot, suffocatingly muggy; it’s a recipe for sleepless misery.
But the last weekend of June, we broke the rule and further tempted fate by adding two young kids to the mix, as well.
We’d originally planned to stay at Mousetail Landing State Park back in April for our inaugural family camping trip, but it rained heavily the week prior and all the tent sites were under water. The last-minute change of plans earned us a campsite credit, and, after a few tech snafus and back-and-forth phone calls, it seemed safer to use that credit sooner rather than later. With the added advantage of weeknight availability (thank you, #teacherlife), we were able to snag the primitive campground’s premier locale – site number 1, a spot that, according to the Park Manager, is usually booked solid.
Mousetail Landing State Park is located on the Tennessee River, downstream from the Kentucky Lake shores we visited in the Spring. It’s one of the smaller parks in the system at just over 1,200 acres. It’s also one of the newest, established as a State Park in 1986. During the 1800s, the area was a notable river community, shipping goods from its nearby tanneries. According to local legend, one of the tannery buildings caught fire in the mid-1800s, forcing a mass exodus of mice towards the landing and thus giving the area its unique name.
This overnight trip carried a fair amount of significance since it would be our first camping trip as a family of four, not to mention our first with an infant. When we began adventuring with our eldest at an early age, we operated as three people much as we did as two; it just required a little more preparation and flexibility. It’s how we planned our first family camping trip: add another sleeping bag; stagger bedtimes; bring extra flashlights. But as we packed for this trip with a fourth person added, we were hit with the sudden reality that it might require a little more adjustment than just an added blanket. And the more we thought about it, the more ridiculously ill-prepared our usual laidback approach seemed. There was no way we could turn our 3-person tent into a 4-person one to house two adults, a 3-year-old, and an 8-month-old. Did we want to sleep? Did we want to even make it through the night? In a last minute decision of sheer brilliance, we impulse-purchased a gigantic 8-person tent on clearance from Dick’s for curbside pick-up on the way to the campground. If it lasted through the night, it’d be worth the $100.
Once off the interstate portion of our drive, we followed rural two-lane roads surrounded by dense forests scattered among grassy lowland plains. The elevation climbs gradually on approach to the park’s official entrance, but the park’s primitive (tent) campsites hug the peninsular shores of Spring Creek, an inlet of the river that hugs the park’s southern border. Pass the main entrance, and you’ll find lake houses and a group lodge tucked into the ridge before the road cascades down to the boat ramp and campground.
It was immediately obvious why Campsite 1 is the best in the park. It’s the first to reach as you enter the campground, and its amenities appear to match the rest – a parking pad, fire ring, and picnic tables near the main road. However, it’s situated on a small peninsula of its own, allowing the site to extend far beyond what’s at first glance. Seventy yards beyond the car park, through the trees, there’s a small clearing perfectly sized for a tent and surrounded on three sides by the lake. You hear water lapping the shores, and you have utter privacy.
We arrived in the late afternoon, giving us time to set up camp and take a quick, exploratory stroll before settling in for dinner. Later, we fell asleep by the buzz of summer insects, nighttime calls of water fowl, and the whir of our battery-operated fan (a saving grace). Our impulse purchase was immediately justified, as our monstrously-sized tent allowed us all sufficient space so that even our youngest, most inconsistent sleeper did remarkably well and allowed us as much sleep possible on a hot, sticky night outside.
While the Spring Creek area of the park boasts water access, the meat of the park lies north of the inlet where the elevation is higher. Here you’ll find picnic pavilions, playgrounds, a swimming beach, the main campground, and numerous trails (including a mountain biking trail and overnight trail with backcountry shelters). The Visitor Center was unexpectedly closed during our visit, but we followed the brochure’s recommendation of the 3-mile Scenic Trail for a post-breakfast hike. It begins just behind the Visitor Center and quickly begins an elevation climb as it trails the ridge. Without kids, or in cooler temperatures, three miles is an ideal jaunt, but in our present state it seemed like a lot. A hum surrounded us; insects buzzed in our ears, then stuck to our sweat-soaked skin as we swatted them away. Fresh bridge threads draped across our path at every turn, that single line of spider silk tangling in our hair, our nose, our arms – a constant warning that it was we who were trespassing. We followed the trail for its first mile until it dropped down to meet up with the park’s main road; we exited the forest just across from Spring Creek’s beach, an ideal spot for an old-fashioned hot summer swim with Mother Nature, and walked along the road until it connected us with our car once again.
I’m almost skeptical of how smooth this family camping trip actually went. I feel certain that the next time we venture out, we’ll be cursed by any number of the possible calamities we managed to avoid this go-around. But we tried it, which means we’ve already done the hardest part. And as soon as the temperature drops at least 20°, we’ll seek another night out under the stars.
Date: June 2021
Count: 14 of 56
From Nashville, head West on I-40 for about 45 miles to exit 143. Follow the exit south towards Linden, along TN-13 S. Continue for about 12 miles, through Lobelville, and turn right on TN-438 W. Pay attention to road signs; you will have to turn left (after 7 miles) and then right (after 3.5 miles) to stay on TN-438 W. After another 6.5 miles, the park entrance will be on the right, via Mousetail Landing Road.
Click here to read more of our adventures in Tennessee State Parks!