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Middle Tennessee Tour
Explore Nashville & The Natchez Trace Let’s start by checking out Tennessee’s state capital of Nashville, which has over 625,000 residents in the city itself and 1.6 million residents across the Nashville-Davidson metro area, largest in the state.
The city straddles the Cumberland River close to the river’s southernmost point on its journey to the Ohio River, which made it a crucial center for trade dating back to Native American settlement.
Nashville is synonymous with country music, and “Music City” is the most important recording center for music anywhere away from the coasts. Record and other production companies line 17th and 18th Avenues just southwest of downtown in an area called Music Row, and on top of country everything from rock and folk to bluegrass and Americana gets recorded here; the TV show Nashville has only cemented the city’s stature in the music business. Of course, plenty of other business supports the area: government, banking,
Let’s begin with the major links to country music. Just east of downtown Nashville, not far from the airport, lies Opryland, home to the Grand Ole Opry, “Country’s most famous stage.” The Grand Ole Opry started up in 1925 and moved to its current location in 1974.
Surrounding the area is a resort, Opry Mills for plenty of shopping, an entertainment complex with restaurants and theatres, and along McGavock Pike, two “museums,” if you will: the Willie Nelson and Friends Museum & General Store and Cooter’s Place & Dukes of Hazzard Museum sit right next to each other. Just down the street you’ll find the Best Western Suites Near Opryland.
Take Highway 155 to I-40 and I-24 to hit downtown Nashville; follow the exits first to LP Field, home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, NCAA Division I’s Tennessee State Tigers, the annual collegiate Music City Bowl, and plenty of soccer matches, concerts, and more. The stadium abuts the Cumberland River, and the walkway along provides beautiful views of downtown just across the way. A pedestrian-only bridge as well as several road bridges accommodating cars, bikes, and pedestrians span the river to connect the two areas.
Downtown Nashville has several districts and can be accessed either via I-40 or the side street bridges. Head over one of them and hit downtown because there’s plenty to see!
The District sits on the west bank of the Cumberland River and holds lively restaurants, bars (usually with live music), shops, and more. It buzzes with people much of the day and night; carriage rides, trolley tours, and roving party groups can all be found around The District, which lies along and north of Broadway. The AT&T Center, also known as the “Bat Building,” is the city’s tallest and lies in the heart of The District.
Also along Broadway, Bridgestone Arena is home to the NHL Nashville Predators as well as plenty of concerts, college basketball games, awards shows, and other events. This is part of the “SoBro” District, meaning “South of Broadway.” This is where you’ll find the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, the Johnny Cash Museum (wear black), and the Music City Center.
Within blocks, you’ll find the Ryman Auditorium which dates back to 1892. This beautiful venue is considered the “Mother Church of Country Music” (and bluegrass music – this is where Bill Monroe and his bands helped expose the genre to larger audiences.) It held the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 until 1974, when it moved to the location we started the Tour with. If you’d like to see something rather than hear it, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts a few blocks west is a visual art museum housed in a former post office constructed in 1932 with some Art Deco touches.
On the northern edge of downtown is the Tennessee State Capitol, perched atop a hill overlooking Bicentennial Mall State Park. The Park, a long stretch of green space with beautiful views of the capitol and portions of downtown above, is loaded with gardens, fountains, memorials, and displays illustrating Tennessee’s history, inventions, and interesting facts – some of which are laid out on a long timeline you can walk.
Also on the downtown’s northern side is the Tennessee State Museum, which traces the state’s history from pre-colonization to modern times. It includes one of the largest Civil War collections in the nation. It’s housed with TPAC, the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Nearby is the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum, established in 2006 and relocated in 2014 to Nashville’s Historic Municipal Auditorium, which is where all the big shows used to be. The Nashville Sounds are the city’s AAA baseball team, affiliated with the Milwaukee Brewers. They open play in 2015 in a new stadium called First Tennessee Park.
Just west of downtown you’ll find the Best Western PLUS Music Row and the actual Music Row, the heart of which runs along 17th and 18th Avenues for about eight blocks south of Division. This is where much of it happens: the heart of the Country music industry in particular beats from these buildings, where songs are written, recorded, promoted, and either launched as hits or left to wither on the vine. Country, Americana, rock, R&B…you name the genre, at least some of it comes out of Music Row to radio stations and audiences around the world.
Nashville, along with New York and Los Angeles, are truly music capitals of the world – and this is the epicenter. Don’t be surprised if, while checking out the bars and restaurants in the area, you come across some serious music starts. Also, don’t be surprised if the guy or gal serving your food and drink becomes one of those stars someday. Aspirations in this area run high.
Just west of Music Row you reach the campus of Vanderbilt University, which bustles with 13,000 students and across a beautiful 330-acre campus established in 1873. Their team name is the Commodores, named not after the Lionel Richie-led R&B band but “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, who provided a $1 million gift to start the university despite never having been to the South; they subsequently changed the school from its original name, Central University, to Vanderbilt. A large array of stately buildings adorn the campus, which is itself a nationally-recognized arboretum despite its location in the heart of a major city.
Just west of downtown Nashville along West End Avenue (U.S. 70S) and across from Vanderbilt lies a big reason the city has the moniker “Athens of the South.” In Centennial Park you’ll find The Parthenon, a full-scale replica of – you guessed it – the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. It went up in 1897 for Tennessee’s Centennial Exposition as a temporary structure, was shored up to become permanent in the late 1920s, and was fully restored in 2002. It’s brilliantly lit in the park at night, even being visible from some of the nearby highways at night. As with the Parthenon in Athens, a 42-foot tall statue of Athena serves as the focus of the structure. The Parthenon serves as Nashville’s art museum and maintains over 60 paintings in its permanent collection while offering more with rotating and temporary exhibits.
From The Parthenon, follow West End Avenue west until it becomes the Harding Pike, named for the family who owned the Belle Meade Plantation along the road just outside the city. The Belle Meade Plantation provides a taste of the Antebellum South along the Natchez Trace – which was named “Belle Meade” (beautiful meadow) in 1820 by settler Giles Harding. The plantation has been a farm but became wealthy through the boarding, breeding, and sale of thoroughbred horses, becoming so influential that during the Civil War both armies allowed the Hardings to keep their horses at a time when others had theirs requisitioned for war efforts. Today, the grounds offer tours showcasing the history. Dairy barns, horse stables, a carriage house, a log cabin, gardens and more are all crowned by a graceful Antebellum mansion commissioned in 1845. The Belle Meade Winery, located on site, offers tastings. There’s also an on-site restaurant and gift shop.
Just past the Belle Meade Plantation, there’s a fork in the road. Follow Tennessee Highway 100 several miles to the Loveless Café, an iconic local eatery since 1951. Long a favorite of musicians, travelers, truckers, and just hungry Nashville residents seeking their famous homemade preserves, fried chicken, and still-a-secret-recipe biscuits, the Loveless Café specializes in Southern cooking, Southern hospitality, and hosting the occasional handshake record deal.
The building adjacent to the café was once a 14-room motel and now holds small, local shops. The Loveless “Hams & Jams Market” is on the other side. In the back is the Loveless Barn, a performance venue that hosted Music City Roots for several years before the popular show moved to Franklin’s historic Factory in 2014. Expect a wait if you come for the food; you can play bags out front or shop in the adjacent meat market or shops to pass the time if needed.
Natchez Trace Parkway
Within eyeshot of the Loveless Café, you can pick up the official Natchez Trace Parkway, a national scenic byway closely following the original route of the Old Natchez Trace. Running 444 miles from this point southwest to Natchez, Mississippi, the Trace generally runs along a geologic ridgeline.
Animals used it because it was dry ground and there were salt licks along the path; humans followed, using it as a trading route between the lower Mississippi River valleys and the uplands near the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, including near today’s Nashville. The fact that one was often on a ridge and could spot potential danger more easily was a factor, too. To this day, driving the Natchez Trace you’ll often notice you’re on higher ground than the general surroundings.
About six miles from the northern start near milepost 438, the Parkway crosses over Tennessee Highway 96 by leapfrogging a valley called Birdsong Hollow on a graceful, unique concrete double arch bridge. The two arches, which are not symmetrical due to the valley slope and do not use the spandrel columns most arch-type bridges typically do, minimized disruption to the natural beauty of the area while adding an impressive look all its own.
A scenic overlook to get a terrific view of the dramatic white arches supporting the bridge, for when you cross over it you can marvel at the beauty of the valley you’re crossing but you’d otherwise be unaware at how cool the bridge itself looks. Officially called the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge, it has a total length of 1,572 feet and towers 145 feet above the valley floor; it opened in 1994. You can also use the access road to TN Highway 96 and get the impressive view of the bridge from the valley floor.
As you continue southwest, numerous historical markers showcase the Trace, including a War of 1812 Memorial and the Tennessee Valley Divide, which was the border between the United States and the Native American Chickasaw Nation when Tennessee became a state in 1796. Here and there you’ll also see grass and dirt portions of the original “Old Trace.”
The Gordon House Historic Site, around Milepost 408, includes the original house (built in 1818) of John Gordon, who operated a trading post and ferry across the Duck River on the site. Around Milepost 405 you can catch a trail to Jackson Falls, named after former President (and Tennessee native) Andrew Jackson. A popular view, the falls can be accessed with a paved trail hike that includes some elevation changes for both the Falls and the Duck River Overlook, which puts you 300 feet above the Duck River. Be prepared for some exercise if you check these out.
The Old Trace Walk provides an opportunity to hike dirt portions of the original Trace, allowing you to imagine what it was like for 18th and 19th century travelers walking all this way – and towing goods with them! This cleared area runs for a little under half a mile.
Around Milepost 401 is The Tobacco Farm, an original old tobacco farm with a barn that has interpretive exhibits on how tobacco is grown, dried, and how it was sent to markets worldwide back in the day. The Old Trace Drive here offers one of the few places you can actually be on the “Old Trace” without having to walk. It’s a brief one-way (south to north) drive, and there are size and weight restrictions for some vehicles. Around Mile 400, you’ll also find a stop for Sheboss Place, which has nothing of note remaining except for the marker that tells the story of the name’s origin for an overnight inn, one of many established along the Trace at typical one-day trip intervals back in the day. The marker includes this description:
“The widow Cranfield operated an inn here with her Indian second husband who spoke little English. According to legend, when travelers approached with questions about accommodations, he would only point to his wife and say, ‘She boss.’”
Near Milepost 392 is the Fall Hollow Trail, which is a very brief walk that reveals several pretty streams and a nice waterfall, which can range from a gentle trickle to a raging torrent depending on recent rainfall. Several small cascades can also be found along the trail.
Approaching TN Highway 20 near Milepost 386 lies the Meriwether Lewis Monument. This is where famed explorer Meriwether Lewis – yes, of Lewis & Clark fame – met with death in October 1809. Lewis, who rose to governor of Louisiana Territory by this time, was traveling the Trace when he stopped at Grinder’s Stand overnight. It was his last night alive, and the circumstances surrounding his death mystify folks to this day. The Interpretive Center examines that night, some of the theories, and the life of Lewis in general; the remains of Grinder’s Stand can still be seen as well.
Trivia: Tennessee holds many distinctions from the Civil War. It sent more troops to the Confederate Army than any U.S. state, but also the most troops for the Union Army than any other Southern state; it was also the last state to secede from the Union during the outbreak of the Civil War as well as the first state to be re-admitted after the War.
Mining was a big industry along the Trace for a while, and the history and remains of a phosphate mine, and iron mine, and a metal ford are chronicled every few miles along this stretch.
The Natchez Trace intersects U.S. 64 a little further south around Milepost 370; to stay in Tennessee longer and check out the History, Horses & Whiskey portion of the Middle Tennessee tour, head east on U.S. 64 through Lawrenceburg and Pulaski to Fayetteville. To continue on the Trace towards Alabama, keep going straight.
Dogwood Mudhole shows up a few miles later around Milepost 367; while the Trace was often on higher ground, sometimes depressions formed and during heavy rains travelers – especially with wagons – would get bogged down. Dogwood Mudhole was one such place, reminding today’s travelers of the treachery of travel in time past. Sweetwater Branch at Milepost 363 offers a self-guided 20-minute trail following a fast-flowing stream where seasonal wildflowers bloom. TN Highway 13 parallels the Natchez Trace for a spell, including through Collinwood, where you’ll find the Wayne County Welcome Center.
Mile 350, Sunken Trace features three sections of original trail that show how relocations were made to avoid mudholes, which were quite common in those days.
The Natchez Trace comes to an end in Tennessee at Milepost 341.8, entering Alabama for a ride across that state’s northwestern corner and over the Tennessee River on its way to Mississippi. If you continue south, enjoy; and if you come back north on the Natchez Trace, check out anything you missed on the way down, or head back to the Nashville area for some fun, or come back to U.S. 64 and head east to catch the History, Horses & Whiskey Tour!