Did you know that Tennessee State Parks is now charging a fee for some of its programs?
Well, before you get all hot and bothered about it, you should know that the fees are modest and that the programs look really terrific.
One example is the Bicentennial By Night hike, which started earlier this fall and continues with one final event Saturday, Oct. 30. This program features Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park resident storyteller Ranger Jed Hall taking you on a spooky lantern tour of this downtown park and the grounds of the state Capitol.
What a great Halloweenish event and a “spooktacular” way to learn some Tennessee history, as you get to hear the voices that haunt the Capitol, see some “spirits” and hear some of the “tales from the dark side” of Tennessee history.
“This is my favorite program to do,” Hall said. “This is a great way to celebrate the rich storytelling traditions of Tennessee.”
He said he takes his groups to the Capitol for some “ghost hunting” and provides a little history of the construction of the Capitol. The groups also walk through the park, and when they reach the 200-foot granite map of Tennessee, he tells regional ghost stories from all three sections of the state. The tour winds up at the park’s carillon, where the group can hear a selection of Tennessee songs.
Hall said the tour, which is open to all ages, involves about a mile of walking plus climbing up the steps to the Capitol. The program is limited to 50 people.
The tour, which starts at 8 p.m. and lasts an hour and a half or so, costs $10.50 for adults and $5.50 for children. It requires preregistration at tnstateparks.com/parks/event_details/bicentennial-mall/#/?event=bicentennial-by-night-halloween-spooktacular-2021.
The parks system has for many years had a few fee-based programs like eagle tours at Reelfoot Lake and pontoon cruises on some of the park lakes.
But about three years ago, state parks officials announced that all of the parks would offer more fee-based programs as a way to enhance their programming, creating options like a campout at Cummins Falls, weekend waterfall tours with state naturalist Randy Hedgepath, canoe floats and a history hike of the Civilian Conservation Corps portions of Montgomery Bell State Park.
Two other upcoming programs are a full moon hike at Hidden Lake in Harpeth River State Park from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 19 and a Women in the Wilderness workshop at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 22 at Bicentennial Mall.
“In 2018, many Tennessee state parks added paid programming, (mostly in the $5-$20) range per participant with a cap for families,” said department spokesperson Kim Schofinski.
She said the fee-based programs are “typically activities that require specific gear, such as rock-climbing equipment, water floats, art supplies, etc.; grant special access to park areas, like sensitive archaeological sites; grant special access outside of regular programming hours, like nighttime hikes; or require more hands-on expertise or dedicated time from staff.”
“The result is intended to be a more in-depth, immersive and personalized experience for visitors,” she said.
And Hall added that the fee-based programs like his Bicentennial night hike help offset the costs for the free education and outreach programs that the department carries out in schools and in the parks. “So we really appreciate people signing up for these programs,” he said.
Schofinski noted that Tennessee is one of only seven state parks systems that does not charge an admission fee to get into the parks.
And even with the addition of fees for some events, 70% of the programming Tennessee State Parks offers remains free.
The free programming generally includes environmental education for school and youth groups; aviary tours and wildlife programs; music, craft and cultural festivals; and all kinds of hikes led by rangers.
“We also offer four free signature hikes every year at all 56 state parks,” Schofinski said. The next “All Park Hikes” are in November (Day After Thanksgiving Hike) and January (First Day Hike).
Our parks must be doing something right since the Tennessee parks system was ranked among the top four state parks systems in the nation in 2021 by the National Recreation and Parks Association.
Lucky us. That is something to celebrate for sure!