Original Memphis: Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park

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story and photos by Tricia Dewey

Located on the third Chickasaw Bluff, Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park is 13 miles north of Memphis and contains 12,529 acres of oak-hickory forest, two lakes, 20 miles of hiking trails, a biking trail, two disc golf courses, and miles of fresh air. This Tennessee State Park is a 30-minute drive from the Memphis area and perfect for a morning, afternoon, or even overnight camping or cabin excursion. If you have only visited for the First Day Hike or Memphis Runners 10-milers (otherwise known as “the beast”) you are missing out.

Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park is situated adjacent to land managed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency that fronts the Mississippi River and is managed for hunting and fishing access. Next to these bottomlands, Meeman-Shelby Forest rises from 180- to 200-foot bluffs that were formed by silt from glacial deposits during the Ice Age. These bluffs are now covered with oak, American beech, hickory, sweet gum, several champion trees, and other endangered and protected plants.

A barred owlet. The 13,476-acre park is home to over 240 species of birds including the barred owl. In 2006, The Audubon Society designated Meeman-Shelby an Important Bird Area.

Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park began as Shelby Forest State Park and was a New Deal-established recreation demonstration area run by the National Park Service in the 1930s. According to a monument to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) next to the visitor center, the CCC worked to develop the park, and later the Works Progress Administration (WPA) continued the work. Between 1933 and 1941 the CCC and WPA built the Mississippi River Group Camp, established trails and picnic areas, and planted 200,000 black locust trees. In 1944, Meeman-Shelby Forest was deeded to the state for use and oversight. Edward J. Meeman, editor of the Memphis Press-Scimitar, was instrumental in helping to establish Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Meeman-Shelby Forest. He owned a farm near the park and according to tennesseeencyclopedia.net he “insisted that forests in his region could be made to prosper once again.”

When the pandemic hit in March, the park rangers and staff took the opportunity to work on some spring cleaning projects in the campground areas and other facilities, but since then according to James Wilkinson, park manager, they have been open and running full steam with CDC and state protocols in place. The afternoon visits have been increasing as have been the weekenders but there is plenty of space for distanced outdoor fun. “We have a 49-site campground. We’ve got three primitive sites and we have six rental cabins that are located right on Poplar Tree lake. So it’s just a nice little way to get away that’s close, kind of like a staycation.” The park also contains meeting rooms and outdoor areas suitable for weddings.

Wilkinson says that fall in particular is a nice time to visit the park. “Usually what will happen during the fall of the year is we will see an increase especially in the camping on the weekends. We have a lot more people that are staying a lot closer just because of everything going on, which is really nice. It’s just a beautiful time to come out… we are getting into the time when the leaves are falling and this place is really pretty driving through the roadways and just seeing the color changes.”

Any of the hiking trails are moderately easy walks and the biking trail is partly paved and rated moderate. Poplar Tree Lake is a nice paddle and following the shore line can bring you close to great blue herons and other native birds. There are several bald eagle nests here and sightings are not uncommon. Wilkinson says they see bobcats fairly often and he has noticed more turkeys in the park this year. Check out their Facebook page for their programming and posts like the Meeman Minute about local plants, animals, and conservation ideas. Seasonal ranger Eric Rosenthal’s posts about snakes that he looks for around the park are especially educational and entertaining. Campsites, cabins (which sleep up to six people), and other accommodations can be reserved on their website or over the phone. Their First Hike, Swamp Canoe Float, and other special events are popular. As Wilkinson says “it’s really close to the city but we are a great little getaway, even for an afternoon, to get away from the hustle and bustle…. Being outside does a lot of things–you get your exercise, you get out into the fresh air, it’s also a quiet place, good place to reflect and just be able to slow down a little bit, take some time, enjoy nature, and enjoy what’s out there.” At Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park what is out there is good for the soul.