In an era in which college without technology inundation is nearly impossible, escaping to fresh air and nature is ideal for college students. Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium is lauded as a perfect location for that natural experience.
Eden Wimer, a senior media and communication major, has been visiting Bays Mountain for 22 years. Wimer currently tries to come to the park at least once a month.
“I live local, so I have been here my whole life. Me and my mom used to come here all the time,” Wimer said. “It’s my relax spot when I’m really stressed in school. It helps clear your mind to just be out in nature with real air.”
In only a few hours’ time, students like Wimer can easily absorb many different elements of nature.
The park’s herpetarium, one of Wimer’s favorite as a child, is accessed by a trail to the right of the main parking lot and features eight snake species, other reptiles and amphibians, and opossums, which are America’s sole marsupial.
“When I was young, I would be obsessed with the herpetarium with the snakes and the lizards and stuff that they have in there,” she said.
Beyond the herpetarium is a deer habitat with several white-tailed deer, one of which has unique patches of mottled white fur on its sides and belly.
The turtle habitat hides several turtles—Wimer counted 8 on a particular day, one of which was almost flawlessly camouflaged under a pile of leaves stuck to his shell.
Along the trail beyond the deer is the lakeside path, where trees lean across the edge of the pond at a precarious-looking slant. Benches are sporadically placed between the trail and the pond’s edge, and there visitors have time for a slow reflection in the silence of the woods, interrupted only by other park goers.
Now, Wimer loves that lakeside stillness even more than the animal exhibits.
“It’s really changed, cause I want to be more in tune with nature, so just being outside, walking the trails, looking at the outdoor animals instead--the wolves are very cool,” Wimer said. “But the lakeside trail, the trail that goes all the way around, that’s a really good spot to just walk and clear your mind and be at one with the trees.”
Another ETSU student, Skylar Porter, is newer to the Bays Mountain experience.
“I moved to Johnson City in 2018, and since then, I’ve probably been to Bays Mountain three to five times,” Porter said. “And every time I’ve come, I’ve really enjoyed the experience that I’ve had, getting to see the wolves being fed or the barge rides, I’ve always had a fun experience here.”
The information about animals and emphasis on taking care of nature stands out to Porter.
“I really like the information they have about our local animals and the plants and the diversity around here within the actual park building; they have some really good stuff about like bumblebees,” Porter said. “I also really like to see the animals. It makes me happy to see them taken care of in a place that is really a gemstone to our community.”
The park’s furry, sun-basking wolves, who have scheduled “Wolf Howlings” times of day at the park, hold a special place in locals’ hearts.
“My favorite memory at Bays Mountain would have to be that one year I was young, with me and my cousins and they have it closed off now, the restriction next to the wolves, but we would go up there and stand for like 30 minutes and try to count every single one to make sure we had them,” Wimer remembered. “And then of course they would get up and move, and we would lose count and have to start all over. But just counting, looking at all of the different wolves, trying to see which one was who by their names, anything to do with that was my favorite thing to do when I was little.”
The planetarium show is on Wimer’s list of features she would mention if recommending the park.
“I would definitely point out the planetarium, because that’s like the coolest thing ever,” said Wimer. “You’re immersed into literally a space world for however long the shows are.”
Still, being immersed in nature is the peak of Wimer’s love for Bays Mountain.
“I tell everybody to go outside, and this is the best place to get outside around here, especially if you’re in the Tri-Cities,” said Wimer. “There’s not really another park similar that has all of these features and the space to be able to walk around and still be with people but still be alone.”
As Porter said, the “gemstone to our community,” Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium, enables locals to recharge in a haven of preserved and protected nature.