Hops and Skips

Tennessee State Park Tour: Old Stone Fort

There’s a frustrating lack of perspective when considering history beyond a certain point – the centuries that lie beyond our grasp of understanding, when the day-to-day experience is so far removed from our present that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to relate. You walk previously trodden paths in the mind of an ancestor and think, “What did this place look like? What am I doing? How do I connect with the world around me?” And sometimes it’s nearly impossible to imagine the answers, because nothing about the moment or space is familiar.

Old Stone Fort State Park is such a place. Technically speaking, it’s not just a state park, it’s a state archaeological park, which adds a deeper dimension of preservation to this designated protected space. It boasts a rich history that spans centuries, but were you to simply stop at Old Stone Fort for a hike, without giving thought to its name and origin, you’d probably never notice any of this.

It was our second visit to Old Stone Fort, the first with two kids tagging along. Our customary stop at the Visitor Center introduced us to Johnny, the lone man behind the desk of the park office/gift shop/museum. He, like us, was a state park enthusiast, and we enjoyed one of those lovely, meandering conversations that kept leading unexpected places. We learned how he turned a recent road trip to meet up with a fellow “knapper” into a sixteen-hundred mile, sixteen park tour of Tennessee that ended with a marriage proposal. To me, these are the best kind of chance encounters – the people that enhance the experience of a place. 

According to Johnny, the best “hike” for us would be the 1.4-mile Enclosure Trail loop, and we trusted his expertise. Atop a peninsula squeezed between the Duck and Little Duck Rivers sits the old stone “fort” dating back to the Middle Woodland period, a mere 1,500-2,000 years ago. Here, walls of stone reached 4-6 feet high, encapsulating around 50 acres of flat land most likely used by these settlements as a ceremonial space. The trail follows the perimeter of this enclosure, but these fragments of the past are hardly evident. 

The trail begins behind the Visitor Center, the roof of which doubles as a scenic overlook of the Duck River. An immediate fork in the road demands a choice – to follow the path in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction? Veer right, choosing counter-clockwise, and the first portion of the trail will hug the bluffs of the Duck River. Blue Hole Falls appear quickly on your right; continue along the trail for another quarter mile to reach the more stunning Big Falls. The trail along here is rather confusing and poorly marked but allows for some exploratory wandering. Make your way down to the river bank by whichever path necessary for close-up views of the falls; once you climb back to the highest ground, you’re most likely back on the official trail route.

Near the falls, you’ll run across remnants of a more recent past, a 19th-century mill built by the Stone Fort Paper Company that once supplied newspapers to the Southeast. But the enclosure’s older ruins – those walls and entry points – are less obvious, buried or overgrown into mounds that could be inaccurately attributed to the natural curves and irregularities of the land.

The Enclosure Trail’s mileage can be extended by following the turn-offs for the Moat Trail, Backbone Trail, or Forks of the River Trail, though we limited our trek to the 1.4 miles. The final stretch (when following counter-clockwise) spans the flat, open fields of the enclosure – a stark change in landscape for a relatively short hike. 

While there’s plenty of nature to enjoy in this park (several additional trails are located near the campground), it’s the history that deserves the most attention. And because it’s so easy to miss, be sure to visit the Museum or do some research of your own to accompany your visit. Even better: take advantage of one of the park’s free guided history tours to learn in-person from a Park Ranger.

CHECKLIST:

Date: November 2021
Count: 15 of 56
Must-See: Walk the 1.4-mile Enclosure Trail and check out the Museum for some context.

GETTING THERE:

Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park is located outside Manchester, TN, just about halfway between Nashville and Chattanooga. From Nashville, follow I-24 E towards Chattanooga for about 50 miles to exit 105. Turn right off the exit onto US-41 S (Murfreesboro Highway) and follow for about 4 miles. Entrance signs to the park will be on the right, just after crossing the Duck River.

Additional source: Tennessee Encyclopedia

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

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