This post was freelanced for Tennessee State Parks, originally published on their blog as “A Tale of Two Parks: Outdoor Adventures in the Heart of Memphis,” and for which I was financially compensated.
When Fall Break rolled around this year, my family was excited to visit a part of the state we don’t often reach. We were heading to Memphis, the great metropolis on our state’s western border that, until 2017, had long been Tennessee’s most populous city. Not only would we be tourists in this place we had yet to deeply explore, we were excited to visit the area’s two state parks!
Shelby County is home to Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park and T. O. Fuller State Park, both within a 30-minute drive of downtown Memphis. They have provided the Memphis community access to outdoor recreation since the 1930s, but each has a very different, historically significant origin. During our early October visits, as the last of summer’s warm rays of sun shone and the leaves were just beginning to crisp, we hiked; we canoed; we picnicked; we spotted animals; and we met rangers who eagerly shared the stories of these spaces.
T. O. Fuller State Park
Located within Memphis’s southern city limits, T. O. Fuller State Park is just a stone’s throw away from some of the city’s other great attractions; it’s 12 minutes west of Graceland and 15-20 minutes south of the National Civil Rights Museum, the Peabody Hotel, and Beale Street. In 1937, the Civilian Conservation Corps bought 1,000 acres of what had once been farmland to establish a state park specifically for African Americans. At the time, public facilities in the state were segregated–Shelby Bluffs State Park would serve Black visitors, while the park space developing to the north of the city (present-day Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park) would serve whites. When Tennessee’s Division of State Parks launched the operation of four state parks in 1938, Shelby Bluffs (later renamed T. O. Fuller State Park in 1942 to honor Dr. Thomas O. Fuller, a prominent African-American minister, activist, and state senator) was one of these four.* It would be the first state park open to African Americans east of the Mississippi River and only the second in the nation. Until Tennessee State Parks desegregated in 1962, T. O. Fuller remained one of only two parks for Black visitors, despite the system’s expansion to (at the time) 16 total parks.
We learned this history from Park Ranger Daulton Degner. On the day of our visit, we stopped in the Visitor Center for the kids’ passport stamps and received a warm welcome from park staff Julie and Victor who were quick to call Ranger Degner to come down and greet us.
T. O. Fuller only has about eight miles of trails, but according to Ranger Degner, they are some of his favorite spots in the park. “The Discovery Trail is completely underrated,” he says. It’s a four-mile loop that passes through some of the most interesting sections of the park, including wetlands and a former Mississippian Indian village.
Just outside the Interpretive Center is the 2.4-mile Tires to Trail loop. Opened in 2022, the trail is a series of meandering paths through an area that was once the park’s golf course. When the golf course closed in 2012, the park began a restoration of the space back to native grasslands. Today, it’s one of the only grasslands in the Memphis area. The Tires to Trail project made use of over 24,000 used tires that had been illegally dumped in the park and surrounding area, collected by volunteers, and recycled to create a pedestrian- and bike-friendly trail on old golf cart paths.
“People don’t realize they have a really diverse forest so close to Memphis,” says Ranger Degner. The park’s trail system is a specific project of interest for him, one he hopes to continue to develop in the coming years so that visitors to the city will, “take a moment to walk the trails and enjoy a little piece of the outdoors.”
The park’s location on a bluff overlooking the floodplain of the Mississippi River, and right in the heart of the Mississippi Flyway, attracts numerous species of birds, especially during the spring and fall migratory seasons. The forested Discovery Trail and grassland Tires to Trail path are both popular birding locations, as well as a more “under the radar” spot where West Mitchell Road ends at a barricade. “The road is closed to cars, but visitors can walk down,” advises Ranger Degner. “It leads to a pretty wetlands area that’s great for birding and viewing wildlife.”
Visitors can view wildlife up close at the park’s Interpretive Center. Ranger Degner introduced us to the owls, frogs, turtles, snakes, and hawks that call the park home, most of whom, due to injury, are unable to safely be released into the wild. The animals are IN, frequent subjects of programming, both in the park and out in the community.
There are 45 campsites at T. O. Fuller that attract visitors from the local area and beyond. With its close proximity to downtown Memphis, the campground serves as a great home base for visitors also exploring the city and its attractions. The sites are spread out and shaded under a canopy of trees; each has electrical and water hook-ups, as well as a fire ring, grill, and picnic table; and amenities include a picnic pavilion, playground, and recently renovated bathhouse that includes restrooms, showers, and laundry facilities. Here, in this quiet patch of nature, it’s easy to forget a major city is buzzing just outside its perimeter–and that is definitely part of its draw.
CHUCALISSA INDIAN VILLAGE
Our final stop in the park was one that has so much to share, it deserves a day-long visit of its own. Chucalissa is a prehistoric archaeological complex with ceremonial and burial mounds built by people of the Mississippian culture between 1000 and 1400 AD. The site was discovered by workers during the park’s initial construction and is now maintained by the University of Memphis as an educational site. We perused the museum and hands-on archaeology lab to learn the history of the area; outside, we strolled the reconstructed village to peek into the lives of the land’s original inhabitants. The Chucalissa Indian Village, located off Plant Road on the western edge of the park, has a separate entrance fee and operating hours vary.
*The others include: Cumberland Mountain, Harrison Bay, and Booker T. Washington State Parks.
Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park
It is an impressive statistic to host the 6th largest state park within a major city’s metropolitan area. Meeman-Shelby Forest covers 12,000+ acres of bottomland hardwood forest (aka: river swamp) along the Mississippi River to the north of downtown Memphis. Like many of Tennessee’s present-day state parks, Meeman-Shelby Forest’s story began as a New Deal project of the 1930s when the area was eroded farmland. Conservationist Edward J. Meeman, editor of the Memphis Press-Scimitar, was certain the land could be restored to a flourishing, native forest, and the citizens of Memphis further advocated for the development of a recreation area. The National Park Service provided the money, while the Civilian Conservation Corps (and later the Works Progress Administration) provided the labor to turn the land into a public space with cabins, trails, playgrounds, picnic areas, and even a man-made lake. In 1944, the National Park Service transferred the park to the state, adding Meeman-Shelby Forest to Tennessee’s growing system of state parks.
Meeman-Shelby Forest is huge! And because of this, there is a wide range of activities it offers to visitors. Ranger Jeff Hill met us at the Visitor Center on a quiet, beautifully clear Tuesday morning to share an insider’s perspective of the many things this park has to offer.
BOATING, PADDLING, & FISHING
Today, Poplar Tree Lake provides water access for paddling enthusiasts and fishermen, but the land it covers was once a valley that was flooded during the initial construction of the park to provide recreation space as well as habitat to many rare species of flora fauna. Ranger-led paddle tours are a frequent offering on the park’s events calendar. We had just missed a weekend fall foliage tour, but the park rents canoes, kayaks, paddle boards, and pedal boats to visitors. (Life jackets are provided; you can also launch your own boat for $2.)
The four of us took a spin on the lake, slowly cutting through the water in our canoe, passing fishing boats anchored quietly in the lake’s inlets. We watched as waterfowl ascended from shorelines, gliding over the oak, hickory, and maple trees that surround the waters. The intention with which the park was planned nearly a century ago has created a showpiece of successful ecological restoration for future generations. “We have an abnormally diverse tree population here in the park which blesses us with all the fall colors you could ask for,” shares Ranger Hill. Though the calendar was settling into October during our visit, it would be another few weeks until the leaves around Poplar Tree Lake would be at their color peak. The cypress trees down at Eagle Lake, though, were popping with color. As one of the Mississippi River’s few remaining wetlands, the swamp known as Eagle Lake is a true sanctuary to many species of wildlife, including dozens of endangered ones. Access is closed to park visitors, except by ranger-led tours which are, fortunately, a frequent and popular offering.
ACTIVITIES AND AMENITIES
It was still late morning when we finished our canoe paddle, giving us plenty of time to explore the immediate area of Poplar Tree Lake’s boat launch. Just across the parking area, the nature center hosts exhibits on the area’s wildlife and geology (open Memorial Day to Labor Day), but the park’s resident barred owl and hawk are housed in the outdoor aviary and can be viewed even when the nature center is closed. Like nearby T. O. Fuller State Park, Meeman-Shelby Forest is an excellent spot for birding because of its location and diverse habitats.
The playground and picnic area nearby were the perfect spot for lunch. We met several families who were part of a local meet-up, taking advantage of the gorgeous Fall Break weather. Between the swings, musical equipment, and climbing walls, it was hard to drag the kids away to eat! For visitors older than playground age, the park boasts 45 holes (three courses) of disc golf, leveled for players of all ability and experience levels.
There is a huge array of activities and programming offered throughout the year. According to Ranger Hill, park staff continuously work to diversify both the programs it offers and the skills they can impart upon visitors. Past programs include an introduction to camping, photographer’s tours, wild clay pottery classes, kayaking lessons, and candle-making. The “park after dark” floats on Poplar Tree Lake are his favorite. “The serenity the lake offers hours after sundown is unrivaled.” The park’s events page provides details on upcoming programs and, in many cases, offers online registration.
When I asked Ranger Hill what he considered the park’s most popular attraction, he didn’t hesitate with his answer: “Our park is most frequently used by people using our trails. From the casual hikers to groups of trail runners that host multiple races each year to our dedicated team of horseback riders who lobbied for, created, and maintain our beautiful horse trails.” Meeman-Shelby Forest offers over 20 miles of hiking trails within minutes of downtown Memphis. The 3.1-mile Woodland Trail is the park’s most popular and the one we explored after our canoe paddle. It’s a moderately difficult path that loops through dense forest; the elevation begins high on the bluff and descends down to creek level. Our 3-year-old’s legs were able to handle the climbs and drops independently, especially when stairs had been built into the trail for more stable footing. Our kids climbed up and over huge tree trunks that crossed our path, felled by the past spring’s destructive storms, and once we reached the creek, they enjoyed peeking under rocks and skipping stones from the bank.
The Chickasaw Bluff Trail (8 miles) and the Pioneer Springs Trail (4 miles) are the park’s other two pedestrian-only trails; the 5-mile Bicycle Trail has many paved sections that are great for strollers; and the 8.5-mile Horse Trail is open to both horses and hikers and offers the park’s only trail overlook of Poplar Tree Lake.
At every Tennessee State Park I visit, I ask park staff from where most of their visitors come… and I am still surprised every time the answer is, “all over.” At Meeman-Shelby Forest, many visitors are local, coming for day trips and weekend getaways. But with its prime location just off I-40 and its proximity to downtown Memphis, the park sees visitors from all around the world seeking a respite in the outdoors.
The park’s campground has 49 sites with water and electrical hookups; a 140-person group camp is available from April to October; and there are six rustic 2-bedroom cabins tucked into the woods along the shores of Poplar Tree Lake. Overnight guests can seek sunset views at a lesser-known spot in the park; the TWRA boat launch on the far western edge of the park provides views of the sun setting over the mighty Mississippi River that will no doubt leave visitors with a sense of peace.
Despite their different histories and appeals, both of these Memphis-area state parks have future-driven conservation at the top of their priority list. T. O. Fuller employs creative recycling and reuse to address its most immediate environmental threats; the very existence of Meeman-Shelby Forest demonstrates what is possible in a conservation-minded community. As Ranger Hill concludes, “I hope that our guests can capture a brief glimpse of the natural world that leaves them hungry for more.”
Date: October 2023
Count: 28 & 29 of 57
Must-See: At T. O. Fuller, visit the Chucalissa Indian Village for an immersive historic experience of the land; at Meeman-Shelby Forest, explore either of its two lakes by boat.
Click here to read more of our adventures in Tennessee State Parks!