Although it doesn't feel like it today, spring IS here and Nashville is a pretty great place to take in the great outdoors. I'm a pretty avid hiker (the harder the better!) and can tell you, there's no better feeling than just being outdoors with not a lot of people around you, taking in everything that our planet has to offer. It makes you feel pretty small sometimes, and I'm okay with that.
And while some of most beautiful hiking trails in the state are in the Smoky Mountains and not exactly a "day trip," here are my top 5 must-do hikes around Nashville.
First caveat: I am NOT including Percy Warner or Edwin Warner Parks in this. First of all, everyone knows about those places, and although they're great family hikes, they can get pretty crowded. And, as a hike, they're "okay" - they're kept up really well and offer a lot of nice scenery, but I'm a bigger fan of these other trails.
Second caveat: Not all of these are IN Nashville - but they're all within a two-hour drive and can absolutely qualify as a day trip.
Radnor Lake State Park
This is, in my opinion, the best hike IN Nashville city limits. Radnor is a nature preserve, so the wildlife is the main reason to go. On any given day you'll see deer, turkeys, eagles, owls, and tons of waterfowl. Plus, the lake is really peaceful and there are lots of places to just kind of hang out and enjoy your surroundings. There are three main trails at Radnor Lake. The Otter Creek trail is a paved path good for biking and walking, and the only part of the park that allows pets. There's not a ton of scenery and that trail gets pretty crowded, especially later in the day, but it's a nice little mile path with some scenery. The Lake Trail is a bit more secluded and significantly longer. It's about a 2.5 mile loop around the lake, but REALLY easy for anyone. It's a smooth dirt path without a lot of elevation, and is the first trail that my son could do (when he had just turned 4). My favorite is the Ganier Ridge trail, which offshoots from the Lake Loop and adds another mile and a half to your trip. It's a pretty steep elevation at times, but the scenery is outstanding and with a lot less foot traffic, you're a lot more likely to catch wildlife. Get to Radnor early in the morning for the best parking situation, but also the most peaceful trip and the most animal activity. Our last trip in the fall we saw probably 25 deer on a 7am hike. Great hike and easy for all ages.
Rock Island State Park
This one's a little bit of a drive (about an hour and a half from Nashville), but it's WORTH it. Located near McMinnville, the state park is placed at the intersection of three rivers, which provide a ton of scenery and some unbelievable waterfalls thanks to a huge gorge and the Great Falls Dam. There's several different trails in the park, and none of them are terribly long or challenging by themselves. The #1 on your list should be the Twin Falls trail, which takes you right by one of the most unbelievable waterfalls you'll ever see. The trail itself is only a mile and a half out and back, but there are spots to veer off the trail and climb the rocks down to the base of the falls. You should do that, but only if you're pretty sure of foot. It's not a terribly challenging climb, but I wouldn't recommend it for little kids. Bring a blanket and picnic down at the base of the falls. It's AWESOME. You can't climb to the bottom of Great Falls, but there's a trail near the overlook that takes you by a couple of smaller waterfalls and down to the river. Get there at the right time of day and you'll be all by yourself. It's also a great area for wildlife, and if you're lucky, you might even catch some otters playing near the rocks. All told, you can do multiple trails in one day for about a 5 or 6 mile total hike, and you're back home by dinner time.
Short Springs State Natural Area/Machine Falls
This is another solid one for families. Machine Falls is the really picturesque one that you see on Instagram a lot, but Busby Falls and Adams Falls are in the same area, and you can see all three on a 5 mile loop. If you're not up for that long of a hike, the regular Machine Falls loop is about 2.5 miles and is decently easy for all ages. My son is five and had very little trouble with it. Not only can you hike right up to the base of the falls, but it's just a very lush, scenic area and really doesn't get all that crowded due to how far outside of Nashville it is.
Narrows of the Harpeth
Since the last couple have been a little further away, let's bring it back close to Nashville proper. Located just off I-40 in Kingston Springs, the Narrows the Harpeth trail is actually a part of Harpeth River State Park that features two trails. The main trail is REALLY short and easy. It's a little over a mile out and back and takes you back to an old iron forge that features a small manmade waterfall. Kind of a cool place to just stop off and hang out, plus you can climb to the top of the falls without much issue. Just off of the main loop there's a pretty steep and difficult bluff trail. It's not long, but it's definitely a workout. The view at the end overlooking the Harpeth River though is pretty great and worth the trip. There are a couple of other easy trails in the State Park - the Gossett Tract and the Hidden Lake Trail (which has a cool history of its own), but the Narrows trail is the one I would most reccommend.
Virgin Falls State Natural Area
My personal favorite, but also the toughest trail of the bunch (and I think the farthest away). Located just outside of Sparta, this may be my favorite trail in the whole state. The whole trail is nearly 9 miles out and back with a couple of nice waterfalls on the path before you get to the main event. There are some tough spots to navigate, including a cable crossing across the river, but the whole trail is super cool and the falls at the end...well, I mean...just check out the picture. Do yourself a favor and take the bonus hike up to the top of the falls, and Martha's Pretty Point is a pretty nice offshoot hike as well. Waterfalls aside, it's a gorgeous hike with scenery that just looks like it comes from a different planet. Easily my favorite spot in Tennessee, but not for the novice hiker. I clocked about 11 miles on the day and was pretty wiped out at the end of the day, but man it was worth it.
Okay, I promised you five, but I'll give you a couple more just for fun. Burgess Falls is a great waterfall, but the hike itself is just sort of okay. Cummins Falls is an awesome trail and a super cool waterfall/swimming hole, but at times it gets pretty packed. Also, the Natchez Trace is really cool and has some nice hikes along the way but none that stand out on their own.
What's your favorite hike in Tennessee?