When I was a child, my family often vacationed at state parks. I recall rustic cabins and dingy, shared bathhouses that usually required a trek through the woods with my dad holding a flashlight—and my hand.
Today, state parks offer a whole new world of modern and comfortable accommodations, including meeting sites. Tennessee recently invested $184 million in its state parks, including building new lodges, adding restaurants, and performing renovations and upgrades. Six of the state’s 56 parks have lodges with meeting and event facilities, and they’re sprinkled throughout the state to offer a variety of outdoor adventures in peaceful natural surroundings.
“Not many business meetings can offer a nighttime guided hike followed by a cocktail overlooking the lake in front of a firepit,” boasts Cassie Rapert, sales manager for Tennessee State Parks. “Or a birds of prey program during an afternoon break, or a team paddleboard adventure to start the day. Depending on the park, there are also 18-hole golf courses, lakes and rivers, waterfalls, a canopy challenge course, swimming, boating, birding, hiking and biking trails.”
Kim Schofinski agrees. “Our lodges are on pristine lakes, adjacent to lush forests, and in the heart of Tennessee’s most special places,” says Schofinski, deputy communications director for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC). “Some of our lodges are conveniently located near major interstates and metropolitan areas, like Montgomery Bell State Park that’s less than one hour from Nashville, while others are in serene settings off the beaten path.”
The pandemic spotlighted the advantages of the great outdoors with fresh air and room to spread out. “Over the past few years, we have seen many more visitors seeking the outdoors amidst the chaos around us,” Schofinski continues. “The outdoors can be a sanctuary for mental and physical health.”
A bonus: Tennessee is one of only seven states in the country that do not charge admission to their parks, according to Schofinski. Even with free admission, the TDEC reports an economic impact of $2.1 billion during the state’s 2021 fiscal year, with 38.5 million visits.
Two new lodges recently joined the Tennessee state park system: the Lodge at Fall Creek Falls State Park and the Lodge at Paris Landing State Park.
The Lodge at Fall Creek Falls State Park is an eye-catcher set on a peninsula of Fall Creek Falls Lake in centrally located Spencer, Tenn. The surrounding parkland is carved out of nearly 30,000 rugged acres along the eastern edge of the Cumberland Plateau. The park’s namesake is a freefalling waterfall with a vertical drop of 256 feet, easily accessible via a new paved trail from the lodge.
An hour north of Chattanooga and about two hours from Nashville and Knoxville, the $40 million lodge opened in January. The property has 85 guest rooms including 3 suites, more than 5,000 square feet of indoor event space, and a full-service restaurant offering catering service and floor-to-ceiling windows with spectacular views of the lake. Meeting space is best suited for around 150 guests but can be set up to accommodate more. Not far from the lodge is the recently renovated Recreation Hall offering a meeting room, auditorium, and outdoor event area that can accommodate 175. And of course, there’s plenty of outdoor space, including an amphitheater and a 50-person-capacity Secret Overlook.
Don’t let the natural setting fool you. “We have state-of-the-art technology with everything a planner needs for a successful event,” says lodge general manager Zonda Holloway, who has worked at the park for 39 years.
In addition to the lodge, the park has 30 two- and three-bedroom cottages and cabins, all of which have recently completed renovations. Amenities at Fall Creek Falls include an outdoor pool, firepits, paddling rentals, rock climbing, an 18-hole golf course, and a new canopy ropes challenge course.
The Lodge at Paris Landing State Park sits on a point of land along the shores of Kentucky Lake in Buchanan, Tenn., in the northwest part of the state. Opened in June, the 91-room lodge includes six suites and features an outdoor pool, gift shop, and a full-service restaurant with indoor and outdoor dining and catering options.
The lodge offers more than 6,000 square feet of flexible indoor space, including pre-function areas, breakout meeting space,
a boardroom, the 2,640-square-foot Tennessee Ballroom, and the 1,176-square-foot Lakeview Room that opens onto an 1,800-square-foot terrace overlooking the lake.
The park has a nearly 10,500-square-foot standalone conference center that can host 1,200. In addition to the new lodge, there are 10 three-bedroom cabins. The 841-acre park sits at the widest part of the lake and features a full-service marina and 18-hole golf course, as well as plenty of outdoor venues and pavilions. Access to the 160,000-acre lake allows for numerous water activities just two hours from Nashville and three hours from Memphis.
Upgraded and expanded
The state’s investment in its parks included enhancements to the four other lodge areas.
Set on the estate of the former Tennessee governor for whom it is named, Henry Horton State Park is located on the Duck River in Chapel Hill, Tenn., about 45 minutes south of Nashville. This June, a new 6,381-square-foot restaurant and two-story visitor center opened at the park. A lounge and patio that seats up to 52 people provide additional dining options. Accommodations at the park include the 65-room Lodge at Henry Horton State Park and several two- and three-bedroom cabins.
Event space in the lodge includes four meeting rooms, with 2,000 square feet of space to accommodate up to 90 people, and an executive board room. The 3,150-square-foot Conference Hall across from the lodge has a stage and room for 300. In addition, the park offers a private dining room for up to 24 guests and outdoor spaces under pavilions and along the river.
Amenities at the park include ranger-led programs, guided river floats, hiking, biking, fishing, birding, disc golf, and trap and skeet shooting. Henry Horton was the first of Tennessee’s state parks to have a golf course and today is considered among the best in the state.
Less than an hour west of Nashville, Montgomery Bell State Park in Burns, Tenn., provides easy access to the great outdoors. Fully renovated in 2020, the 117-room Lodge at Montgomery Bell State Park rests on the shores of Lake Acorn and features a 6,048-square-foot conference center, with an executive boardroom, private dining room, meeting rooms, pre-function space, and ballroom, much of it with natural light from floor-to-ceiling windows. In addition, there are two outdoor spaces: the Lodge Terrace and the seasonal Lake Acorn Pavilion, which can accommodate up to 200 guests.
Comprising 3,850 acres that include three lakes, Montgomery Bell State Park has an 18-hole golf course; 10 miles of hiking trails; and rental kayaks, canoes, fishing boats, and pedal boats. Eight modern two-bedroom cabins with full kitchen, covered patio, and outdoor fireplace also are available.
About 2 hours east of Memphis in Counce, Tenn., Pickwick Landing State Park is known for outstanding water recreation, with swimming, fishing, boating, and a full-service marina. The 1,416-acre park also offers tennis, disc golf, hiking, and an 18-hole golf course.
In fall 2020, the park completed a full renovation of the 119-room Lodge at Pickwick Landing State Park and the conference center. General manager Mary Jane Mills says the transformation was complete.
“All of the guest rooms and baths, the conference center, and pre-function areas got new paint, carpet, and furnishing, but the biggest update was to our dining room,” Mills says. “That went from a cafeteria-style with no personality to a modern space with lots of ambiance with a full-service lounge and restaurant.”
Pickwick Landing has 6,000 square feet of flexible event space to accommodate 425 people, plus a 1,300-square-foot
pre-function area with lots of natural light and a newly renovated executive boardroom. The lodge offers access to Pickwick Lake and the Tennessee River and overlooks Pickwick Dam, and guests can enjoy outdoor and heated indoor pools.
Visitors often are surprised by the facilities, Mills says. “People coming here do not expect a modern waterfront hotel and restaurant,” she says.
Situated along the historic Natchez Trace, a 444-mile parkway that began as a foot trail centuries ago, Natchez Trace State Park dates to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Civilian Conservation Corps programs constructed some buildings that are still in use and laid the foundation for today’s 9,629-acre park that is just a few miles off Interstate 40 between Jackson and Nashville in Wildersville, Tenn.
The Lodge at Natchez Trace State Park offers 47 recently renovated guest rooms, all with balconies overlooking Pin Oak Lake, along with 10 two-bedroom cabins. The lodge and conference center have more than 3,000 square feet of meeting and banquet space to seat 150 people, with smaller indoor and outdoor venues throughout the park.
More improvements are on the way, as all six of the parks with lodges have fully funded capital projects, Schofinski says. Additional improvements include a new fishing pier and boat dock at Pickwick Landing, dock replacement at Paris Landing, and a new boat ramp at Natchez Trace. Also included are accessibility improvements and swimming pool updates at Henry Horton and Fall Creek Falls.
All that makes the Lodges at Tennessee State Parks an attractive option for planners looking for something outside the box. “I feel like we have lots of advantages over almost any resort or hotel setting,” Rapert says.
Holloway adds, “If you have never held an event at one of our state parks before, I can promise that we provide a level of expertise and professionalism that planners expect, along with natural beauty.”
For Tennesseans, the parks are their backyard, and the state is hoping to bring in more distant visitors. “Our parks provide space, freedom, and a natural connection with the outdoors,” Schofinski says. “We invite people from other states to come see what we have here.”