Hops and Skips

Tennessee State Park Tour: Long Hunter

One of the loveliest features of middle Tennessee geography is its lakes. These aren’t the massive ones that could, at first glance, be mistaken for ocean, nor the ones that are small enough to swim across. These are sprawling, ambling bodies of water reminiscent of Rorschach tests in shape, with wide open avenues and quiet, narrow coves. Their twists and turns are exciting to navigate, both on the water and along the shore, because the journey can be unpredictable.

Several state parks run along the edge of Tennessee lakes, the most accessible from Nashville being Long Hunter State Park. Frequent visitors to Percy Priest Lake and its marinas may not even realize there’s a state park nearby; for most of my life, I’ve been one of those lake-goers more familiar with activities on its waters than off. Divided into four distinct sections along the lake’s jagged eastern shore, each rooted in the names of the area’s early homesteads, Long Hunter offers public boat ramps, picnic pavilions and playgrounds, mountain biking, canoe rentals, and 26 miles of hiking.

The lake itself is relatively new, formed with the damming of the Stones River in 1968, but the area was once known as the Middle Hunting Ground to local indigenous tribes. When European pioneers began to settle west of the Appalachian Mountains in the mid-1700s, many would venture to the area on year-long hunting and trading expeditions. They were known as “long hunters,” Daniel Boone being the most famous.

The Couchville Lake and Bakers Grove sections of the park contain most of the hiking. (Mountain bike trails can be found at Jones Mill, and Sellars Farm is an archaeological area of Native American mounds located further east near Lebanon, TN, though managed by Long Hunter State Park.) We have hiked two of the park’s most popular trails on multiple occasions, each the perfect exemplar of its particular appeal.


DAY LOOP TRAIL

Often, the perfect hike is one that is perfectly balanced. It makes you sweat without being entirely exhausting; it’s the perfect distance without dragging on and has enough climbs to make you feel accomplished and not dreading the next. To me, the 4-mile Day Loop Trail embodies exactly that – a hike that’s just a darn good experience.

Our first venture to the Day Loop was last Labor Day weekend – still sweltering but with the ever-so-slightest beginnings of an autumnal crispness in the air. The trailhead is further north than the park’s main drag; you need to turn off of Hobson Pike onto Bakers Grove Lane, then a left onto Granny White Lane. Upon approach, it looks like a strictly residential area, but you’ll run into a small parking lot – a very small parking lot for a trail that gets pretty busy with no spillover parking available. (I have yet to figure out a rhyme or reason for typical “busy” times, so just be aware.)

The first half mile of the Day Loop shares a path with the longer Volunteer Trail (a one-way 5.5-mile trail leading to backcountry camping) through wooded lowlands. Take the left fork towards the water, following the orange trail markers, to stay on the loop. The next 2+ miles follow the lake shore, climbing and falling as the elevation changes. On a weekend as busy for lake-goers as this one, the quiet sounds of a forested hike were sprinkled with distant motorboat engines and the echoed notes of cove-anchored party-goers. At the second fork, head right to follow the trail away from the shoreline for the hike’s highest elevation change, through the woods for another .8 miles to finish the loop, and return to the half-mile path leading to the parking lot.

On a hot, sunny day, it’s a manageable hike thanks to the constant shade of the tree-canopy. We returned in the fall with cooler temperatures and higher visibility as the leaves had started to fall. At the time, our daughter was under two and mostly happy riding along in her carrier, making this trail a fantastic, do-able workout even with a tot in tow. Now, nearly a year later, our requirements have changed a bit…


COUCHVILLE LAKE TRAIL

It was inevitable; they grow up and no longer want the restrictions of that blessed carrier that makes a parent’s hike feel like a celebration of personal autonomy. No, they reach an age and want their own independence, and new considerations become unavoidable factors of your hikes with kids. How narrow is the trail? Is it smooth? Rocky? Slippery? How much climbing? Any drop offs? For how long can I handle the relentless “Pick me up”/”No, I want down” back-and-forth?

At two-and-a-half, we’re there. Like with all facets of life as a parent, your standards and expectations have to shift as your kids evolve, and in our life outdoors, that now means hikes that are shorter and easier because we know they’ll take three times as long as they used to.

For this kind of hike, the Couchville Lake Trail is the perfect option. The trailhead is located beyond the park’s main entrance and Visitor’s Center, near a large parking lot, picnic area, boat launch (non-motorized), playground, and restroom area. It’s a 2.1-mile loop along the shores of Couchville Lake, through the woods and entirely shaded, flat and fully paved – features of a trail I previously would have considered “a walk, not a hike.” Start along the path that heads to the right, nearest the playground, without crossing the parking lot. The path heads through beautiful, dense tree growth and keeps the shoreline within view. Small fishing docks punctuate the walk and provide peaceful viewpoints out over the water; a moderately-sized picnic shelter offers a good stopping point for snacks or water at just over a mile through; another .3 miles leads to the trail’s highlight, a long wooden bridge that crosses the water. The final .65 miles continue along the lake’s western shore back to the parking lot.

Every time we’ve walked this trail, it has been comfortably populated without being crowded; it’s a wonderful spot for a family outing or independent walk/jog through the woods.

CHECKLIST:

Date: August & November 2019 (Day Loop); May & July 2020 (Couchville Lake)
Count: 4 of 56

GETTING THERE:

Though the western shores of Percy Priest Lake are just 15 miles east of downtown Nashville and easily accessible from the interstate, the park, on the lake’s eastern edge, is smack in between I-24 and I-40, requiring an extra drive on the two-lane Hobson Pike. (Approach from the south via I-24 or Murfreesboro Pike for a ride over the lake itself.) The main entrance to the park and Visitor’s Center is located off Hobson Pike and marked with official signage and park-owned roads.

Click here to read more of our adventures in Tennessee State Parks!

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