KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Tennessee state parks are celebrating a milestone this year -- it's their 75th anniversary.
The park system was launched in 1937 through legislation creating the Tennessee Department of Conservation. Now, the state has 53 parks spread from the Mississippi Delta to Southern Appalachia ensuring that all residents live within an hour's drive of at least one.
"Our parks are more relevant today than ever," Brock Hill, Tennessee's deputy commissioner for parks and conservation, told the Knoxville News Sentinel (http://bit.ly/ysdm8m ). "We have the second-most-visited state park system in the Southeast outside of Florida. I don't believe you'll find a system in the country as diverse as what we have right here."
Noting the diversity of the state's landscape, he says Tennessee parks are the most visited in the southeast outside of Florida. Plus, the park system was named best in America by the National Recreation and Park Association in 2007.
On one side of the state, Fort Pillow State Historic Park sits atop Chickasaw Bluffs, which overlooks the Mississippi River. At the other end is Roan Mountain State Park, which rises to 6,285 feet and is known for its grassy balds and rhododendron gardens.
Throughout the year, Tennessee state parks will offer a variety of special hikes, nature walks and music festivals to celebrate 75 years.
"I'd like to see the 75th anniversary strengthen our connection to our state parks. We need them now more than ever," said Randy Hedgepath, a Tennessee state naturalist who has worked for the park system for 28 years. "People might argue against a park on the front end, but once a park is there, everyone realizes the benefits. Parks may be the most loved and appreciated pieces of services the government provides."
The state does not charge for admission or parking at any of its state parks, which attract an estimated 30 million people every year. That makes state parks the largest single draw for tourism in Tennessee.
Whether a resort park with amenities like lodging and golf or a historic park that teaches about the state's past, all parks have a similar purpose.
"Nature is what a state park system should be about," Hill said. "The golf courses, inns and cabins are great, but when it comes down to it, preserving our natural and cultural heritage is the essence of who we are."