Nashville’s Radnor Lake officially became Tennessee’s first state natural area in 1973. From its beginnings with 653 acres, Radnor Lake State Park has grown to 1,332 acres and is one of Tennessee’s most popular parks, with over 1 million visitors annually.
Uniquely located within a major metropolitan area, Radnor Lake is a valuable refuge for plant and animal life, and also a great place for people living in an urban environment to connect with nature.
Radnor Lake and the surrounding forested hills are sanctuary for an abundance of wildlife, much of which shows little fear of the daily stream of human visitors, providing ample opportunities for close-up observation and photography. On a recent hike around the lake, I encountered numerous white-tailed deer, which generally went about their business unconcerned by my presence, as well as barred owls, a wild turkey, great blue herons, green herons, turtles, chipmunks and a variety of songbirds. On past visits, I’ve also seen water snakes around the shoreline. Beavers inhabit the lake, and I’m told they can sometimes be seen around dawn or dusk. According to the park’s website, many species of amphibians and reptiles reside there, as well as mink and otters.
For the botany enthusiast, the park is home to a wide variety of wildflowers, mosses, fungi, ferns and other plants.
The 6-plus miles of hiking trails in the park are strictly for hiking, photography and wildlife viewing. Pets, jogging and bicycling are restricted to the paved 1.2-mile section of Otter Creek Road, which follows the south shore of the lake and is closed to vehicular traffic. Trails can be accessed from either the east or west parking areas. The visitors center and park office are at the west parking area, reached in a 0.2-mile drive from Granny White Pike.
Probably the most popular hike is to circle the lake via Otter Creek Road and the Lake Trail, a little over 2.5 miles of fairly level hiking starting from either trailhead. The Lake Trail is accessible to all-terrain wheelchairs. On my recent visit, I also hiked the South Lake Trail and the South Cove Trail, which combined create a 2.3-mile loop with a climb in elevation of about 280 feet. In the past, when I visited Radnor Lake more frequently, one of my favorites was to hike the Ganier Ridge Trail, which can be done as a loop hike from the east parking area and also involves a climb of approximately 280 feet. I recall this hike featuring an abundance of spring wildflowers.
The Walter Criley Visitors Center is a great place to learn more about the park. It features interpretive exhibits on the history of the local area, cultural and historical artifacts, wildlife displays, and a wall-size map of the trail system. You can also watch an 18-minute film on how the area was saved in the 1970s.
Not far from the visitors center, the Historic Valve House Trail features interpretive panels on the construction of the dam in the early 1900s.
The Barbara J. Mapp Aviary Education Center opened in 2015. Located at the end of Hall Drive, a 0.4-mile uphill walk from Otter Creek Road, I didn’t get to explore it on my recent visit, as it’s only open Saturday, 1 p.m. to sunset, and Wednesday, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. I’m told it houses several birds of prey, including great horned owls and bald eagles.
Radnor Lake State Park hosts a number of ranger-led programs throughout the year, including canoe floats, wildflower walks, astronomy night hikes, nature hikes, off-trail land acquisition hikes, and programs on snakes and birds of prey.
History of Radnor Lake
The area around Radnor Lake wasn’t always the pristine natural habitat you see today. In the 1800s, the Pratt family farm existed in this location. Forests had been cleared for farming, and the Pratts operated a sawmill as well. The Mayche family also owned a small farm in the area from the late 1800s until the 1940s.
Much of the land was purchased by the L&N Railroad in 1913 for the purpose of constructing a dam on Otter Creek, creating Radnor Lake. The nearby Radnor Yards had become a significant industrial complex, and the water was needed for steam locomotives, which could hold from 10,000 to 20,000 gallons of water, and also for employees and for cattle being shipped to market. At its peak, the lake provided 1 million gallons of water per day to the rail yards. By the 1950s, diesel locomotives had replaced steam engines, negating the need for large amounts of water.
In 1923, L&N Railroad declared Radnor Lake a wildlife sanctuary at the request of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. The land was eventually transferred to the state of Tennessee in 1973.
Over the years, various tracts of land have been added to the park. Currently, the six-year Harris Ridge Trail Project is nearing completion, which will add 89 acres. This new tract extends the park to connect with Franklin Pike, where there are plans to have a new parking area and trailhead, along with 3 miles of new trail.
In 2015, Radnor Lake won the Tennessee State Park of the Year Award.
Radnor Lake State Park is about 135 miles, or a little over a two-hour drive, from Chattanooga.
Find directions and contact information here.
View a trail map here.
The park is for day use only, open daily from 6 a.m. to sunset. Picnicking is not allowed. Restrooms are located at each trailhead parking area.
Note: Parking fills up quickly, so I recommend getting there as early as possible on summer weekend days.
Despite visitors center hours being listed on the park website, I’m told the park is currently short-staffed, so it’s best to call about the hours at 615-373-3467.
Bob Butters explores nature and the outdoors, primarily in and near the South Cumberland region, and publishes the blog www.Nickajack-Naturalist.com. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.