Manchester sits near the largest and most complex hilltop enclosure in the South, and many locals go a lifetime without discovering the beauty of what’s hailed as one of the most spectacularly sited sacred areas of its period.
Named for a particular kind of Native American mound site, the 50-acre Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park contains a ceremonial site that was established during the Middle Woodland Period, roughly 2,000 years ago, and used through the 5th century A.D.
“We were the first official state archaeological park in Tennessee and one of only two currently in existence. We celebrated our 50th anniversary earlier this year,” says Park Manager Keith Wimberley. “The cultural aspect of Old Stone Fort is what brings so many visitors here, and our scenic beauty is right up there with any park in the state.”
Since the site itself hails from a pre-historic era, much about the Native American rituals are left up to interpretation, but what historians do know is that the site was not used for habitation, burials or defense (settlers often dubbed such enclosures “forts”).
“[The Woodland Indians] wanted to set their sacred space apart,” Wimberley explains. “This was meant only to be a ceremonial gathering place.”
Upward of 200,000 people visit Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park annually, many to experience its history and others for the abundance of outdoor offerings, including its iconic cascading waterfalls. Located at the point where two rivers drop off the Highland Rim plateau, the park is rife in water sources; falls plunge from the top of the trail down to the depths of Tennessee’s Central Basin. Long, wall-like mounds that were characteristics of the Woodland Period flank the waterfront trail, and park visitors will find a set of parallel mound walls oriented to within one degree of the summer solstice sunrise at the narrow neck of land before the Little Duck and Duck rivers meet.
Boasting 51 heavily wooded campsites outfitted with water and electrical hookups, grills, picnic tables, hard-surface pads and restroom facilities with showers, Old Stone Fort State Park is not just for day-trippers, but also appeals to those who want to spend a weekend—or longer—exploring the area with Manchester as their home base (campsite fees are $20 a night with a two-week stay limit). The park has a museum and gift shop, perimeter trail within the ancient enclosure and two additional miles of developed trail, while the campground has its own Nature Trail. A children’s playground is located in the picnic area along with more than 30 picnic tables and grills, in addition to a shelter available for rent.
Along the main trail, a dozen interpretative markers tell the stories of the ancient societies, their myths and rituals, as well as the historical significance of the site and the natural features of the area. Birders can delight in catching glimpses of such native species as the Northern Parula, Red-eyed Vireo and occasional Wood Duck. Fishermen love the park for the copious largemouth Bass, bream and catfish that swim the waters of the Duck River. There are also interpretative programs every Saturday and Sunday from Labor Day to Memorial Day led by seasonal rangers and suitable for all ages.
“[Old Stone Fort] is truly a hidden gem,” Wimberley says. “A lot of people who grew up here will show up and say, ‘I’ve lived here my whole life and never really knew this existed.’ And when they discover it, it’s something special.”
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