Formed by a series of gigantic earthquakes along the New Madrid Fault in 1811 and 1812, Reelfoot Lake is Tennessee’s only natural lake. The quakes were so violent they caused the Mississippi River to briefly back up on itself, flooding the cypress groves in what’s now known as Reelfoot Lake. Actually, the lake was identified as the “Red Foot River” in early maps of the area (circa 1795), but thanks to sloppy penmanship, the “d” became an “e” and and “l,” and the lake got its present-day name.
What Makes It Great
With more than 20 square miles of bayou to paddle, boating is probably the best way to see this otherworldly landscape. A canoe or kayak is an excellent way to explore the flooded cypress groves and bright green algae carpets you’ll find at Reelfoot Lake. Because there is literally a forest beneath the surface (and the lake averages just five feet in depth), paddlers must navigate the water slowly to avoid hitting a submerged stump or root.
The park has five public boat launches where paddlers can launch private or rented vessels. You can explore on your own, but the park also offers seasonal canoe and pontoon boat tours, which are an ideal way to learn more about the landscape. Head to the park in March or April for the Deep Swamp Canoe Tours, naturalist-guided canoe trips into the old-growth forest. You’ll see tons of bird species, including, if you’re lucky, the park’s resident nesting bald eagles. In July, the park offers canoe tours of the lake’s gorgeous lily pad beds, where paddlers can see lotus flowers and be serenaded by tree frogs at sunset. In October, make your way to Reelfoot for the Pelican Festival, where you can take a canoe or pontoon boat tour to see these magnificent birds in action. The park also offers scenic tours by pontoon boat from May through September.
Who is Going to Love It
Whether you’re an experienced paddler looking to explore on your own or a newbie seeking your sea legs, Reelfoot Lake is a super cool destination to see by boat. If you’ve got a birdwatcher in your group, consider coming in October, when the pelicans take over, or in January and February, when bald eagles abound.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
Reelfoot Lake State Park is located at 2595 Hwy 21 E in Tiptonville, about two hours north of Memphis.
Most guided tours in the park cost between $6 and $10. Reserve your spot in advance by calling 731-253-9652.