Hidden away in a state park just outside Nashville, you’ll find a surprising treasure trove of early American history, breathtaking natural beauty, and ancient carvings from prehistoric Native Americans. It’s all just an easy family hike away — Here’s what you need to know about Narrows of the Harpeth before you go.
You can’t live in Nashville long without hearing the name Montgomery Bell — Known as Tennessee’s first capitalist, he moved to the area from Pennsylvania in 1802 and quickly became one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of pig iron– a crude iron that could later be further processed into wrought iron or steel.
Although Bell died in 1855, his legacy remains at Montgomery Bell State Park in Dickson, where iron pits dug by Bell’s slaves now define the landscape of the forest, at Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy, which was established from funds left in Bell’s will for the establishment of a boy’s school, and in a limestone bluff along the Harpeth River, where Bell used slave labor to build the first full-scale tunnel ever constructed in the United States.
Today, the tunnel is part of the Harpeth River State Park in Kingston Springs, located at the end of a ½ mile trail. It’s all that remains of what was once an iron forge, constructed by Bell back in the 1830s. Bell came up with the idea of building the tunnel through a bluff at the narrowest point where the Harpeth River forms a seven-mile loop, and using the water that would rush through the tunnel as power to operate the forge.
This 1878 drawing gives you a good idea of the river’s path and how the tunnel could harness energy from the water. Bell named it Pattison Forge, after his mother’s maiden name, and operated the forge between 1832 and 1854.
Montgomery Bell died inside this house, called “Bell View,” in 1855. It was located to the left of the Pattison Forge tunnel on the side where the water flows out. Apparently, the house’s foundation is still visible in the underbrush. Bell is buried nearby in a small family cemetery.
You can access the trail to Pattison Forge by heading to 1254 Narrows of the Harpeth Road in Kingston Springs. The parking area is small, but there’s an overflow parking area if you keep driving down the road — Just follow the signs. You may also want to print out a Harpeth River State Park map before you go. Once you arrive, first follow the wooden staircase in the parking area down to the base of the limestone cliff. There, you’ll see the tunnel’s entrance, where the water flows in. Walking through the tunnel used to be allowed, but a fire inside the tunnel several years ago severely damaged it. I’ve read that parts of the tunnel have caved in this year, and it’s no longer safe to walk through. Use good judgment.
The natural pool beneath the tunnel is a popular swimming hole — According to the Harpeth River State Park website, swimming is allowed at your own risk, so bring swimsuits if you like.
Once you’ve marveled at the Pattison Forge tunnel and played in the water, don’t fret — There’s far more to see here. In fact, I think the best is yet to come.
Back at the trailhead, you probably noticed that the trail branched off in two directions. It’s time now for you to take the Bluff Overlook Trail, a short, steep trail leading up to an overlook that every Nashvillian needs to experience. While I wouldn’t recommend this trail for very small children or anyone with mobility issues, older children will do fine — Though it’s quite a climb, this trail is only ⅓ mile long.
As you climb the ridge, notice that the Harpeth River flows in one direction on your right and the opposite direction on your left. You are directly over the tunnel, on top of the ‘narrow’ spot that gives this place its name.
At the top, you’ll find this ridge with a natural stone ‘bench.’ Is this not amazing? While you’re taking pictures, look closely at the stone seat — On top, you’ll see a carving of a mace, believed to be several thousand years old!
This area was a hotbed of activity for Indians during the Mississippian Period (A.D. 1000-1450). The mace was an important symbol during that time, and this overlook was almost certainly once a place of great importance. Nearby is Mound Bottom, a state-owned site consisting of 34 ancient Native American mounds, accessible only by guided tour. Mound Bottom is also an experience of a lifetime and well worth the tour — I plan on covering it in a separate post.
This poster gives you a better idea of what you’re seeing when you look at the rock. It’s pretty amazing that this carving remains here, and when you’re standing on top of the overlook, you can understand why this would have been a significant site to those who lived here 1,000 years ago. There are also rock shelters in these ridges, where archaeologists have found evidence of human inhabitation as far back as 7,000 years ago!
This is definitely an Instagrammable moment!
Geeking out now? If you want to know even more about this place, here are a few references I used to write this post:
Mound Bottom State Archaeological Area (from TN Dept. of Environment and Conservation)
A biography of Montgomery Bell (from the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture)
Slipping Through the Crevices at Mound Bottom (from Archaeology in Tennessee)
Harpeth River State Park (from Tennessee History for Kids)
The Montgomery Bell Family website (from Homestead.com)
Mound Bottom (from Wikipedia)
Mace Bluff and Mound Bottom (from the Tennessee Archaeology Council)
Harpeth River State Park (Tennessee State Parks)
Looking for more fun family hikes in and around Nashville? I’ve got you covered.