Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee

Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
November 9, 2013
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Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
November 9th, 2013
Share story

This small state park in Northeast Tennessee is a wonderful mix of history and nature, and the site of the some of the most significant history in the region. With a full-sized recreation of a fort to explore, reenactments throughout the year, and a two-mile nature trail, this park has something to offer everyone. Step inside the visitor center for a tour around the museum, then out the back door for a tour around history.

Sycamore Shoals State Park is a small but inviting park along the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Founded in 1976, the park is an important part of the local history throughout the region. It’s also in a great location in a town that is just a short drive to the Blue Ridge Parkway, Appalachian Trail, and several other exciting parks.

Fall colors decorate the recreation of Fort Watauga at Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton, TN on Friday, November 1, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette

Leaves cover the inside of the fort during autumn, one of the best times of the year to visit the state park.

The heart of the park is the fully-enclosed recreation of Fort Watauga. The doors into the fort are left open during park hours, and frequently the doors into individual buildings are also open. Visitors can walk the interior of the fort, climb a short wooden staircase to see the view over the protective walls, or step inside one of the small buildings.

During the peak summer season reenactors will frequently set up shop inside the fort conducting various trades of the times: a blacksmith, hunter, and soldier might be roaming the fort one day. Spring and Fall make the best times to visit the park with cooler temps, blooming flowers, and gorgeous autumn colors.

The Official Outdoor Drama of Tennessee, Liberty!, is held at the fort every year in July. A large amphitheater seating area just outside the walls of the fort provide a great place to sit back and the drama unfold. The play tells the dramatic history of the fort with local actors who rehearse and perform each summer for new visitors and returning fans.

Native American reenactors march across the field after the Siege of Fort Watauga at Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton, VA on Saturday, May 17, 2014. Copyright 2014 Jason Barnette The Siege of Fort Watauga is a two-day reenactment held each year at the recreation of the fort inside Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. The reenactment brings in dozens of reenactors and hundreds of visitors as they tell the story of an attack on the early settlers village by Dragging Canoe, and how they successfully defended themselves. During the reenactment, the fort is open to the public with demonstrations of all areas of early settler life on the frontiers.

British reenactors fire on the settlers during the Siege of Fort Watauga at Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton, VA on Saturday, May 17, 2014. Copyright 2014 Jason Barnette The Siege of Fort Watauga is a two-day reenactment held each year at the recreation of the fort inside Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. The reenactment brings in dozens of reenactors and hundreds of visitors as they tell the story of an attack on the early settlers village by Dragging Canoe, and how they successfully defended themselves. During the reenactment, the fort is open to the public with demonstrations of all areas of early settler life on the frontiers.

Above: The reenactors really go all out during the reenactment, some of them doing this professionally throughout the year. Below: A line of reeanctors “fire” on the fort during the Siege of Fort Watauga.

A lot of important historical events happened on the grounds of the state park. The Transylvania Purchase was the largest private land purchase signed in North America in 1775, just a year before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But fierce opposition from a local Cherokee, Dragging Canoe, led to several conflicts. The Siege of Fort Watauga is an annual event at the park featuring a 30 minute reenactment of a battle between the settlers, British, and Cherokee.

In 1780 the Overmountain Men mustered at Sycamore Shoals, a shallow part of the Watauga River nearby, and set out to capture British Major Patrick Ferguson. The shoals can be seen along the two-mile nature trail that winds along the riverbanks to a cul-de-sac at the end. The trail is peaceful and relatively quiet with the sound of rushing water just through a thin layer of foliage. Several benches along the way make the trail a local favorite for an afternoon walk or an active lunch break.

A life-size mannequin of the Cherokee war leader Dragging Canoe at the Interpretive Museum at Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton, TN on Friday, November 1, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette The Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area Interpretive Museum was opened on June 29, 2013 after nearly 30 years of development. The museum uses large murals, text boards, mannequins, and artifacts along with audio and a 15-minute video to tell the history of the region from the earliest settlers to the creation of the state.

Large murals, life-size mannequins, and artifacts are part of the Interpretive Museum at Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton, TN on Friday, November 1, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette The Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area Interpretive Museum was opened on June 29, 2013 after nearly 30 years of development. The museum uses large murals, text boards, mannequins, and artifacts along with audio and a 15-minute video to tell the history of the region from the earliest settlers to the creation of the state.

Above: A life-size mannequin depicting Dragging Canoe is just one of many at the interpretive museum. Below: The spacious museum offers a lot of historical artifacts and local history.

The visitor center is the only modern building at the state park and pretty easy to find at the edge of the parking lot. A large gift shop has lots of books about the local history, clothing, and unique gifts. The friendly park staff is always ready and willing to assist visitors with finding their way around the fort and trail.

A very nice interpretive museum explains the history that has happened at the park. From early Cherokee farmers, through the history of the Transylvania Purchase, and the mustering of the Overmountain Men, the museum explains it all. Life-size mannequins add to the museum that is divided into sections of history. A small theater near the end of the museum has a high-quality film that was partially shot during one of the reenactments.

The Carter Mansion, the oldest frame house in the state, in Elizabethton, TN on Wednesday, May 15, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette

The Carter Mansion is surrounded by large fields and quite a bit of shade, making this a great place to bring the family for a picnic.

Three miles from the park is the Carter Mansion, the oldest standing frame house in the state. It was built by John Carter, a local politician, soldier, and leader of the early settlers who came to the area. It’s an easy drive from the park, taking about 10 minutes, and there is plenty to explore on the grounds of the mansion.

If you would like to view more photos of Sycamore Shoals State Park, please visit my photography site at photography.southeasterntraveler.com/Tennessee/Sycamore-Shoals-State-Park/

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