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West Tennessee

This is an excerpt from Hiking Tennessee eBook by Victoria S. Logue.

One of the three Grand Divisions of the state, West Tennessee is the most sharply defined geographically. Its boundaries are the Mississippi River on the west and the Tennessee River on the east, and it encompasses an area of 9,000 square miles. In the center are eco-rich river-bottom lands on which most of the state’s cotton is grown. The only exception to this strictly defined area is Hardin County, which is bisected by the Tennessee River where it enters Tennessee from its Alabama and Mississippi borders. Both Pickwick Landing State Park and Shiloh National Military Park are located in this county.


Located within the Mississippi Embayment, which is part of the Gulf Coastal Plain, the terrain in West Tennessee is flatter than the middle and eastern divisions of the state. Despite the fact that the areas that border the Mississippi River are within the alluvial floodplain, many of the western counties are protected from flooding by the Chickasaw Bluffs. These high ridges are composed of loess and rise 50 - 200 feet above the floodplain. Both Meeman Shelby Forest and Fort Pillow State Parks are located on the Chickasaw Bluffs. Although the land is both lower and flatter than the middle and eastern sections of the state, there is still some hilly terrain, especially along the aforementioned bluffs and also along the land bordering the Tennessee River, which is known as the West Tennessee Highlands and includes Paris Landing, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Natchez Trace State Parks. These lands are forested, but most of the land in West Tennessee is used as farmland, the soil of which comes from when a prehistoric sea dried up and left sediment in its place. Also, unlike the remainder of the state, the bedrock is a few thousand feet below the surface. Parks in this area of West Tennessee are built around bottomland swamps for the most part.


West Tennessee is at high risk for earthquakes because it is at the edge of the New Madrid Seismic Zone. Three of the largest earthquakes in American history hit this region in 1811 and 1812. The quakes were so severe that they briefly reversed the flow of the Mississippi River and created what is now Reelfoot Lake.

This section of the state is also home to numerous rivers and streams in addition to the Mississippi and Tennessee. Originally slow-moving swamps, nearly all of them were channelized in the 20th century. Some of the rivers that empty into the Mississippi River include the Obion, Forked Deer, Loosahatchie, Wolf, Nonconnah Creek and Hatchie (which has not been channelized). Rivers that empty into the Tennessee include the Big Sandy and Beech.


West Tennessee sits on top of an artesian aquifer, which is the main source of water for Memphis, the largest city in this section of the state. In this area and areas along the bluffs, the loess and gravel serve as a cap over the sand making up the aquifer. The rest of West Tennessee serves as a recharge area for the aquifer, which provides some of the cleanest water in the United States. Average rainfall in this area ranges from 40 to 50 inches annually, and the climate ranges from humid continental in the north of the state to humid subtropical in the south.


Oaks, hickories, gum maple, black walnut, sycamore, and cottonwood grow in the West, and cypress is plentiful in the Reelfoot Lake area. The area is home to a diverse assemblage of wildlife from bald eagles and other raptors, water fowl and migratory birds, to raccoons, minks, beaver, deer, and foxes.

Learn more about Hiking Tennessee.