It was the very best kind of winter day to enjoy the outdoors. The temperature was an average December-level cold (mid- to upper-40s), but the cool, crisp air was warmed by the sun shining in a nearly cloudless sky. For a late morning walk, it was perfect.
On the way home from our winter break cabin stay in East Tennessee, we took a detour to check another park off our list. Cove Lake State Park is just 15 minutes north of Norris Dam and right off I-75. The histories of the two parks are intertwined; when the TVA built Norris Dam, they also built the Caryville Dam to protect the town of Caryville from the waters of the Norris Reservoir. The resulting Cove Lake offered another location in the area for outdoor recreation, and this state park (along with Norris Dam and Big Ridge) were developed simultaneously by the TVA.
The location of Cove Lake State Park is less isolated than many other parks we have visited. It’s sandwiched between I-75 and a highway, bordered by residential streets. The picnic shelters and lakefront walking trail offer peace and quiet, but it lacks a remoteness; you can’t forget civilization is just outside the park exit.
A 3.8-mile paved trail loops through nearly the entire park. We parked at the end of Cove Lake Lane, near Picnic Shelter #1, and climbed the few stairs to the top of the Wildlife Observation Tower. The Cumberland Mountains are visible in the distance, contributing to the park’s hemmed in feeling. The drastic cold of earlier in the week was moving out, but a layer of ice lingered on top of the water. Ducks swam along the edges where the water was open; a heron flew to the shore, quickly hidden among the brush. The path continues west of the lake into the woods, but we headed east and walked along the shore. Our kids were thrilled with the playground, and it was a pleasant enough temperature outside that we didn’t complain either.
The park’s campground is surprisingly large – 100 campsites situated in three adjoining loops. Two of the loops (two-thirds of the sites) are closed from mid-November until mid-March, but the lower loop is open year-round and sits alongside the northern branch of the lake. During warmer months, the boat house is open for rentals.
Before departing, we enjoyed lunch at Rickard Ridge BBQ, the independently-run restaurant located on park property. It was quiet, having just opened for lunch, but a permanent musicians’ corner hinted at busier activity. The Christmas decorations were still up, and a photo album sitting on the hearth held snapshots from holiday celebrations of years past.
Our visit to Cove Lake SP was brief – a pleasant, exploratory leg stretch before a long drive – but it gave the impression of a resource often frequented and much appreciated by its local residents. We crossed paths with solo joggers, groups meeting up for a stroll, and friends chatting in the parking lot while leaning on their cars. This park seems less of a vacation destination. Instead, it’s a community space, built into the ritual of everyday lives.
Date: December 2022
Count: 24 of 57
Region: East Tennessee
Location: 30 miles northwest of Knoxville, 1/2 mile off I-75 on Highway 25W
Must-See: Walk the 3.8-mile paved trail for a full tour of the park
Click here to read more of our adventures in Tennessee State Parks!