Harrison Bay- Tennessee’s First State Park
Harrison Bay- Tennessee’s First State Park
Harrison Bay became Tennessee’s first state park in 1937. Originally developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps as a Tennessee Valley Authority recreation demonstration area, the park was created during the construction of Chickamauga Dam and around the same time as the near by Booker T. Washington State Park.
The 1,200 acre park, a short distance north of Chattanooga, contains approximately 40 miles of shoreline along the largest open water area of Chickamauga Lake. Harrison Bay covers the sites of the old town of Harrison and the area’s last Cherokee Campground, which consisted of three villages ruled by Chief Joe Vann, one of the last great Cherokee Chieftains.
Harrison Bay State Park is one of the more popular camping destinations in the Chattanooga area, featuring 128 RV campsites and 27 tent only sites, as well as a group camp, with rustic, open-air cabins and a dining hall. The mostly forested park is also a popular day-use destination for activities including picnicking, boating, fishing, golfing, hiking, mountain biking, and bird watching.
The park boasts one of the most complete marina facilities in the region, with 198 boat slips, and has two boat ramps, one at the marina and one on Wolft ever Creek next to Highway 58. Anglers have access not only by boat to the 35,000-acre Chickamauga Lake, but also to bank fishing from miles of shoreline, as well from an ADA accessible pier.
Fish commonly caught include bass, bluegill, catfish, crappie, gar, and more. Canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards can be rented seasonally. During times of low water in winter, paddlers can see remnants of the old town of Harrison, such as building foundations, roads, and guardrails. Patten Island, the largest of several islands in Harrison Bay, is the site of Bell Cemetery, another part of the old town.
The popular 4.5-mile Bay Point Loop Trail, rated easy to moderate, with several small climbs, is available for both hiking and beginner-level mountain biking. The trailhead is near the marina and uphill to the left of the boat ramp. It follows close to the shoreline on several peninsulas and offers views of the lake and shallow bays. Some benches overlooking the water allow one to pause and contemplate the view. Starting out as a wide, hard-packed gravel trail, it soon narrows to a more typical dirt hiking trail.
Note: parts of this trail can be a bit muddy at times during wet weather periods. SORBA Chattanooga, the local mountain biking group, has been involved in trail modifications which have resulted in increased accessibility and sustainability of the trail system. In addition, there’s the 0.5-mile Starwalk Trail, a walking loop through a native grassland area, a 0.5-mile hillside woodland nature trail, called the Lakeshore Loop, and two short shoreline loop trails which begin at the far end of the campground. Much of the shoreline is also accessible for walking during times of low water, primarily in winter.
Designed by Jack Nicklaus and surrounded by both water and forest, the second Bear Trace course to open attracts golfers to Harrison Bay State Park.
The park is a great location for wildlife viewing, offering opportunities to see shorebirds, wintering waterfowl, woodland warblers and vireos, migrating songbirds, great blue herons, osprey, bald eagles, and more, as well as deer and other wildlife. A gravel pull through road by Harrison Bay Road just off Highway 58 runs along the lake shore and is a good location for viewing birds on and near the water. A bald eagle nest on the park’s golf course can be observed on an eagle cam. Overall, 130 species of birds have been observed here.
An aviary near the park entrance houses a red-tailed hawk and a turkey vulture. The interpretive center next door to the aviary is open seasonally. The park also features a camp store, an Olympic-sized swimming pool (both open seasonally), and a restaurant with a great view of the lake, the Dockside Cafe. Other facilities include a playground, two picnic pavilions, and a recreation lodge. Nature-related games and environmental education hikes are among the activities and programs led by seasonal interpretive staff during the summer.
Harrison Bay State Park is open daily 8 a.m.-10 p.m. For directions and more information, visit the park’s website.