The 5 Best Spots for Outdoor Exercise in Nashville
Head for the Hills! On the Trail of Local Parks’ Best Ups and Downs
Alle wahrhaft großen Gedanken kommen einem beim Gehen!”
All truly great thoughts come to one while moving.
In case you have been living under rocks – rather than already euphorically hiking, jogging, running over them – you already know that outdoor exercise, particularly in the calming woods and on hilly terrain, is just. so. damn. healthy. Our bodies and brains, you see, are basically self-sentient bio-bags of cascading chemistry, and physical exertion on trails at whatever pace your petits pieds can produce is the ideal way to become your own drug dealer. It’s free; it’s legal; it’s brain-buzzing at its best. Plus, the good stuff you get goes well beyond the rush of pleasurable endorphins, those famous neurotransmitters also known as endogenous opioids.
Impactful outdoor exercise on the trails also drops doses of dopamine, that neurotransmitter known for enhancing mood, motivation, and memory, and for regulating heart rate and sleep cycles. And then there are the endocannabinoids such as anandamide responsible for that ‘runner’s high.’ Unlike endorphins which, as molecules go, are too big and burly to cross the blood-brain barrier, endocannabinoids slip readily into your gray areas to act upon your brain’s endocannabinoid receptors in precisely the same way as the THC in a finely rolled spliff. Only, to get a heady hit in this case – call it ‘slope-o-dope’ – all you gotta do is huff it up the hills then Earth-surf it down like a bounding boss. Practice it often enough and euphoria will ensue. Ehm…as long as you keep the toes up. (Highly fucking recommended.)
But why hills in particular? Well, by taking on hills, you take on gravity. And by taking on gravity, you stimulate your body to generate another beneficial hormone, osteocalcin. Produced in our skeletal system, osteocalcin enters the bloodstream where it has been shown to increase muscle strength, improve memory, and regulate blood glucose levels. Further, the benefits of hiking, jogging, running hills isn’t limited to what the body produces, but also to what the body takes away. Research shows that steady climbs of 5% to 10% grades result in 30% to 40% increases in calorie burn. And that bit of good news is before you even reach the hills’ tippy tops to enjoy their tippy top views, the perfect places for reflection and happy habitat for epiphanies.
So while Nashville is admittedly not a mountain town, it is not a flatville like a Houston or a Chicago or a Miami either. There are still hills to be had in the Highland Rim in and around the Nashville Basin with trails in our local parks to enjoy them on. For reference, the lowest point of the Nashville Basin in Davidson County is the surface of the Cumberland River, some 385 feet above sea level depending on recent rainfall. Davidson County’s highest point is Ganier Ridge at 1,163 feet in Radnor Lake State Park. That’s a respectable 778-foot difference. Of course, the climbs in the parks in and around Nashville are much shorter than that. Still, a 200-plus-foot climb on a trail at a 15% grade over roots and rocks ain’t exactly a walk in the park. Except that it is.
So, without further ado, here is the officially subjective list of our local parks’ best trail hills to hightail it to enjoy life’s ups and downs, the greatest “hidden gyms” for souls with soles that can handle the rough stuff. Yes, a couple are in surrounding counties, but are included here because of their proximity to Nashville and for their quality climbs. Happy trails to you all!
Top 5 Best Local Trails for Hills
5) Timberland Park (Williamson County)
Located along the Natchez Trace Parkway at mile marker 437, this bit of Highland Rim happiness deserves to be far better known than it is. Not only does it feature close to three miles of runnable single track, but it also ties into the Big East Fork Reserve, a privately-owned property with open-access, double track trails. Since the Big East Fork is down in the Nashville Basin and the single track trails are up in the Highland Rim, the happy result is arguably the best (highest, longest, steepest) hills to play on this side of the Cumberland Plateau. Not only that, but the trailheads at the parking lot all start you at the top, providing a gravity-assisted warm up for your legs before making them lug you back up. Finally, the nature center has private, heated bathrooms with flush toilets – hilly trail hiking-jogging-running meets luxurious living.
4) Radnor Lake State Park
Even with more than 1,400 acres and some five miles of unpaved trails, Radnor is STILL too small to handle ALL the love it gets. But what’s not to love? Bald eagles live here for crying out loud. Not only that, Lake Radnor, 85 acres of placid perfection, provides habitat for rare waterfowl like something out of a hot and bothered ornithologist’s wet dream. Ganier Ridge, highest point in Davidson County, rises here to 1,163 feet. The only price to pay to enjoy the highs and lows here – assuming you can find parking – is the lack of any solitude in the phrase ‘sylvan solitude.’ Still, what a hill. And what a good hike up it.
3) Edwin Warner
Kid brother to the larger Percy Warner Park, Edwin Warner still packs a punch with its one BIG hill. The trail to hit here is called the Harpeth Woods Trail, but locals just call it the blue, named for its blazes. The loop is 2.5ish miles and, while not official, now offers a quarter mile out and back – unblazed, but you can’t miss it – to the summit itself. While the view is not the most impressive atop in terms of human-made structures, there are some good spots to view the 440 acre old growth – the Burch Reserve – across the highway far below.
2) Beaman Park
While there are no spectacular views to be had from the hills here, there are LOTS of hills here to be had, a happy instance of quantity breeding a quality all its very own. Welcome to Beaman, home to over 2,100-acres of sylvan sweetness and a number of endangered plants native to the Highland Rim. (So please stay on the trails.) But no problem with that because what trails they are! The .6 mile yellow from the nature center – check out the 300 feet of ADA compliant deck in the canopy – is the most technical. But, once you cross the creek at the bridge and get on first the white trail and then the green, you are off and running. (Or hiking. Or jogging.) In any case, the 12 miles of green are pure buttery goodness, like being at an amusement park and having the roller coaster all to yourself. Even if it’s a beautiful, blue Saturday morning, odds are you cover more miles than encounter people. And the whole time you’re in a Metro Nashville public park. Amazing.
1) Percy Warner
Home of the famous ‘Red,’ the 4.2 mile Mossy Ridge Trail, Percy holds the lion’s share of the Percy / Edwin Warner Parks’ 3,100 acres, almost all of them Highland Rim remnants surrounded by the northern section of the Nashville Basin. In other words, think ‘hills.’
In addition to Red, Percy Warner also boasts the 2.2 mile ‘White’ loop. This is the loop with the out and back to Luke Lea Heights, offering arguably the most romantic view of downtown Nashville that exists from a public park. Further, Percy Warner is also the site of the famous stairs. A climb up them – a dozen or so times if feeling frisky – has now become a staple of the authentic Nashville experience, as authentic as a plate of Prince’s or Bolton’s hot chicken (the real ones), or smug disdain for those who take selfies in front of the ‘I Believe in Nashville’ mural.
*Free tip: If it’s a weekday and below 55 degrees and – ideally – it’s drizzling or the ground is muddy, feel free to run the ‘Yellow’ (horse only) trail in Percy. TDuring this time and under these conditions, you are highly unlikely to encounter any landed gentry on their ponies or mounted cops on their horses. The Yellow in Percy features some of the fastest downhill runs possible – wide, soft and smooth (mostly).
*Free additional tip: Should you be unlucky and a mounted cop does stop you from Earth-surfing the Yellow, politely tell the officer that you have lost your horse and are out running around looking for it. “Have you seen it,” you might ask. “It’s a big, brown one.”
Cheatham Wildlife Management Area (Cheatham County)
The Pros At over 20,000 acres, it’s freaking huge with miles upon miles of trails ranging from deer-trampled single track to redneck-razed ATV washouts jeeps could race on. (And probably have.) The hills here are on steroids with nearly 300-foot monsters with 20% grades not uncommon. Kiss your calves good luck (or have a friend do it for you), and wear your most aggressive lugs.
The Cons It’s generally hunting season for something in there, so make sure to wear blaze orange to keep from getting shot. (No guarantees.) Further, unless it’s still winter, expect overgrown sections of tall grass clogged with thorns and ticks. It’s all part of the ambiance.
Solution Consider enjoying the hills of Cheatham in relative safety by signing up for the annual Music City Trail Ultra – 12k, 25k and 50k options available. (March 5th, 2022 is the next one up, so better hurry for this year!) Follow the flags to avoid getting lost, and enjoy the Jackalope beer at the finish. You’ll make new friends while getting a heady hit of Cheatham hills, enough to last for a year.
Marcella Vivrette Smith Park (Williamson County)
Brentwood’s largest park, this 400-acre-plus bit of bucolic bliss in the midst of a highly affluent zip code offers more than six miles of trails, ranging from gentle, cross-country double-track you could run barefoot to highly technical sections of jagged, rocky steepness that will kill you dead solid if you trip. So don’t. Make sure to include the full ‘out and back’ on the ‘red’ trail. It takes you to the top of the highest hill, providing a decent view of other people’s mansions. The downhill red also offers the fastest downhill in the park – the steepest drop with the fewest rocks. (That way, if you trip, you will live to ‘flight’ another day.) Ehm…probably.
*Interesting local park trivia fact: Trail running at Smith was deemed too dangerous and was declared illegal by Brentwood ordinance when the park first opened to the public.