As we wrapped up another weekend of camping at Joe Wheeler State Park, Irene and I made a goal to finally write a blog post on this place that is easily our most frequented state park. Located on Wheeler Lake about 20 miles west of Athens, Joe Wheeler is one of the first places I (Sara) camped. It’s also the place Irene and Nicholas have camped the most since starting their adventures with Cella the Airstream in 2021. We both have memories of church picnics in the day use area, and my family spent many evenings and weekends boating around Wheeler Lake. My parents now live one mile from the entrance to Joe Wheeler and are frequent visitors there for hiking, biking, and kayaking.
Now that I have rambled about our extensive history with Joe Wheeler State Park, you’re probably curious why you should visit. Like many state parks, there is something for everyone – not just the RV camper. Due to a recent tornado, the day use area and two of the three loops at the campground have been recently remodeled. The swimming area has a new pavilion and bathrooms. Loops B and C of the campground have upgraded sites, Wi-Fi, and new bathrooms. If you aren’t a camper, Joe Wheeler State Park has a scenic lodge with a swimming pool and restaurant located directly on the water. Additionally, there are modern cabins perfect for a weekend away.
So, lets get to it. Our favorite things to do at Joe Wheeler State Park are:
We spent Labor Day weekend in the A loop of the campground and barely left our wooded, scenic sites. We have camped there in every season and honestly couldn’t pick a favorite. Whether you prefer the shade of the A-loop in exchange for rustic facilities, or prefer new flat sites with modern amenities, there is a campsite for you. As I mentioned before, the tornado in 2018 did extensive damage to Joe Wheeler State Park with the most extensive damage impacting the Day Use area and campground. The landscape has completely changed as hundreds of trees were uprooted. The park has used this as an opportunity to completely remodeled those areas. If you have a larger rig, then the B and C loops are for you. The sites are large and flat with crushed gravel based. There are new hookups, sleek metal tables, and modern bathroom with showers. The only downside to the B and C loops are the lack of shade. The park has planted hundreds of trees, but they are all still too small to provide much shade. There are incredible view of the lake from these loops. Nonetheless, we prefer trees and shade so the A-loop is where we generally try to camp.
Joe Wheeler State park is a prime spot for any type of boater. With a large marina and public boat ramp, you can launch nearly anything from a kayak to a houseboat at Joe Wheeler. I have spent many evenings motoring around on Wheeler Lake with my family. It is a popular place for sailors and fisherman as well. With direct access to the main channel, as well as several coves and inlets there is something for any type of boater. We took our kids on their first two kayak trips at Joe Wheeler. First we launched near the boat ramp and paddled up First Creek past the beaver dam and under Hwy 72. Second, we launched from the C-loop of the campground and paddled around the cove adjacent to the campground and Day Use area. The Day Use area also offered a beach area with a newly constructed pavilion. There really is something for everyone.
There is no doubt that that main attraction at Joe Wheeler is Wheeler Lake, but there are several notable hiking trails as well. The recently constructed “Awesome Trail” stretches 8 miles from the park lodge along First Creek to the Boat Ramp. This trail was designed to accommodate both hikers and mountain bikers. There is also an older loop trail system on the west side of the park closer to the Tennessee River. We frequented the Blue Loop as part of the Forest School program that used to meet on Friday mornings at Joe Wheeler.
As I mentioned above, mountain bikers will love the 8-mile awesome trail that includes 16 bridges, a wide path, and enough elevation change to keep it interesting. Our families enjoy biking around the campground roads and the day use area. The roads are lightly trafficked and can be great places to observe the local wildlife. There are quick a few hills, so be prepared for tired legs and potentially some road rash depending on how brave your young cyclists are on the hills.
With so much to offer, we definitely recommend planning your visit to Joe Wheeler State Park. Its easy to take the most accessible place for granted. For a long time, I didn’t see the point in camping somewhere so close to home. After our most recent trip, I am reminded that camping is about the time outdoors with family and friends. We value the change of pace and stepping away from our daily responsibilities. I certainly didn’t mind having such a short drive either. We’re already scouting out our ideal sites for our next trip.