It was mid-November, and my mother-in-law was visiting for the weekend. As often happens with out-of-town family, we had, by now, exhausted the checklist of “tourist destinations” kept to entertain visitors. (It has been six years, after all.) But on a crisp, sunny Sunday, antsy to spend our last hours together seeing and doing, as opposed to sitting and moping, I recommended we head to one of my favorite spots that guarantees a low-key adventure.
Barely out of Nashville’s downtown grid, in the valley just north of the towering Capitol Hill, lies Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, established in 1996 to celebrate Tennessee’s 200th anniversary (an occasion locked in my memory, as a 4th grader singing “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” during a program on the steps of the Capitol building). Natural sulphur and salt springs once attracted animals to this area and, in turn, Native American hunters, eventually leading to a French fur-trading post in the late-17th century and the name “French Lick.” This northern border of downtown Nashville provides the only unobstructed view of the Capitol because the soft land of the “French Lick” would not support skyscraper construction during downtown’s boom of the 1950s and 60s.
Bicentennial Mall (its abbreviated, familiar name) is slightly different than the “state park” most citizens would describe; as an urban park in the heart of the state’s capital city, it’s hardly a peaceful journey into nature. In fact, it seems to offer the very opposite of a secluded respite. As a unique amalgamation of features and attractions, Bicentennial Mall thrives off its diverse offerings for visitors.
On our November Sunday, we began our afternoon with lunch at the Nashville Farmer’s Market, located on the western edge of the park. During peak growing season, its outdoor stands are filled with locally-grown goods, but year-round, its indoor Market House features a plethora of locally-owned cuisine that spans the globe.
Bicentennial Mall’s official boundaries begin just east of the Farmer’s Market, on the other side of 7th Avenue. Following this route, we entered on the park’s Pathway of History. This pathway officially begins at the Harrison Street and 7th Avenue roundabout and draws visitors north through a timeline of state history – past markers of statehood, a centennial memorial, and a WWII memorial. A casual trip to Bicentennial Mall will take visitors past the many markers such as these that document state history, and one would no doubt walk away with many new historical tidbits. However, armed with additional information from the Visitors’ Center, visitors can explore the park from a deeper, symbolic perspective.
The park’s official mission is to celebrate the statehood of Tennessee and the diversity and history of the entire state, and this is demonstrated in its design and many details. Opposite the Pathway of History, the 6th Avenue path is marked with discs signifying each of Tennessee’s 95 counties. The long brick pathways between the two avenues, spanning the inside length of the park, are made from brick pavers engraved with names of Tennessee citizens and ancestors. Centered near the park’s northern edge is the Court of 3 Stars, a plaza representing the state’s East, Middle, and West divisions (per the state flag). Surrounding the plaza are the fifty tall Greek columns (representing Nashville as “Athens of the South”) that house a ninety-five bell Carillon (one for each county) that ring each hour, followed by a ring from the State Capitol bell – the government answering to the call of the people.
On the southern end of the park, a 2,000-seat outdoor amphitheater lies just north of Harrison Street. And just south of that, the state’s 31 major waterways are represented by the Rivers of Tennessee fountains. A large graphite wall is inscribed with information, and the trough at the wall’s base represents the Mississippi River that forms the state’s western edge. Just past the railroad trestle (underneath which is the Visitor’s Center) and up the steps is the Tennessee Plaza, featuring a 200-foot-wide map of the state that marks the state’s counties, cities, towns, railroads, highways, and rivers. Eight additional smaller maps highlight additional information on Tennessee’s geography and history.
Our Sunday afternoon visit was not much more than a stroll around the park’s perimeter. As the smallest park in the State Park system (a slight 19 acres), Bicentennial Mall boasts an ease and accessibility that allows it to serve the diverse wants and needs of its visitors. “Some people come here for the music, some for the history, some just for walking,” according to Laurie, my source of information in the Visitor’s Center, who also says the park’s foreign, domestic, and local tourists are as diverse as its offerings. When I needled her for an insider’s guide to the park’s “best kept secret,” her response was frustratingly vague: “It depends on what you’re here for.”
It’s a spot I have visited many, many times in my life as a Nashvillian. I’ve run through the fountains as a high schooler and taken my middle schoolers and my toddler to do the same. I’ve watched games of the Tennessee Vintage Baseball league played on its lawns. I’ve finished a half marathon on its sidewalks.
If these personal experiences are any indication, Bicentennial Mall is almost a park that serves more as backdrop to the many goings-on of the city of Nashville (ie: hosting the city’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration that just drew over 200,000 visitors to its grounds). As an urban park at its core, it’s the perfect park for this capital city. It’s always there for a picnic or stroll, but its grounds are adaptive, their purpose adjusting to the needs of the city and its people.
Date: November 2019
Count: 2 of 56
Bicentennial Mall State Park is located in the heart of Nashville. From the downtown loop on I-65, exit towards Charlotte Ave. Head east on Charlotte Ave and turn left on Rosa Parks Blvd. Turn right onto Harrison Blvd for easy access to parking in both the Bicentennial Mall and Farmers Market lots.
Click here to read more of our adventures in Tennessee State Parks!