Breakdown: Why Meeman-Shelby Forest is more man-made than you might think

Exploring Tennessee’s most visited state park
Published: Jan. 9, 2022 at 5:21 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Did you know, according to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park near Memphis is the most visited state park in Tennessee?

Containing 13,467 acres, and initially known as Shelby Forest State Park, it began as a New Deal recreation demonstration area of the National Park Service during the 1930s.

Edward J. Meeman, avid conservationist and editor of the Memphis Press-Scimitar, wanted to restore the forests in our region and make them “prosper once again.”

To accomplish this, Meeman worked with State Forester James O. Hazard to identify a potential park area in Shelby County, and in 1933 the National Park Service (NPS) provided Shelby County money and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) labor for the park’s initial development.

The NPS and the New Deal Agency: Resettlment Administration (RA) supervised the CCC crews and, later, Works Progress Administration (WPA) workers at the park, while the Tennessee Game and Fish Commission (now the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency) supervised wildlife control projects.

Crews focused on establishing a wildlife reserve, replanting the forests, reclaiming eroded land, and building recreational facilities.

Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park is a popular getaway for locals and tourists alike.
Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park is a popular getaway for locals and tourists alike.(

The WPA built cabins and various recreational structures; the largest was the Administration Building, which housed an auditorium, recreation hall, and cafeteria.

By 1941 the park had picnic areas, playgrounds, a group camp, the Administration Building, cabins, trails, and a swimming area; officials announced that more facilities, including a swimming pool, and horse barn would soon be under construction... World War II intervened, however, and the new facilities were not built.

In 1944, the NPS transferred the park to the state. Five years later, under state supervision, park development began again.

The CCC planted trees, built trails and a group camp area, and damming a lake. There are two fishing lakes on the park: Poplar Tree Lake and Lake Piersol.

Reclamation efforts also have been very successful. As early as 1962, state conservation officials were bragging of the park’s success in regenerating valuable stands of southern hardwoods.

Poplar Tree Lake is located in Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park in Shelby County, Millington,...
Poplar Tree Lake is located in Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park in Shelby County, Millington, Tennessee.(

Year-round fishing is available on 125-acre Poplar Tree Lake. Some outstanding largemouth bass have been taken from this picturesque lake. Other species include bream and catfish.

Rental jonboats are available at the park boat dock, but many enjoy fishing from the pier or bank.

Personally owned boats with electric motors are allowed on the lake for a small launch fee, but no gasoline motors are allowed.

Park facilities sit atop one of the Chickasaw Bluffs, high ground above the river’s floodplain that has its origin in the Pleistocene era — otherwise known as the Ice Age — as windblown silt that settled atop the floodplain formed in an earlier time period. These bluffs are now covered with oak, American beech, hickory, sweet gum, several champion trees, and other endangered and protected plants.

The park’s proximity to the Mississippi River creates the atmosphere of river bottomland filled with tupelo and bald cypress swamps as well as hardwood forests that provide lots of opportunities for fresh-air recreation.

Meeman-Shelby Forest is particularly significant because two-thirds of the park contains bottomland forests of oak, cypress, and tupelo, while elsewhere, much of west Tennessee’s rivers and streams have been seriously altered, resulting in a loss of vast bottomland hardwood forests that were once prevalent.

Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park is a 12,539-acre hardwood bottomland area bordering the mighty...
Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park is a 12,539-acre hardwood bottomland area bordering the mighty Mississippi River 13 miles north of Memphis featuring mature Bald Cypress and Tupelo swamp.(

Additionally, the park hosts one of the finest arrays of plant and animal life in Tennessee.

Wild mammals include deer, turkey, otter, beaver, foxes, raccoons, and bobcats.

Within the park, many species of birds, including the rare Mississippi Kite, may be seen. The federally endangered interior least tern (a migratory bird species) has been recorded in the bottomlands here.

Altogether, over 240 species of songbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds and birds of prey, including the American Bald Eagle have been reported at Shelby Forest.

The National Audubon Society designated Meeman-Shelby an “Important Bird Area” in 2006. For more park and nearby birding locations, click here.

This large natural area provides a refuge for many populations of state-listed rare plant species within the park and natural area including American featherfoil (Hottonia inflata), bay starvine (Schisandra glabra), copper iris (Iris fulva), and cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia).

The natural area is also home to eleven state champion trees, the largest of their species in Tennessee.

State Naturalist Mack Prichard observed that the park is “one of the prime examples of hardwood forest regeneration. Some of the trees gain up to an inch in diameter a year. It’s one of the fastest-growing forests we have.”

The State Park offers many miles of hiking trails, a 5 mile long biking trail, and a paved road network provide access throughout the park and offers a dose of the great outdoors.

So, what should you put on your itinerary while visiting? Check out our 5-Star Story for more ideas!

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