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A Guide to the Only Dark Sky Park in Tennessee

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International Dark Sky Parks can be found all across the United States, but most are located west of the Mississippi River. So few places have truly dark skies east of the Mississippi, that Pickett CCC Memorial State Park is the only dark sky park in Tennessee! I took trip to this amazing Dark Sky Park in Tennessee last year, and it quickly became one of my favorite places in the whole state. Pickett CCC Memorial State Park has more to explore than just excellent dark skies though. There is plenty to do during the day, and this handy guide will help you make the most of your trip to the darkest sky in Tennessee!

The History of Pickett CCC Memorial Park

Like many parks and natural areas across the state and country, this dark sky park in Tennessee began it’s life as a project of the Civilian Conservation Corps. With land donated by the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company, the CCC got to work on Pickett in 1934. Over time they were able to construct a number of cabins, the 12-acre lake, a ranger station, and miles of trails through the Tennessee wilderness.

A Pickett CCC Memorial State Park trail badge on a tree
Pickett CCC Memorial State Park is a great destination thanks to the hard work of the CCC.

The CCC finished construction of the park in 1942, but the park wasn’t done growing. Further efforts to improve the park took place throughout the 1950s. Thanks in part to the darkness at night, a unique glow worm was discovered in Hazard Cave in the mid-1970s. In fact, you can take guided hikes to see these bright creatures during your visit.

Efforts to get the park certified by the International Dark Sky Association began in the 2010s. The park was granted the title of Dark Sky Park in 2015, becoming the first location in the southeast to earn that distinction! It remains to this day the only Dark Sky Park in Tennessee, and is now one of 16 such parks in the entire southeast.

Guide to the Dark Skies

Well, now that you know the history of the park with the darkest sky in Tennessee, it’s time to learn a bit more about seeing those dark skies. The park itself takes a number of measures to ensure that it can even be classified as a dark sky park. This includes lighting which faces down, rather than out or up; minimizing all lighting throughout the park after dark; and maintaining relationships with locals to take similar measures. The location of the park also helps with earning it’s rating. Outside of Great Smoky Mountains National park, Pickett CCC Memorial State Park is the darkest sky in Tennessee.

There are a couple of ways you can enjoy this Tennessee dark sky park. The first is by heading out to the astronomy viewing field. This is just off Highway 154, which leads directly into the park. You can park in the small gravel lot and then setup for viewing in the open grassy field up the hill. The field provides great open views of the night sky in all directions. Make sure that you check the weather before your trip. This link is an amazing tool that gives you about a three day forecast of sky conditions.

The darkest sky in Tennessee photographed in April 2023
The best I could do with my decidedly amateur astrophotography skills!

There are some other options for more casual viewing of the night sky. While there may be campsites using lights or having fires, you’ll still have really good visibility from camp. This can be especially great for families who want to enjoy seeing a bunch of stars but don’t need (or want) to take any pictures. Another choice would be to head down to the lake. Again, you may have some lighting, but it can be fun to try and see the stars reflecting in the still waters of the lake. No matter what option you choose, you’ll definitely be looking up at the darkest sky in Tennessee.

Choosing Your Lodging at the Park

One of the best parts of many Tennessee state parks is the lodging. Pickett CCC Memorial State Park has a number of different ways to stay at the park. When we visited last year, we elected to pitch a tent and camp. Since we were staying for a few days, we didn’t car camp in our Subaru Forester, but it was certainly an option we considered when hit with a torrential downpour while attempting to setup our tent. However, this was the only hiccup when camping under the darkest sky in Tennessee. Pretty much every camp site is within a short walk to the bath house, which is a big plus for us. Only 20 of the 31 sites have electric hookups, so pay close attention when making your reservations.

If you’re not interested in sleeping in a tent, fortunately this Tennessee Dark Sky Park has plenty of other options worth checking out. The “deluxe” cabins are more modern and best for larger families or those who want more creature comforts while away from home. These have multiple bedrooms and sleep up to 8 people. The regular cabins are smaller, and sleep between 4-6 depending on setup. My recommendation however is to try and grab one of the Historic CCC Cabins. These beautiful cabins were built in the 1930s by the CCC. They are a great example of craftsmanship that has been maintained by the park for modern enjoyment. Staying in one of these is very much on the top of my list the next time we come to the park.

Either of your lodging options are great choices. In the Spring or Fall, camping is my recommendation thanks to the better weather and ability to enjoy being outside more. Winter definitely requires staying in the cabins while enjoying a cozy fire, and rates at the park are the lowest during this time. Summer can go either way. Cabins are more expensive during this time but offer the comforts of A/C! Camping lets you enjoy the fresh air and getting to know your camping neighbors. Both are excellent ways to stay at the only dark sky park in Tennessee.

Exploring the Hiking Trails at Pickett

While being the only dark sky park in Tennessee is what attracted me to Pickett CCC Memorial State Park in the first place, I really fell in love with it’s trails. The park features a fairly extensive system of trails for a park of its size, some of which also connect with the larger Big South Fork Recreation Area. You can also join rangers for a number of guided hikes, many of which take advantage of the darkness the skies offer.

Prepare for a bit of scrambling on the Hidden Passage trail

My favorite hike definitely had to be the Hidden Passage/Crystal Falls Trail. For those, like me, who stick to more beginner friendly trails, this one was great. It was an easy walk on a wide path through the woods for most of it’s length. The trail winds through a really neat “hidden passage” rock outcropping which might require a bit of scrambling/maneuvering. You’ll also need to be able to navigate a steeper section which leads down to the breathtaking waterfall. My wife and I definitely enjoyed our hike and spent quite a bit of time in the cool air by the waterfall.

Crystal Falls is a great daytime hike at this dark sky park in Tennessee
The grotto at Crystal Falls is a nice oasis on a hot day

The Natural Bridge Trail is another excellent and easily accessible trail at the park. It takes you over the top of a natural bridge, one of the largest in Tennessee. You can begin the trail down by the recreation area, and complete the full loop over the bridge; or you can park near the bridge and just take a short walk to stand on it. For those parking at the “top” of the loop, there is an alternative and tougher “shortcut” trail. This one takes you under the natural bridge and makes for a shorter but probably more challenging hike.

a person walking on a rock in the woods
It’s pretty cool to walk on top of a natural bridge!

A large number of other trails can be accessed directly from the campground. We both enjoyed walking the short Island Trail, and I did a portion of the Lake Trail all from our campsite. I found this to be an excellent feature of the park because it meant you could leave the car at camp, and everyone could hike a trail suited to their skill level. Pickett CCC Memorial State Park is a perfect place to take the family thanks to this trail system.

Other Outdoor Activities Found at Pickett CCC Memorial Park

One of the best aspects of Pickett CCC Memorial State Park are all of the activities you can do beyond looking at the night sky or going for hikes. The park features a man-made lake on site, which you’ll see a lot of when hiking in the park. You can also see a bunch of it from a canoe or kayak as well! The park rents these watercraft to both campers and day visitors. During our trip we took advantage of this and spent a nice day paddling around the lake. That included a cool floating picnic and spending time with the local wildlife!

Hard not to spend a day paddling when it’s this nice!

The lake also features a sandy beach and shallow swimming area. It is an awesome way to cool off during the day, especially during the hot summer months. We didn’t partake of this part of the lake, thanks to the chilly temps we had during our trip in late April. The swimming area is also separated from the rest of the lake. This keeps it safe for swimmers and allows boaters and people fishing to use the rest of the lake without any interference.

Even if you don’t want to spend time in or on the water, the park has other activities that the whole family can enjoy. There is a large picnic area which is perfect if you’re just visiting the darkest sky in Tennessee during the daylight hours. The park also features tennis courts if you’re really needing to work up a sweat and get competitive as well. There is also a nature center (open seasonally) and a CCC Museum (open year-round) where you can kill a bit of time during your visit.

Final Thoughts on Tennessee’s Dark Sky Park

Pickett CCC Memorial State Park was one of the first state parks I visited when moving to Tennessee. While I was initially drawn in because of it’s status as the only dark sky park in Tennessee, I came to learn that it had way more to offer. Our trip in mid-April brought some chilly nights, with gorgeous days (minus a one-hour rain shower as we were setting up the tent). While I haven’t visited it yet in the fall, I can only imagine it’s simply stunning when done up in bright reds, oranges, and yellows.

When I finally get around to planning a road trip to visit all my favorite sites in Tennessee, you can be certain the darkest sky in Tennessee will be on the list. In the mean time, you can check out my guide to Nashville which is only a few hours away from Pickett. If you’re in a road tripping mood, then consider cruising along the Great River Road in Tennessee! For skies which aren’t quite as dark, but definitely closer to GSMNP, then I’d tell you to take a visit to the Peaceful Side of the Smokies in Townsend, TN.

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