Come Out to Play at Warriors Path
Tennessee has many remote state parks tucked away in secret corners of backcountry and concealed down lonesome winding country roads -- places you’re unlikely to find unless you make a point of venturing off the beaten path.
But Warriors Path State Park isn't one of those.
Located just a few minutes drive off I-81 in Sullivan County, this Northeast Tennessee gem is hidden in plain sight.
Easy Urban Getaway
Warriors Path has a distinct feel and serves a popular, well-established role for the Tri-Cities region.
This park’s special power is its ability to draw big, physically active crowds -- and yet still maintain a thoroughly enjoyable outdoor experience. It is a highly developed recreational park that provides numerous options for outdoor activity and plenty of avenues for open-air exercise.
In fact, Warriors Path tends annually to exceed two million visitors -- typically ranking it No. 1 or 2 in visitation among all 56 Tennessee state parks.
WPSP’s 950 total acreage is less than four percent of Fall Creek Falls State Park’s nearly 30,000 acres. Nor does Warriors Path boast nationally renowned landscapes and iconic water features like those at the Cumberland Plateau's scenic canyon preserve. Yet the two are consistently vying for the title of most-visited park in Tennessee.
Let It Be a History Lesson to You
Like most of Tennessee's state parks, Warriors Path is steeped in cultural heritage and historical significance.
“Its name reflects the fact that ancient Native American trails along the Holston River both to and from Long Island passed through the park’s boundaries," according to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. "It is also associated with the Wilderness Road.”
Within the park are the archaeological ruins of Childress Town, which once stood on the banks of the South Fork of the Holston River at the Childress Ferry. On the Fall Creek Road entrance to the park is a historic gristmill, the Roller-Pettyjohn Mill, which was built in 1903. The National Register-listed mill operated until 1955.
The Warriors Path park property lines two sides of Fort Patrick Henry Lake’s bending shores and allows for a wide range of lake-focused and land-based recreation all year long.
Named for the famously liberty-loving Revolutionary War patriot and American Founding Father, the 900-acre TVA reservoir was created in the 1950s with the damming of the Holston River just above Kingsport.
The reservoir is a “run-of-the-river” lake that begins to slacken a half-mile or so downstream from the tempestuous currents below Boone Dam. It is a deep, lithe, serpentine body of water, about 10 miles long. Most would agree it is “a wonderful place to while away an afternoon on the water.”
“Fort Patrick Henry is named after the colonial fort, also known as Long Island Station, that was established nearby at the site of present-day Kingsport, Tenn,” according to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s website. “The dam was built primarily for hydropower, but it is also used to regulate the flow of water downstream to ensure a reliable supply of water for local industry and for cooling water at TVA’s John Sevier Fossil Plant.”
Powerboats are allowed on Patrick Henry Lake and it is popular among local bass anglers. But it doesn’t tend to attract the level of heavy wake-throwing water recreation usage that other lakes in the region do. That makes it a popular spot for flatwater paddling enthusiasts.
Small Package, Big Appeal
What Warriors Path lacks in size it makes up for with infrastructure and amenities.
“People come here to do the activities they enjoy -- and there is a high-volume of people for that reason," said Park Manager Sarah Leedy. "We are right here in the heart of the Tri-Cities, so we get an entirely different kind of traffic than other parks.”
The park features sport fields, an eighteen-hole golf course, riding stables, 12 miles of multi-use trails, camping sites and secluded picnic spots, a water slide, hiking trails, a top-flight disc-golf course and one of the most unique and enchanting playgrounds you’ll find anywhere.
Among the trails is a nationally recognized mountain-bike system and woods-enveloped pathways designated for park-provided equestrian use.
Nick McKinney and his mother, Kelly, operate the concessionaire riding stable at the park. They offer guided hour-long (#30) and half-hour horseback rides ($20) along the trails.
"There's no riding experience required," he said. "For probably 60 or 70 percent of our customers it is the first time they have ever been on a horse. It's a scenic ride up through the woods and up the mountain -- and we often see a lot of wildlife along the trails."
The McKinneys manage a string of 20-30 horses and they’re happy to serve individuals or offer larger group-rides.
“We do a lot of parties -- weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, that sort of thing," Nick said.
If you’ve got a child who has been requesting a pony for a birthday present, this is probably the next best thing. (Note: Children must be at least six years old for the guided trail rides, but shorter pony rides are available for younger tots.)
Elder equestrians are certainly welcome, too. “We had a lady who was 97 years old on a trail last year,” Nick said.
Contact the stables at 423-677-0368.
Romping Grounds Abound
One of the most popular aspects of Warriors Path among the youngsters is its “boundless playground” that provides “hours of fun for children with and without disabilities and their entire families,” promises the Friends of Warriors Path group, which was instrumental in organizing the development of the facility.
Built by community volunteers and local corporate sponsors, the “Darrell's Dream” playground is a fun-strewn three-acre mind-and-body frolicking spot for kids of all ages and physical abilities.
“Special features include universally accessible playground equipment and surfaces, a walking trail accessible by the blind, a tree house, a sand play area, an environmental maze with interactive play stations, an amphitheater, a picnic pavilion, specially designed restroom facilities, and pedestrian bridge,” the Friends website boasts:
It offers age-specific and developmentally appropriate play equipment for children of all abilities. In addition, the complex hosts a special surface that makes it accessible to all, a Lions' Narnia Braille Trail, an environmental maze with interactive play and learning stations, the Andersen Tree House with interactive exhibits about the environment, a wildflower walk, herb garden,the Palmer Center Foundation Amphitheater and rain gardens.
One favorite and heart-warming feature of the playground allows children with hearing disabilities to take a down-the-slide gravity ride just like any of the other kids. A quick-thrill inducing roller slide stifles static-electricity zaps that can ruin shock-sensitive ear implants.
"I am not a softy -- I didn't even cry when Old Yeller died. But my eyes tear-up every time I talk about that slide," said Ranger Leedy. "Little kids with cochlear implants can't slide on plastic slides. But they can slide on that roller slide without having to worry about losing their hearing."
Meet Marty Silver
WPSP isn’t exactly the kind of park you are likely to visit if you’re looking to leave all the trappings of civilization far in the rearview. But that isn’t to say you can’t find some woodsy peace and quiet at Warriors Path.
Despite the park’s close proximity to built-up urban development and heavily trafficked cross-country transportation thoroughfares, the forests of Warriors Path are tranquil havens of nature teeming with Appalachian woodland plants, birds, bugs and native wildlife.
The park also boasts second-to-none interpretive and outreach programs aimed at encouraging kids to discover and appreciate the systems and cycles of natural life around them. And like a lot of other things at the park, these regularly scheduled onsite programs and introductions to live animals -- as well as the ranger-led field trips and classroom visits that the park organizes -- are wildly popular with young participants.
“Warriors Path has the best children’s programming ranger in the entire state, if not the world,” said Randy Hedgepath, state naturalist for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. “Marty Silver is extraordinary. For families with kids, if they ever get a chance to spend a little time with Marty Silver, they will never forget it. He is fantastic with children."
Three generations of kids who’ve grown up in the region can likely recall at one point or another meeting Ranger Silver, an easygoing and gregarious conservation educator with a knack for getting kids just as excited about nature as he is.
Silver says his primary goal at the park is to bring kids around to an understanding that nature is not some faraway or remote place they only visit on vacations -- “it’s right here, right where I live.”
His encyclopedic knowledge of the park and its plants and critters is well-matched with his entertaining, indefatigable desire to show and tell -- and as a result, Silver has become a local celebrity.
In November 2019, a local television station profiled Silver to commemorate his 40th year as the park's director of children’s education programs. One local public school official interviewed for the piece said that whenever word gets out that Ranger Silver is coming to teach a class, “the reaction is almost like a movie star is coming to school.”
“The kids hands-down love him. And not only the children -- the teachers, faculty and staff,” she said. “He just has such a passion, and he radiates that. It just overflows into all that he does.
To find out when Ranger Silver will be leading his next outing or giving a nature demonstration or talk -- or to get a heads-up on all the parks organized activities -- visit the WPSP events listing page.
The Warriors Path State Park main office is open Monday-Friday 8am-4:30pm. (Park Office: 423-239-8531)
Camp Store: 423-239-7141
18-Hole Golf Course: 423-323-4990
Horseback Riding: 423-677-0368
Birding & Wildlife Viewing
Nearby Restaurant & Shopping