The best of Nashville, Tennessee: Hikes, honky tonk, and horseback rides

February 08, 2016                 7m read time
Amanda McConnon


There’s a reason Nashville inspires some of music’s biggest superstars. Whether it’s the tall waterfalls, winding mountain trails or glorious honky tonk hotspots, we’ll let you decide.

Bob Dylan, Jack White, and Taylor Swift walk into a bar. Chances are, that bar is in Nashville: the southern city where musical icons record at famed studios and take the stage at intimate cafes, rootin’ tootin’ bars, and even nature preserves.

But Music City has appeal beyond its legendary mainstays, such as the venerable Grand Old Opry or the locally beloved Station Inn bluegrass-jam-venue-slash-dive-bar. From horseback rides through limestone forests, to mirthful full moon festivals at city parks, to pit-cooked pork BBQ, there are plenty of ways to fill gaps between star-studded sets. Here are our 10 favorites:

1. Ride through the Cedars of Lebanon

Tall trees Richard A McMillin
 

Cedars of Lebanon State Park offers a landscape so different from the buzzing streets of Nashville, it’s hard to believe it’s just a half-hour drive away. Named after the Biblical forests of Mount Lebanon, the park is covered with leviathan limestone slabs and rock formations, all beneath shady cedar branches. The park’s inhospitable soil and unpredictable temperatures create a unique habitat: 19 rare and endangered plant species thrive there that are found nowhere else on Earth.

The 900-acre sanctuary has eight miles of hiking trails, more than 100 campsites, picnic tables, and a group lodge, but there’s no better way to see the park’s forested glory than from the back of a horse. Rent a noble steed from the Stables at Cedars of Lebanon, or bring your own majestic mount and let guides take you on a 50-minute ride down the trails.

2. It’s all about that bass at Percy Priest Lake

Percy Priest Lake in Nashville, Tennessee Denise Mattox

Percy Priest Lake in Nashville, Tennessee

Denise Mattox

 

At 42 miles long and fully stocked, Percy Priest Lake is a fisherman favorite. Here, it’s all about that bass. Striped, Cherokee, large mouth, small mouth, and white all make an appearance in this manmade lake, as do sunfish, catfish, bluegill, and trout. Sign up with a pro guide for a better chance of reeling in the trophies.

You’ll need a Tennessee fishing license to sink your hooks here, but even without one, Percy Priest Lake is a premium destination just 15 minutes from downtown Nashville. By land and by water, there’s plenty to do and see here, including wildlife watching, wakeboarding, hiking, and biking.

3. Home is where the biscuits are: Fall in love with Loveless Café

Fried chicken, biscuits and macaroni and cheese at Loveless Cafe in Nashville Loveless Cafe

Fried chicken, biscuits and macaroni and cheese at Loveless Cafe in Nashville

Loveless Cafe

 

Forget the famed colonel and his finger-lickin’ chicken. While most of the world is snoozing, the dedicated chefs at Loveless Cafe are cooking up fresh preserves, honey-fire BBQ chicken, fluffy biscuits and smoked beef brisket.

Don’t be duped by the cafe’s modest name: Once you sink your teeth into juicy watermelon ribs or a pimento cheese n’ fried green tomato biscuit, you’ll be smitten, just like the rest of the hungry faithful who line up each day for their share of mouthwatering, southern-style cuisine. While waiting your turn, visit the adjacent Loveless Shops—located in a converted motel—and snag some tasty pantry items or local artisan gifts. If you’re trying to outsmart the ravenous masses, try to arrive before 9 a.m. or after 2 p.m.

4. Commune with Mother Nature at Radnor Lake

Radnor Lake in Nashville, Tennessee Michael Hicks

Radnor Lake in Nashville, Tennessee

Michael Hicks

 

There is zero tolerance for mellow-harshing at Radnor Lake. This quiet refuge from the honky tonk crowds permits zero running, food, biking, or pets. Stroll down wide, unpaved paths to the tunes of songbirds while spotting turkey, deer, river otters, and even bobcats and coyotes for a totally wild experience just 15 minutes from downtown Nashville.

Be sure to duck into Vanderbilt University’s Dyer Observatory, home to science camps, educational tours, telescope viewing nights, and the truly special Bluebird on the Mountain summer concert series. Held on one of the tallest hilltops in Nashville on the observatory’s portico, the concerts—hosted by Bluebird Cafe—pair Tennessee’s natural assets with its natural talent, such as Kenny White and Tim Nichols.

5. Honky Tonk Highway: The Hollywood Boulevard of Nashville

Honky Tonk Highway in Nashville Tennessee f11photo

Honky Tonk Highway in Nashville Tennessee

f11photo

 

Don your ten-gallon and set your sights on Honky Tonk Highway, a boot-scootin’ stretch of street that takes you past cornerstone country music stops with apropos names like “Full Moon Saloon,” “The Second Fiddle” and “Legend’s Corner.” Put it in park at Robert’s Western World, former home of the Sho-Bud Steel Guitar Company and a two-stage venue where you can take in some “Brazilbilly”—a combination of traditional country and Latin flair. 

Stretch your legs while moseying down to Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the ultra-famous country music venue responsible for jumpstarting Willie Nelson’s songwriting career (no big deal). Braving the crowds is worth it to see the stage where renowned artists like Mel Tillis, Patsy Cline and Kris Kristofferson played their earliest tunes.

6. Howl (or sing) at the moon in Percy Warner Park

Percy Warner Park near Nashville, Tennessee David Marx

Percy Warner Park near Nashville, Tennessee

David Marx

 

The Warner Parks are proof that two is better than one. Sitting side by side just nine minutes from downtown Nashville, Edwin and Percy Warner Parks offer 26 miles of trails. Hike, bike and ride your way around scenic forest and historic sites, including the Allée steps, Percy Warner’s iconic front entrance. Don’t feel like getting out of the car? Winding roadways offer panoramic glimpses of the parks’ natural assets, with minimal effort on your end.

For a truly authentic dose of Nashville’s grassroots music scene, plan your visit from May through October, when the Friday closest to the full moon aligns with a Full Moon Pickin’ Party. This series of fundraisers—known for their organic, laid-back feel—features bluegrass musicians of all ages jamming around the grounds, while three headlining acts perform on the main stage.

Guests are encouraged to BYOI (bring your own instrument) and strum or pluck along. Entry costs $15 and includes soft drinks and four cold beers.

7. Rub elbows with the greats

Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, Tennessee irvindr

Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, Tennessee

irvindr

 

OK, so this one is a long shot that's all about the music, but it never hurts to try your luck at nabbing a table at the intimate, 90-seat Bluebird Café. With regular appearances on ABC’s “Nashville,” this country-quaint yet legendary “listening room” is where you can rub elbows with music giants like Garth Brooks and LeAnn Rimes. Take a seat at one of the candle-lit tables, sip a finely crafted cocktail, and listen to raw, stripped-down acoustic performances. Playing in collaborative groups of four, famed stars and masterminds behind country, pop, and contemporary chart-toppers back each other up while taking turns in the spotlight. Sunday and Monday nights are first-come, first-served, but reservations for other days are usually available online a week in advance. 

If taking chances isn’t your thing, downtown Nashville’s Listening Room Café serves up a similar experience without the guesswork. Here, budding stars strum and croon while you indulge in craft beer on tap and hand-battered sweet and spicy pickles until your pants don’t fit. Don’t forget to take in the bird’s-eye view of Nashville from the Listening Room’s sprawling terrace.

8. A day tripper’s dream - escape to Foster Falls

Foster Falls near Nashville, Tennessee Derek Bruff

Foster Falls near Nashville, Tennessee

Derek Bruff

 

If you like your sublime natural views with a side of seclusion, this is the hike you’ve been waiting for. Located 90 minutes from Nashville in South Cumberland State Park, Foster Falls is a 60-foot high wall of water tucked amid more than 23,000 acres of rock climbing, hiking, and backcountry camping.

The hike to the falls is a day tripper’s dream, clocking in at just two miles, complete with interesting rock formations and a swinging rope bridge. If a cliff dive doesn’t get the adrenaline pumping, a score of additional paths await. Consider the 12.5-mile Fiery Gizzard Trail, which passes cascading streams and rock gorges as it travels from Foster Falls to Grundy Forest. Eleven bucks will buy you a night of wilderness camping to recoup from the day’s explorations.

9. A tale of two trails at Hamilton Creek Mountain Bike Park

Mountain biker in the woods maxpro

Mountain biker in the woods

maxpro

 

Tucked between the airport and Percy Priest Lake, Hamilton Creek Mountain Bike Park is the only one of its kind in Nashville and Davidson Counties. Whether you’re a pedaling pro or a mountain bike novice, two trails of varying difficulty deliver views well worth the effort. At a little more than three miles, the Lakeside Trail winds through cedar groves and limestone rock outcroppings. If you’re up for a longer cycle, take a leisurely pedal on the seven-mile Pinnacle Trail. Marinate in the aromas of wild honeysuckle and daffodil, and maybe catch sight of the mysterious antique blue Plymouth car that sits trailside.

Gunning for something a little more challenging? Drive an hour south to Chickasaw Trace Park. Take on serpentine loops along Knob Creek or the calf-burning technical Trail of Tears. With multiple entries and exits, it’s easy to choose your own adventure.

10. Tour the city on a stand-up paddleboard

Big Willie's Nashville paddle boarding Big Willie’s Nashville

Big Willie's Nashville paddle boarding

Big Willie’s Nashville

 

After you’ve heard some sweet tunes and learned some Nashville dance moves, take your honky-tonk to the water and experience Music City from a whole new vantage point. Swing by Big Willie’s Nashville and get outfitted for a 2-3 hour paddleboard tour down the Cumberland River. Put in at Riverfront Park and float under the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge before ending your calorie-torching trip at Broadway. Craving some more of those delicious fried pickles from the Listening Room? This is how you justify it.

Amanda McConnon

Hailing from the Jersey Shore, Amanda McConnon is a writer of all things and wilderness wanderer. Follow her adventures on Instagram.

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