“A lot of people think it’s just athletics here, but it’s not,” Blakeley said of Winged Deer, which is the flagship destination of the city’s park system.
The park also offers miles of walking trails, scenic lakefront and picnic areas, playgrounds, fishing and boating opportunities, a free 18-hole disc golf course, volleyball courts, a historic cabin, great wildlife viewing and bird-watching opportunities.
In the summer, the park offers free concerts and events like bass tournaments and boat shows, nature camps for children, and the opportunity to watch ball games in the evenings. Blakeley says it’s a great place to spend a “staycation” – the kind of low-budget, close-to-home vacation that many families look for this time of year.
“If you want to do something fun and inexpensive, this is a great place to come,” Blakeley said, “a great place for parents and kids to come to have a good time.”
He said the wildlife is amazing for a 200-acre park in an urbanized area, where visitors can watch foxes play, deer browse and eagles carry prey to their young in a nest best seen with binoculars.
“If you want a nice place to come, this is the place,” he said. “This park was a vision ahead of its time, and it now serves as a model for all of our other parks.”
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, dozens of people were out, sunbathing along the lake, using the playground and playing games.
“It’s here, and it’s free. It’s something I don’t have to spend a lot of money to do,” said Schyler Johnson, a recent ETSU graduate from Cookeville, as he played disc golf. “It’s something that’s fun to do with a bunch of friends.”
Others were walking the trails – including the Bluebell Loop Trail, which is known for the acres of blue flowers that bloom there in early April.
“You can get a good work out back there,” said Naturalist Program Director Connie Deegan, “and you can find some critters back there.”
The sports complex at Winged Deer is a big draw, both for local games and tournament play, said Assistant Parks & Recreation Director James Ellis. This time of year, he said, it’s not unusual to have dozens of teams for a weekend tournament – events that bring significant economic benefits to the community.
Over the years, the park has hosted 16 major national softball tournaments, which bring in more than 100 teams at a time. Ellis said a lot of the out-of-town visitors who come for these tournaments are amazed by what else the park offers – and often take advantage of its amenities.
On Monday through Thursday nights, when tournaments aren’t going on, he said the park is well-used by city residents.
“You’ve got seniors all the way down to toddlers on trikes,” he said. “There’s something going on at the park from 7 a.m. until the minute we close the gates [late in the evening].”
Despite heavy use, however, Ellis promises a clean park – kept tidy with the work of local jail inmates, who pick up trash when it’s closed – and clean, well-supplied restrooms.
Blakeley said the park is also a place for busy families to reconnect.
“The nation is losing the connecting life of the family,” he said. “In Tennessee, we have the ability, especially in this park, to bring that back together with little effort from the parents, who can just allow the beauty to let their children be happy.”