Tunnel Trail | 0.15 Miles
Bluff Overlook Trail | 0.25 Mile
Narrows of Harpeth Trailhead Location | Google Maps
With Tennessees abundant natural beauty, it can sometimes be a challenge all on its own to figure out where to go on your next adventure. On a recent trip to Nashville, I compiled a list of exciting new parks to explore surrounding the metro area which included Old Stone Fort State Archeological Park, Rutledge Falls, Short Springs State Natural Area, and Harpeth River State Park. One of the last stops on this trip was to check out a scenic waterfall and bluff overlook trail that’s popular amongst paddlers embarking on a trip through the calm waters of Harpeth River State Park. Known as the Narrows of the Harpeth, the name is a reference to an unusual bend of the Harpeth River where after approximately four miles, the stream channel returns to within two hundred yards of itself. During the early 19th century, a tunnel was carved through the narrowest section of cliffs separating the river to provide water for an iron forge.
Narrows of the Harpeth Trailhead
Today, this historical site is preserved within Harpeth River State Park, with two distinct hiking trails exploring the tunnel and a series of bluffs overlooking the scenic river. The Narrows, as it is commonly referred to, lies at the far northern stretch of Harpeth River State Park near the town of Kingston Springs. Turning off US Hwy 70 and heading north on Center Hill Rd, you’ll pass the Goose Tract Access and picnic area, before shortly reaching Narrows of the Harpeth Rd. This road winds its way below the sheer cliffs overlooking the river to a large parking lot just past the trailhead. Here, you’ll usually spot most of the visitors unloading their kayaks and canoes onto the Narrows Access point via a launch and pedestrian ramp. Those looking to embark on the trails will have to walk 50 yards back up the road to the main trailhead. Along the way, there is a rock shelter you can explore where archeologists have discovered prehistoric Native American artifacts dating back almost 8,000 years. There is no sidewalk here so watch out for oncoming vehicles.
Tunnel Trail (0.15 Miles)
This trailhead junction lies at the narrowest section of the ridge that separates both banks of the Harpeth River, known as the Narrows Gap. At this point you have the option of climbing up to the Bluff Overlook or heading straight for the Tunnel. As it is just a quick 0.15 mile walk, we decided to check out the tunnel area first and save the overlook for last. Alternatively, if the main parking lot is full, visitors can park at the Harris Street Access and hike the 0.30 mile Harris Street Bridge Trail to reach this point. Walking around to the backside of the ridge, it is a short and wildflower filled walk to the site of the tunnel and waterfall. The tunnel trail follows in the footsteps of on old wagon road that existed here as the only means to reach the iron forge adjoining the tunnel.
Though the Pattinson Forge no longer exists, what’s left of the tunnel is still recognized today as an engineering masterpiece and historical landmark. In 1818, at the direction of Montgomery Bell, African American slaves began excavating this 200 foot tunnel about eight feet high and fifteen feet wide through the shortest point of The Narrows limestone bluffs. “Bell knew that by diverting water through the tunnel, the weight of the falling water from the plank flume would cause the water wheels to revolve on their axles. As the axles turned , the protruding trip levers would activate a pounding motion using a hammer fastened to the end of a log. This pounding motion converted the hot brittle pig iron billets into malleable iron bars and plates”.
Pack mules and ox drawn carts hauled most of the products made here through the Narrows Gap to markets in Nashville or floated down the Harpeth River to Clarksville and markets beyond. The forge operated from 1832 to 1862 until the onset of the Civil War forced it to shut down. What was left of the physical structure was washed away during a flood in the mid 1890’s. Considered one of the first man made tunnels in the United States, the site is listed on the National Register of Historical Places. At one point in time it was possible to walk inside of the tunnel and explore it firsthand, but a partial roof collapse caused the Tennessee State Parks to close it off to visitors. Even from the shore, you can see giant slabs of rock blocking some of the passageway. Because of its early industrial use, swimming is discourage within the large natural pool.
Bluff Overlook Trail (0.25 Mile)
After checking out the tunnel, it was time to head back to tackle the Bluff Overlook Trail. This 0.25 mile trail makes quick of its 80 foot ascent by front loading right at the trailhead. A winding set of slab stone and railroad tie steps makes its way up from the Narrows Gap to the sloping crest of the southern ridge. Filled with several noteworthy overlooks, the best of these lies at the end of the trail where you’ll find a flat ledge with the iconic Narrows of the Harpeth “rock stool”. The Narrows of the Harpeth is filled with rich cultural and natural features, the most striking of all being straight ahead in the fields below. One of the best reasons to hike the bluff overlook here is for its panoramic view of Mound Bottom.
A treasure in itself, Mound Bottom State Archeological Area is an ancient Native American mound complex that dates back to the Mississippian period of regional prehistory (ca 1000-1350 CE). Around A.D. 950 Mound Bottom emerged as a sacred ceremonial center for hundreds of farming families scattered throughout the Harpeth River valley, and over the succeeding three hundred years the site grew into a fortified city, surrounded by 5 miles of earthen embankments and palisades. The site core includes at least 29 earthen mounds oriented around a 7-acre plaza within a meander bend of the Harpeth River as it enters the narrows. The largest of these mounds is square shaped, measures 40 feet high, and is thought to be where ceremonial rituals were performed. Scholars believe the site might have been tied to the ancient city of Cahokia in Southern Illinois.
To the far left, on the farthest visible ridge, is also the Mays’ Mace Bluff Petroglyph Site. This rock art carved onto a section of the cliffs depicts a “scepter” or “mace” used by chiefs or high priests in ceremonies and rituals. Below it and just barely visible are thought to be two carvings of “tear drops” that are badly faded. Most scholars of Mississippian iconography have come to recognize that the mace motif and the often accompanying severed head motif link the mythological Birdman with warfare. This is also in line with the petroglyph and rock art sites we toured in Millstone Bluffs and Piney Creek Ravine in the Shawnee National Forest. Anyone interested in viewing these archeological areas can register for guided tours at Montgomery Bell State Park from October through March.
With tours being out of season at the moment, we’ll have to plan a return trip to explore these two special areas adjacent to Harpeth River State Park in the near future. As for us, we’re headed back into the Bluegrass State to pay a visit to one of our homes away from home, Red River Gorge. This time around we’ll be tackling the 14-mile Grays Arch to Hansons Point Loop. This day hike beginning at the Grays Arch Trailhead traverses the Rough Trail and parts of the Sheltoweee Trace all the way to one of the best overlooks in the area, Hansons Point. On the way, we will seek out a few off-trail arches hidden along our route to add a little pizzazz to this incredible hike. Stay tuned for our upcoming article and as always, see y’all on the trails!