Trail of the Month: February 2007
Tennessee's Cumberland River Bicentennial Trail
The oldest initials decipherable on the graying limestone along the Cumberland River Bicentennial Trail were carved in 1937, perhaps by a railroad worker looking to leave his mark. As you stand on the most remote portion of this 6.5-mile rail-trail, with wildflowers growing around your feet and the Cumberland River easing by, it's easy to feel a connection: When you're on the trail, you're a part of this rural Tennessee community and its history.
Joggers and bicyclists—mostly residents of Ashland City (population 4,000)—call out to one another by first name on the trail. They know each other from the businesses they own, the schools their children attend, the stores they shop and the trail they share. Located just 20 miles outside the epicenter of country music, Nashville, the trail is one of many outdoor attractions of Cheatham County. When combined with a 4.5-mile on-road connection past farmland and riverside property, the linear trail becomes part of an idyllic country bicycling loop.
Transformed into an artery for the Tennessee Central Railroad in 1901 to transport ore, lumber and other products, the Cumberland River Bicentennial Trail runs beneath a dense canopy of oak, maple, sycamore, elm and redbud trees, skirting both the Cumberland River and its tributary, Sycamore Creek. Its first four miles from the Marks Creek Trailhead to the Sycamore Harbor Trailhead make up the paved Trestle Bridge Segment. Six railroad trestles are featured along the way—some, made from weathered and blackened timber, cross rivulets of spring run-off. The longest, the 550-foot iron Sycamore Creek Trestle built in 1903 by the American Bridge Company, spans the broad creek.
Bird boxes and wildflower identification plaques, made by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, are scattered along the trail, which is used as an outdoor classroom throughout the school year. A bench or picnic table has been placed by the Friends of the Trail every quarter-mile. Railroad ties left along the way when the railbed was converted to a trail in 1997 remain as reminders of times past. A respite is provided at Mile 1 in the form of Turkey Junction—a modern, solar-powered comfort station with bathrooms, water and an impressive garden courtesy of Cheatham County Master Gardeners.
Marsh and wetlands between the Cumberland River and the trail support a robust wildlife population to the west. Waterfowl, river otter and beaver can be spotted along the dusky shore where the water meets the surrounding forest. Deer, rabbits, squirrels, lizards and snakes have been known to use the trail as their own byway. Pause to gaze across the river to the opposite tree line, where eagles have been seen nesting in recent years.
Continuing on the trail, you pass Sycamore Harbor Trailhead at Mile 4 and cross Chapmansboro Road. You'll coast by a weather-beaten, weed-covered off-loading track used long ago to unload coal into wagons. Once across the street, head toward the Eagle Pass Trailhead and the rustic, gravel Eagle Pass Segment. Though not ideal for bicyclists, this 2.5-mile section is—if possible—more of an oasis than the previous segment. Past Eagle Pass Trailhead, a thick wooden door in the hillside sits ajar, beckoning anyone brave enough to peak into the dark cavity and see where the railroad once housed dynamite. A high hillside ridge runs along the east side of the trail; this is where you'll spot the carved timeline of initials and dates—please refrain from adding your own. The serenely flowing river turns this into a tranquil, meditative spot, and you'll likely be the only one around savor the wildlife.
The trail stops short of the Cheatham Lake and Dam, a recreational area. That's just fine, as you'll want to double back on the trail in time to catch a brilliant Tennessee sunset reflecting off the water from the Sycamore Creek Trestle. Bring your own sweet tea.