There really isn’t a bad time to visit Edgar Evins State Park. But if you’re looking for a best time, spring is arguably it.
As winter recedes and summer approaches, colors emerge, then abound. Birds, buds, leaves, butterflies and beautiful Tennessee wildflowers burst forth with vital vernal effervescence.
Located near Center Hill Dam just four miles from the Buffalo Valley exit on I-40, Edgar Evins is something of a semi-secret getaway for nearby urban dwellers jonesing for a rejuvenating fix of woodsy solitude and lake scenery.
Though only about an hour’s drive from Nashville and Murfreesboro and just 30 minutes from Cookeville, the park’s senior ranger, Mark Taylor, says “it’s kind of considered a hidden gem of Tennessee’s state parks.”
“The people who know about it tend to love it, but I think they like to keep it to themselves,” he said.
It isn’t all that uncommon to encounter a drifting band of Chattanoogans who’ve wandered on past Fall Creek Falls in hopes of evading weekend multitudes, said Taylor. “I hear a lot of people say they like it better here than Fall Creek Falls. We don’t usually have the throngs of people,” he said.
The hills, forests, caves, crevices and cliffs surrounding Center Hill Lake are habitat over the course of the year to more than 160 resident and migratory bird species. Fifty-seven butterfly species have been identified in the park — among them the zebra swallowtail, which was designated Tennessee’s official butterfly in 1995. The Edgar Evins page on the Tennessee State Parks portal contains downloadable checklists for bird and butterfly watchers.
But it’s the abundant wildflowers in bloom that make Edgar Evins a truly special place in spring.
“Once March hits and it starts warming up, we have a new set of wildflowers blooming about every week, on through May and June,” said Taylor, who’s become an accomplished photographer over the course of his 14 years working at Edgar Evins SP, having accumulated more than 20,000 images of the park and its inhabiting flora and fauna.
Within the park’s 6,000-plus acres are 12 miles of maintained trails.
Among the shorter hikes are the two-mile Highland Rim Nature Trail loop at the visitor’s center, the one-mile Marina Trail, the half-mile Evins Ridge Trail loop and the short Dunham Cemetery Trail.
Longer hikes include the two-and-a-half-mile Millennium Loop, which in turn connects with the five-and-a-half-mile Merritt Ridge Loop.
“All of our trails are good for wildflower walks. I personally like the the Highland Rim trail,” said Taylor, who leads flower-finding walking tours for visitors throughout the spring.
The Merritt trail is steep at times, a fairly substantial footslog. But if you’re up to the challenge, you’ll be rewarded. On this trek you’re likely to encounter some of the region’s more unique sprays of luxuriant color — like the shooting star and wild hyacinth — which aren’t as prevalent along roadways or trails.
“When you get out on the Merritt Ridge trail, there’s about a three-or-four-acre swath back there that, when the hyacinth are in bloom, it’s just a carpet of pale blue and white flowers that stand about two or three feet tall,” said Taylor.
Be forewarned, though: “You have to hike a good four miles to get to that patch,” he said.
Another choice bloom that takes some initiative to admire is the western wallflower, a rare species of vegetation that grows only along the area’s bluffs. The park’s employees take visitors on lake cruises to observe the wallflowers in May.
“Instead of hiking all the way out and repelling down the cliffs to see them, we take a boat along the shoreline,” he said.
The wallflowers also offer a splendid visual treat for flatwater kayakers marveling up at the sheer crags that plunge into Center Hill’s depths.
The boat tours, which last from about 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., are $10 for adults and $5 for kids under 12. Taylor said the boat tour is a great way to view other flowers along the lake’s shores, too — as well as migrating waterfowl.
Contact Edgar Evins State Park about wildflower cruises and guided hikes — or camping and cabin lodging reservations — at 931-858-2114.