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Park History: Obed Wild and Scenic River


Kayaker at Swift Drop on the Obed River. NPS photo.

Obed Wild and Scenic River, sister to Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, is tucked away in the wilds of Tennessee’s Morgan and Cumberland Counties where it protects a 45-mile stretch of one of the South's last free-flowing streams. The Obed celebrates its 32nd birthday today, having become part of the National Park System on October 12, 1976.

Obed is nestled in a rugged land on the Upper Cumberland Plateau. Much like the history of Big South Fork, Obed's own story is dominated by that landscape. Consider the story of Nemo, a small community along the Emory River, which the Obed River drains into. (Oddly, even though the Obed River is the larger of the two water bodies, the river is named Emory River below the confluence.)

Nemo, Latin for “no one,” was a small railroad community along the Catoosa Railroad. The Flood of 1929 destroyed the trestle in Nemo, as did the flood of 1940. After the 1929 flood, few people returned to build their storm-tossed community, and even fewer returned in 1940. Thus, the community of Nemo truly is home to no one, and it stands silently in the park.

In the mid-Twentieth Century, Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, together with other local residents and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, started to lobby for the creation of a National Park System unit to protect the area. Legislation in both state and federal governments was introduced and failed several times. Eventually, however, the 82,000-acre Catoosa Wildlife Management Area became part of Tennessee's state land holdings. Obed Wild and Scenic River became a reality on October 12, 1976.

Today, despite being small and little publicized, Obed Wild and Scenic River attracts an impressive number of recreationists (182,504 last year), including paddlers, fishermen, rock climbers (try the bluffs near Lilly Bridge), hikers, photographers and primitive campers. The Obed River is popular with paddlers, many of whom consider it one of the best whitewater rivers in the eastern United States, and it is certainly frisky enough for most. Paddlers need to be choosy if they want the best conditions. The best times of year for running the Obed are the rainy seasons, meaning spring and late fall/early winter. The cold and rainy, often sub-freezing weather of these colder months produces continuous rapids (up to Class IV) and the need for wet suits. No canoe or kayak outfitters serve the park, so you’ll need to bring your own equipment.

For a map of the park, visit this site.


This little jewel of the National Park System is still very vulnerable. More than 32 years have passed since the Obed National Wild & Scenic River was authorized, .... yet almost 20% of the area within the authorized boundary remains unacquired and is badly threatened by oil wells, logging, and especially second-home development. Land and Water Conservation Fund appropriations are badly needed to complete acquisition of the river corridor.

For further information (including a brochure "How the Obed got saved from being turned into a reservoir and became a National Wild & Scenic River") contact Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning at

The site supervisor/chief ranger/superintendent position there (not sure what they are calling it these days) is currently being advertised on USAjobs. It was attractive to me until I read that it is not a "covered" law enforcement position. I guess law enforcement rangers need not apply. Oh well. Wonder who the two current field-level law enforcement rangers report to, since by policy mandate they must work directly for a chief law enforcement official? Why do I think that I would not be surprised at the answer (Policy? What policy?) Anywho, thanks, Chance, for a good article.


I'm glad to see you commenting on National Parks Traveler. This is a great forum for reaching out to others interested in the fate of our national parks.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth. - Henry David Thoreau

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