By mid-September, you think Fall would have started making an appearance—perhaps a drop in temperature or some relief from the heavy, humid air of summer. But September this year has followed a too-frequent warming trend that promises record-breaking heat during a month that should be transitioning to a cooler season. The day we visited Radnor Lake State Park, just a week shy of the official start of Fall, the forecast promised mostly sunny skies with a high of 96.
So much for a cool hike to celebrate the coming of a new season.
Radnor Lake is so familiar to Nashvillians that few natives may even realize it’s actually a State Park. Tucked away in a residential area about 9 miles from city center, it could be easily overlooked unless purposefully sought out; you can’t depend on highways signs to guide you to your destination, and the surrounding neighborhood feels so opposite that of a state park, you may actually think you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere.
According to Radnor’s Park Manager of over 17 years, Steve Ward, that obscurity is purposeful. “We don’t do highway signs, because we can’t accommodate RVs and campers,” he says. As a Class II Natural Area, Radnor has highly restrictive rules of use. There is no camping, no picnicking, no dog-walking or biking or jogging on the trails. Radnor’s mission as a Natural Area is wildlife observation and research; no activities are allowed that will disrupt its sensitive ecosystem. “We have five-year studies on endangered plants happening. Going off trail will affect the wildlife and affect those studies,” reminds Ward.
We entered the park by way of its west entrance, where visitors fight for parking spaces (sometimes up to 45 minutes, according to Ward) even on an otherwise-quiet Sunday morning. Starting here will take you by the Visitors Center for a quick stop to pick up a park map, read an extensive history of Radnor and its extensive conservation efforts, and take a bathroom break before hitting the trails. Enter through the east parking lot and you’ve got quick access to the Barbara J. Mapp Aviary Center, opened in 2015 and considered by Ward to be the park’s “best kept secret” (open only Wednesday and Saturday).
Radnor Lake boasts of over 6 miles of hiking trails—two main loops that flank each side of the lake and provide enough connectors for routes to be shortened or lengthened, depending on the hiker’s preference. During most of my visits to Radnor, I’ve headed for the Ganier Ridge Trail on the north side of the lake, the route that sees the most elevation change of any in the park. This time, accompanied by a toddler and having foolishly left the baby carrier at home, we opted to follow the less strenuous Lake Trail for its 1.35 miles from the west side to the east, connecting with the paved Otter Creek Road for an easy 1-mile stroll back to our starting point.
You’ll rarely be alone when hiking Radnor. It’s a popular spot for a day hike, and we crossed paths with folks of all ages—families with young children, couples young and old, solo hikers and groups ranging from teens to seniors. Our hike began on the quarter-mile Spillway Trail which connects the Visitors Center to the official start of the Lake Trail, also forking off at their intersection to head south along the Dam Walkway to Otter Creek Road and the trails on the opposite side of the lake—South Lake and South Cove Trails. Once past the Spillway Trail and officially on the Lake Trail, the surrounds were peaceful, despite so many visitors.
The area has not always been so quiet. It caught late Civil War action as Confederate troops retreated through park land after defeat at the nearby Battle of Nashville in December 1864. Fifty years later, the land was purchased by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad to build a reservoir on Otter Creek that would supply water to the company’s steam engines at a nearby rail yard. The decline of steam engines eventually marked the reservoir as obsolete, and L&N sold the land.
Its journey from industrial supplier to wildlife sanctuary, surprisingly, was both swift and unintentional. Birds had begun to gather at the lake as a rest stop on their annual migration, and the site was declared a “Wildlife Sanctuary” in 1923 at the request of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. For the next 50 years, the park quietly existed as a sanctuary from the outside city until a plan for development surfaced in the early 1970s. What sprung forth was an impassioned community effort to purchase the land and, eventually, sanctify Radnor Lake as the state’s first Natural Area, established 1973.
As we meander through the woods, a small group has gathered ahead on the trail, provoking us to take pause and join. A large, stoic owl has been spotted up in the trees 100 feet from the trail, quietly leering down at us, spotted only by the luck of one passerby’s eye. In moments like this, Radnor fulfills our expectations in such a way that it doesn’t feel exceptional, only predictable; we go to a nature reserve expecting to be one with nature. But a place like Radnor is exceedingly rare—a place that aims only to preserve what exists without developing more. “The biggest challenge to Radnor,” shares Ward, “is keeping it like it is. There’s always pressure to change things, but there’s not many places you can go to just hike, without all the other things people want to do. There’s a craving to get away from the noise. It’s simplistic, but I think there’s a need for that. It’s what people are trending towards, because it’s harder and harder to find.”
The last half of our hike is on asphalt instead of soft earth, looping back to our starting point via Otter Creek Road. On our left, we pass trailheads for the southern loops, back up and into the forest; on our right and past the trees, the lake in perfect mirror stillness. Portions of the road are sliding away, crumbling asphalt falling down to the water bank, and you wonder if, in a place that so strongly values nature’s influence over man’s, there is much priority to fix it.
With Radnor here in my backyard, I will undoubtedly visit many more times in the upcoming months and years. And as long as things go according to plan, I can expect it will look much the same each time.
Source: Friends of Radnor Lake; phone interview with Park Manager Steve Ward
Date: September 2019
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Radnor Lake State Park is located less than 10 miles south of downtown Nashville in residential Oak Hill. From I-65, follow exit 78B, West towards Harding Place. Continue straight through Franklin Road onto Battery Lane. Turn left on Granny White Pike and follow for 1.8 miles. Turn left onto Otter Creek Road and continue to the park’s entrance.
Click here to read more of our adventures in Tennessee State Parks!