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Reconnect with nature at Bays Mountain Park

Debra McCown • Feb 25, 2013 at 12:36 PM

Just about everything at Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium is open year-round, said Fred Hilton, senior naturalist at the park, which is owned and operated by the city of Kingsport.

"Sometimes weather shuts us down, but we do have our own snow plow," Hilton said, "Generally, if you can get to the base of the mountain, unless something goes wrong with the snow plow, you can get to the top."

Bays Mountain has live animal exhibits, a nature center, planetarium, astronomical observatories, ropes courses and miles of hiking and biking trails. At 3,582 acres, it’s the largest city park in Tennessee. It also connects on the west end with Laurel Run Park in Hawkins County.

"People like to come up and look at the animals," Hilton said. "This is the closest thing to a zoo around."

Answering questions from a family beside the deer pen, Hilton encouraged 7-year-old Leann, who was visiting from Florida with her grandparents, to howl to the wolves. They howled together for a few seconds, and then - sure enough - the wolves howled back.

"Most people will never see a gray wolf up close," Hilton said. "Most people will never hear one howl. So this is kind of unique."

The animals - a collection that also includes bobcats, river otters, birds, fish and reptiles - are a big attraction at Bays Mountain, but so are the outdoor recreation opportunities.

"It’s a lot bigger than a lot of folks think," Hilton said of the park.

"We have 37 miles of hiking trails. You can mountain bike most of these trails, [and] there’s primitive overnight camping in the park for backpackers, so there’s a lot to do here other than just come up and look at the animal habitats or go to a planetarium program or walk around the nature center. That’s literally just about one one-hundredth of the park."

On a sunny day in February, families can be seen looking at the animals. There are runners jogging on the trails that run up the mountains and around the man-made lake that once served as Kingsport’s reservoir.

Winter can be an even better time than summer to enjoy outdoor recreation in the park, Hilton said, because the cool weather can be more comfortable and, with the leaves off the trees, there’s a better opportunity to see wildlife. The ropes courses remain open whenever the weather is favorable, he said, and the weather makes for better star-viewing opportunities than in the summer.

"The humidity tends to be lower, the sky’s clearer, and that’s why we do star viewing in March and April and October and November," he said. "The winter star viewing tends to be better viewing."

Amidst the miles of trails, the park contains several old houses, old barns, historic cemeteries, and the old Bays Mountain Firetower, which is a popular hiking destination. Near the nature center, there’s also a farmstead museum, which features antique equipment and tools.

Hilton said Bays Mountain’s nature focus is what sets it apart from other parks in the area, whose lakes are devoted to fishing and boating.

"Nature gets first priority here," he said, "and that’s the attraction."

The first part of the Bays Mountain property was bought by the city a century ago for the creation of a reservoir, which served the city from 1916 through 1944. In the mid-1960s, the discussion of what to do with the land became a public call to turn it into a park. The park formally opened in 1971, with the vision to keep it as a nature preserve and environmental education facility.

Long a resource for local schools, it now draws schoolchildren from four states - and is also a place where local residents can go to spend time in the woods.

"In about 20 minutes, they can be here from downtown, be on a trail, and not know they’re anywhere near a city," Hilton said. "It allows people to get out and reconnect with nature."

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