Nestled high on the rafters of an old barn, Leigh Gardner sat with a bunch of kids watching the sunset over the Tennessee hills. 

“You know, I’ve never seen anything as beautiful as this in my life,” Gardner recalls a young girl saying. 

It’s an admission and memory that has stuck with Gardner, who was working as a volunteer with the Tennessee Wildlife Federation

“When you live in the inner city, there are buildings all around, you don’t [always] see the sunset,” she says. “So it’s something as simple as that, that people don’t really recognize it should be a right but is really a privilege to be able to see something like that.” 

Gardner’s love of the outdoors began in Girls Scouts. The Franklin, Tennessee, native spent her summer months horseback riding, canoeing, hiking and learning archery. As she got older, the organization introduced Gardner to various volunteer organizations that also involved the outdoors. She was hooked. 

A woman smiles at the camera holding an orange, black and white milk snake
Park ranger Leigh Gardner leads guided tours of Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park in Manchester, Tennessee © Courtesy of Park Ranger Caleb Doster

Gardner's dreams were realized when she became a full-time park ranger at Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park in Manchester, Tennessee. For the last three-and-a-half years, Gardner’s admiration of the outdoors and desire to make it a haven for everyone continues. 

Her responsibilities cover a full scope of disciplines. 

As a park ranger, Gardner’s number one goal is to ensure the safety of the visitors. As law enforcement, she enforces both the rules and regulations of Tennessee state parks and natural areas. The Middle Tennessee State University graduate also leads guided tours through Old Stone Fort where her sheer presence serves as an inspiration.  

“When I started as a park ranger, I was the only Black female park ranger and there were like three Black park rangers total [in the state] and there was at least one Hispanic ranger,” Gardner says. “Being a person of color working for my Tennessee state parks, I really feel as if I can be that symbol for those kids who didn't really see being a park ranger as an option for them just because they had never seen a Black park ranger before.”  

We sat down to ask Ranger Gardner about diversity in the outdoors, tips for visiting state and national parks and what makes Old Stone Fort so special.

Why is it important to have diversity among park rangers? 

It's really nice when you get to see someone who looks like you, because it really, kind of grounds you and gives you a sense of place. Like "I belong out here as well. This spot is also for me, it's also for my kids." It gives you more of a sense of family, I guess, which is what you're looking for when you come out to a state park; a sense of place and a sense of belonging. So yeah, it's nice being a park ranger. But I'm really glad that I get to – by the way I look – give a little bit back to my community.

What can be done to make parks and the outdoors more inclusive to people of different races, body types, accessibility, etc? 

Parks are for everybody. And a lot of our [Tennessee] parks are even going to become more ADA compliant to get as many people out here as possible. Because we want everyone to experience the nature and the grandeur of Tennessee. 

I think the more that people see themselves represented outdoors, the more people are going to go outdoors. So if you think this park isn't for you because you haven't seen someone who looks like you out there, then maybe you need to be the first person to do it.

We want everyone to be able to experience this equally. And it is hard. When I started out exploring the outdoors by myself, I was scared. It is scary. And there are ways that you can keep yourself safe if that's what you're concerned about.

But getting over that initial fear [of] what if I'm not good enough? What if this is dangerous? What if someone makes fun of me or what if I fail? What if I get verbally or physically attacked, which we have seen before. But the claiming or reclaiming of these spaces is important to continue the longevity of these spaces. We can't continue to preserve and protect these state parks without the entire community's involvement and support.

Closeup of a hiking boot walking up a trail scattered with bright orange leaves
Get to know your state park by visiting it every season © Massimo Colombo / Getty Images

As we enter autumn, what's the biggest piece of advice as the weather cools off?  

We always tell people to abide by leave-no-trace principles. So make sure that before you go, you're checking the weather. Our autumn [in Tennessee] tends to be just as dry as our summers up until November. But make sure that if it’s going to be a colder day, you dress for the weather. 

I always encourage people to visit your state parks during multiple seasons. As the autumn progresses, we're going to start to see those autumn colors coming in the second week of November. When you're coming out here, come with an open mind. You want to see waterfalls in the summer. When coming out in the autumn, say, I'm doing leaf spotting. And in the winter, I really want to see the change in the water level. As we approach the winter and the leaves start to fall, you'll be able to see more of the river. The scenery [between the seasons] – it is almost like night and day.

A small waterfall in in a green wooded area at Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park in Manchester, Tennessee
Old Stone Fort's three waterfalls are a popular attraction © Alicia Johnson / Lonely Planet

With so many parks in the state of Tennessee, what makes Old Stone Fort so special?

It's so popular because we're like almost halfway between Nashville and Chattanooga. So it's a great meeting spot and that's what originally the site was used for. People would gather here 2000 years ago to meet here specifically for ceremonial events. And people are still doing that in a similar way today, coming here and meeting with their relatives or their friends who they haven't seen since COVID-19 started. So that's one of the reasons it's so popular – just the accessibility of it.

But also when you come out here, you're getting something really, really special. You can experience two rivers, three waterfalls and 2000 years worth of history in a quarter-mile or less trail. So when you consider that, that's a pretty incredible deal that you're getting coming out here to a Tennessee state park.

Since COVID-19, more people have spent time in their state parks, do you think they will stick with it? 

I think what [people are] experiencing right now because of COVID is getting outside to their Tennessee state parks has really impacted them in a positive way. 

I think people have recognized that these spaces are right here in their backyards. Everyone in the state of Tennessee is within a one-hour drive of a Tennessee state park. In addition to that, we have our public lands, we have 85 state natural areas. We have public wild and scenic rivers. There's this wide diversity of nature that people can experience. And it's just, it's right here in Tennessee. And in most cases, it's not even that far of a drive. 

So I think people definitely will keep outdoor experiences on their radar. And I think [it will get people to start] branching out like today I went for a hike, but maybe tomorrow I will try canoeing on the Duck River or taking a pontoon boat out on Reelfoot Lake or something cause these are all things that are novel to a lot of people. And they're exciting. So I think it's great.

You might also like: 

These black hiking groups are changing the outdoors 
9 common mistakes to avoid while hiking and camping 
The best state parks in each state 

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