Hops and Skips

Tennessee State Park Tour: Montgomery Bell

Some parks have great hiking; some have fascinating history; and some just have awesome amenities.

Several years ago, we visited Montgomery Bell State Park for a Valentine’s Weekend getaway, one of the many special “vacation packages” offered by the parks system throughout the year. Montgomery Bell is one of six parks that offers lodge accommodations and, at the time of that visit back in 2016, we enjoyed a restaurant meal overlooking the lake and a night spent in one of their lodge rooms. The accommodations were tolerable but dated enough to taint a weekend nature retreat with the vibe of a cheap motel.

Fast forward to 2020, and the lodge has recently undergone a full renovation of its 117 guest rooms, event spaces, and full-service restaurant and bar. For our Montgomery Bell re-visit, I was as anxious to see the updates as I was to explore the trails in temperatures warmer than our previous sub-freezing stroll.

It’s a name that pops up frequently in middle Tennessee; Montgomery Bell was a 19th-century entrepreneur who was essential to the region’s economic development. He was nicknamed the “Iron Master of Tennessee” and also one of the richest men in the south prior to the Civil War. His name left its mark on The Narrows at Harpeth River State Park; he founded a west Nashville boy’s school in the 1860s that still stands; and here in Dickson County, 40 minutes west of Nashville, Montgomery Bell State Park lies in what was once the heart of Tennessee’s iron industry. The land was developed as a recreation area during the Great Depression as part of a joint parks project between the Works Progress Administration, the Public Works Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1943, the land was given to the state of Tennessee to be used as a state park. 

Montgomery Bell State Park is definitely one to be enjoyed as a resort-like destination. Along with the lodge and restaurant, there’s also a golf course, outdoor pool, campground, three lakes, eight renovated eco-friendly cabins, and a group camp with 34 rustic cabins and a dining hall. You can go birding, boating, mountain biking, hiking, fishing, swimming… it’s easy to see why it’s a good destination for both day visits and extended stays. 

As day visitors, we planned a Sunday itinerary that included a short hike and lunch at the restaurant. The Visitor’s Center sits at the start of the .7-mile Jim Bailey Nature Trail loop, but we had followed that route during our frigid February visit years ago and opted instead, thanks to the Ranger’s recommendation, for a longer amalgamation of trails to the west of the campground. We followed the western half of the Wildcat Trail, climbing up and running alongside a low ridge until ending at the Ore Pit Trail. The trails were dense with late-summer foliage, and often we could hear the dim murmur of campers down below and peek at their vans through the trees. Our daughter has become a pretty skilled 2.5-year-old hiker and was able to keep up with the route’s occasional climbs and bumpy terrain. 

Just short of the Ore Pit Trail’s halfway mark, it crosses a park road where visitors can venture out of the woods and discover some of the park’s historical landmarks. The first Cumberland Presbyterian Church was founded on what is now park grounds, and replica structures of both a church and the founding Reverend’s log cabin home remain. In fact, the church still hosts Sunday services during summer months, and the pavilions right next door look like the perfect venue for an old-fashioned church picnic. As we walked by, a baby shower was in full swing, complete with food on the grill and lawn games. 

With the restaurant’s 1:00 pm lunch cut-off quickly approaching, we opted to follow the road, instead of finishing the trail’s loop, for our route back to the car; our legs and stomachs lauded this decision. The lodge and restaurant sit on the shores of Lake Acorn, and the renovation is a major upgrade from our previous visit! The restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows provide a tucked-in-nature view of the lake outside; the slanted ceiling, stone fireplace, and cushioned furniture lend a warm, mid-century aesthetic to a space that could otherwise feel empty and uninviting. Best of all, an ample outdoor deck provides seating in the treetops, and a long observation deck extends views out over the lake. 

One would think a restaurant tucked back in a state park in small-town Tennessee would be so off-the-beaten path that its only possible audience could be those already visiting for recreational reasons, but based on the crowd size for Sunday lunch, I get the impression Montgomery Bell State Park isn’t just a destination for visiting outdoor enthusiasts; it’s a gathering spot, set against the backdrop of a beautiful, natural setting, attracting visitors no matter their interest or itinerary.

CHECKLIST:

Date: August 2020
Count: 8 of 56
Must-See: Take a stroll through the newly renovated lodge and dine on the restaurant’s outdoor deck overlooking Lake Acorn.

GETTING THERE:

From Nashville, take I-40 W to exit 192, McCrory Lane towards Pegram. Turn left on Charlotte Pike (Hwy 70) and follow for 16 miles. Once you pass through the town of White Bluff, take a left on Jackson Hill Road for the park entrance. The Park Office/Visitor’s Center is the first turn-off on the right.

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

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