Hops and Skips

Tennessee State Park Tour: Norris Dam

With our busy schedule typical of a family of four, it’s not often we have the time to venture far east or west on this Tennessee State Park Tour of ours. But one perk of the education gig is extended seasonal vacations, and another perk is the 50% off-season educator discount to state park cabins, campgrounds, and lodges. (Yes, 50% off when booked 30 days or less in advance! Click here for details on all discounts.)

We took advantage of the quiet between Christmas and New Year’s and headed east for a two-night stay at Norris Dam State Park. Located 30 minutes north of Knoxville, this 4,000 acre park surrounds Norris Lake and offers ample space for outdoor recreation of all kinds.

As we were arriving at the start of rush-hour traffic, our route from Nashville took us along smaller highways, rather than in and around Knoxville. We traveled through Oak Ridge, of World War II infamy, and the town of Clinton, with a bustling business district and Main Street Americana appeal. (I would love to spend a day wandering and discovering the stories of Clinton!)

We arrived (now in Eastern time) an hour later than our clocks announced, as the winter sun was nearing the horizon. The park is split by the dam itself into an eastern and western side. We entered from the west, first visiting the Park Office and Visitor Center to check in before heading to our “Standard” cabin on this same side of the park. (The park’s other set of cabins, the Historic Civilian Conservation Corps ones, lie across the dam on the eastern side of the park.) The Standard Cabins boast three bedrooms, each with a queen-sized bed; a bathroom; living room; dining area; full kitchen; outdoor patio with dining table; TV; gas fireplace; and central heat and air. They sit at the end of a cul-de-sac on top of a ridge overlooking the lake. (Cabins 29 and 30 are the prime spots!) A large play area sits in the middle, a perfect location for our kids, just outside our door of Cabin 24.

In visiting so many of our State Parks, I’ve discovered that many of them share a historic commonality: the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Created in 1933 as part of FDR’s New Deal, the TVA launched numerous projects across the state (and neighboring ones) to control river floods, generate electricity, and provide jobs and economic growth to rural areas. At the same time, the Civilian Conservation Corps was formed to provide jobs to unemployed, unmarried young men developing America’s public outdoor spaces.

The construction of Norris Dam on the Clinch River began in 1933 shortly after the creation of the TVA itself. It’s the first dam built by the TVA, serving as a model for the 20+ dams they would build in subsequent years. As the TVA was building the dam, the CCC worked on the area that makes up the present-day eastern side of the park. Here, they built 20 cabins, a tea room to be used as a restaurant or meeting space, an outdoor amphitheater, and picnic area.

After a solid night’s sleep in a room separate from our children (!!!), we embarked upon our day’s adventures exploring all the park has to offer. Heading east towards the park’s “historic district,” we stopped first at the Norris Dam Overlook to take in an elevated view of the scenery. It was a perfect clear winter day; our gaze stretched over the dam, across the lake, and into the mountains that surround this Appalachian landscape.

The Norris Dam project, like many of TVA’s others, was not without controversy. When the TVA was created during the throes of the Great Depression, there was a great urgency to bring economic relief to the country, especially rural America. Thus, by design, the TVA was granted a large amount of power to get its work done quickly, one example being the right to exercise “eminent domain.” As a result, the TVA was able to obtain all the land it needed for its projects, “in the name of the United States of America,” despite said land already being owned or occupied. This resulted in the displacement of people, homes, farms, and entire towns – here at Norris Dam, similar to what we’ve discovered at Tims Ford and Edgar Evins, and to an even larger degree on the land that is now Smoky Mountain National Park. It’s a common, sacrificial history of the public spaces we enjoy today, though one that is rarely considered and often forgotten. To their credit, the State Parks do a fantastic job of sharing the histories of their lands, with particular attention to the stories of those who previously inhabited them.

Further down Highway 441, past the park’s historic district, we found evidence of these former ways of life on a tiny piece of park land that holds the historic Rice Grist Mill, Threshing Barn, and Lenoir Museum. The Will G. and Helen H. Lenoir Museum is open to visitors Wednesday through Sunday and displays artifacts of early Appalachian life as far back as 12,000 years ago. The Lenoirs collected these common, often mundane, items for over 60 years, hoping to preserve the stories and appreciation for this way of life, with its hard work and ingenuity, that was rapidly disappearing with modernity. Unfortunately for us, the museum was closed for the Christmas and New Year’s holiday, but we did take a stroll to explore the other pieces of history.

The mill was built by the Rice family in 1798, further east in Union County. For nearly 140 years it was operated by four generations of the Rice family until the TVA purchased their land to be flooded by the creation of Norris Lake. The CCC and National Park Service disassembled the entire mill and mill house structures, then reassembled in its current location. The threshing barn stood further east on the Holston River for just over a century until 1941 when the construction of Cherokee Dam flooded the land that is now covered by the Cherokee Reservoir. Prior to the flooding, the family donated the barn and thresher to the National Park Service who kept them preserved in storage before gifting to the State Park system.

We don’t visit a state park without embarking on a hike, and Norris Dam SP does offer lots of hiking options (fifteen different trails!) of manageable length. Many, however, are accessible only by connection from a different trail which adds substantial length to the hike. We’re currently in the phase where our two-year-old either screams to walk by herself or screams to be held, and it changes approximately every 90 seconds. Neither our bodies nor sanity can handle very long hikes at the moment, so we opted for the shortest options: the .4-mile Storybook Trail and the .5-mile Christmas Fern Trail. After driving through to explore the historic cabin and recreation area, we parked behind the Tea Room and found the start of the Christmas Fern Trail. It’s a loop trail that begins with a split. Both ways lead downhill, so we veered right down the staircase and headed towards the water.

I find winter hikes more refreshing than summer hikes. You take a deep breath, and the air is crisp. There is less chance of running into a spiderweb, or bugs circling your ears, or sweat drenching the clothes that are now clung to your body. As we hugged the ridge alongside the lake, fall’s long-fallen leaves crunched under our feet, and sunbeams glared through the bare forest. We reached the connection point with the Storybook Trail but, per the kids’ request, opted to head back up the hill and to the car instead of continuing. (Our route would’ve followed the Storybook Trail backwards, anyway.) Had time and ability allowed, I’d definitely hike the Andrew Ridge Trail, a 2-mile easy-to-moderate trail on the west side of the park the runs along the park’s highest point.

After our full day of exploration, we were thrilled to find that the dining establishment we passed on Highway 441 was fully open for business, despite this holiday season. And not only was it open – it was hoppin’! Located between the park’s eastern border and the tiny plot that hosts the Lenoir Museum et al., Clinch River Brewing is independent from the park, but it’s in a prime spot for park visitors. It had a warm and friendly vibe with plenty of tables, outdoor space to enjoy during warmer months, shelves of board games for all ages, and an appetizing food and craft beer menu. We weren’t the only family with small children present, and for ours, this was the very best kind of spot to end our day. We returned to our cabin – now warm and cosy with the fireplace roaring – for our final night’s sleep tired, sated, and satisfied.

CHECKLIST:

Date: December 2022
Count: 23 of 57
Region: East Tennessee
Location: Off Highway 441, just 2.5 miles off I-75; 25 miles north of Knoxville
Must-See: Enjoy the expansive view from the dam overlook; explore the stories of the east-side historic district

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

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