When you drive into the park through the main entrance, even in winter, you can tell it’s a nice facility. The road winds past a couple of large parking lots, with glimpses of well-groomed baseball and softball fields beyond. There are numerous picnic pavilions, some playgrounds, and even an 18-hole championship disc golf course. But if you keep driving past these suburban delights, Volunteer Road winds back to the other three-quarters of this park, where you’ll find the worst-kept secret in Murfreesboro, TN: Barfield Crescent Park and its Wilderness Station, seven miles of paved and unpaved hiking trails, and a campground. Yep, that’s right — a campground in a city park! We had to check this out.
We made the drive up to Murfreesboro on a sunny Saturday, and the route couldn’t be much simpler from Huntsville — head north on U.S. Highway 231 until you get to the outskirts of M-boro, then hang a left on Volunteer Road and you’ll drive straight into the parking lot of the Wilderness Station. It’s a cool little facility, with displays featuring a live screech owl, snakes, a salamander, and to Ruth’s delight, turtles! At a practical level, the Wilderness Station has restrooms and a small gift shop that sells snacks, drinks, and some outdoor equipment. However, it’s also the hub for a plethora of educational activities and programs, with something going on every weekend and several weekday activities as well.
Our plan was to hike the majority of the trails in the wilderness area of the park, which are accessible from a central loop trail (the Marshall Knobs Trail). The Wilderness Station is on the loop, so it’s the starting point to head counterclockwise (north) or clockwise (south). We opted to go counterclockwise, because we knew the first .75 miles of the Marshall Knobs trail was also a Tree Trail, with 12 specimens labelled and described on a separate key. In other words, the trees had a simple number plaque on them, without any other identifying signage, so you’d have to refer to the key (which we downloaded and printed out in advance) to find out their respective species. It was a perfect opportunity to try out our budding (ha!) tree ninja skills.
We set off down the paved trail and quickly came to our first mystery tree. It turns out this was an easy one — the bark is pretty distinctive. Though this wasn’t one we had formally studied yet in our class, we immediately recognized it as a shagbark hickory. So we were off to a good start, and moved right along to tree number 2. This one was tougher — we hadn’t studied it yet, so we pondered its ridge and furrow bark with a diamond pattern and craned our necks to eye its branching. Alas, we had forgotten to bring binoculars, and missed the fact that this tree had opposite branching, so we guessed incorrectly. (Ironically, our next tree ID class featured this tree — the white ash — so we might not make that mistake again!)
And on to tree 3, which we immediately recognized as a persimmon. So we were above average, until the eastern hophornbeam (say what?) flummoxed us. Anyway, you get the gist of it. To spare you the gory details, we ended up guessing 5 of the 12 trees correctly. Not bad, but clearly we are not tree ninjas yet. I thought we were tree “grasshoppers” — Ruth thought we were tree “amoebas.” Our sensei told us later that 5 for 12 isn’t bad for our first post-class outing. Remember, we’re doing this without using leaves, and without a field guide (on this trip, at least). If you’d like to further explore the Tree Trail, Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) has put together an excellent virtual tour.
Enough about trees for now. The paved trail was heavily used on this Saturday around lunchtime. It heads north for .2 miles, where a side trail takes off to connect with the northern portion of the park. The trail then turns southwest and gradually heads downhill, with exposed rocks emerging through the leaf litter. At .65 miles, the trail splits, with a spur trail leading down to the campground. The paved trail continues another .1 mile, where it ends at a viewpoint for the West Fork of the Stones River.
At this point, the Marshall Knobs trail changes to a natural dirt surface, with red paint blazes on the trees to mark the way. The trail quickly descends to the river, which is relatively narrow and shallow at this point. The trail follows the river for about .2 miles before turning southeast away from the river through a grove of hackberry trees.
At about .3 miles from the end of the paved trail, the vault toilet and a utility building housing a generator for the campground are visible off to the left. Though there’s not a formal spur trail into the campground, it’s easy enough to wander over and check it out. I don’t think I have ever seen a city park that offers overnight primitive camping, and the approach here is very well thought out. The general concept is that this is a campground for beginning campers/backpackers. The hike in is only a little over a mile on a paved trail, or you can extend the hike to 1.4 miles by hiking the paved trail, then taking the unpaved portion of the Marshall Knobs trail to a gravel road and hiking in from the south. It’s a short hike, but long enough to be an adventure for little campers. There are 16 campsites, plus a larger group campsite. There’s a central fire pit, well-stocked with firewood, but no electricity or potable water at the site. The Wilderness Center rents tents, backpacks, sleeping pads, and other equipment. Campers must attend a free wilderness awareness workshop, and leaders must attend another free training session. There are other restrictions — camping is only allowed on Friday and Saturday nights from April through November — but the general idea is that this is an experience to introduce kids to tent camping. I think it’s brilliant, and could be an informative model for groups in the Tennessee Valley (Land Trust of North Alabama, I’m looking at you!).
After a quick look at the campground, we rejoined the Marshall Knobs Trail, which winds past more exposed rock before passing along the Stones River again. The trail crosses a gravel road at .7 miles from the start of the unpaved trail and over the next .2 miles it climbs about 50 feet in elevation, then turns east and levels out. At .9 miles from the start of the unpaved trail, the blue-blazed Valley View Trail takes off to the right. The Valley View Trail is a 1.15 mile loop that heads east, almost to Highway 231, winding past limestone sinks. Small signs mark every tenth of a mile along the trail. At about the halfway point, the trail climbs a knob to pass a communications tower. Next to the tower, an elevated wooden platform is an observation point, but the understory has grown up enough to make the views pretty unremarkable. We chugged on past, and the trail becomes slightly more interesting in its second half as it re-enters the woods, passing more limestone sinks and making an abrupt turn along a possible old roadbed flanked by a stone wall. A long stacked stone wall runs for over 100 yards in this section of the trail.
We finished the Valley View Trail and turned right onto the Marshall Knobs Trail for another .2 miles until we reached the intersection with the aptly-named Rocky Path. This white-blazed trail is a fun walk, with more karst topography and stone walls. Portions of the trail run along exposed rocks, leading to some fun rock-hopping along the way. The trail is mostly well-marked and well-maintained (true of all the trails on this hike), but there is one hairpin turn that isn’t well marked. We dropped a waypoint on our GPS track of the hike, and the turn is pretty apparent on the trail map. The tricky part is that you’re heading southeast along the edge of a fissure and it’s easy to miss when the trail swings back to the northwest instead of following the fissure. We caught on when we stopped seeing blazes, and quickly found our way when we backtracked.
The sun was getting low in the sky as we climbed another of the knobs, then descended to meet the Marshall Knobs Trail again after completing the 1.1 mile loop. From that point, it’s .45 miles to close the loop and return to the Wilderness Station. We quickened the pace a bit, since we had dawdled during the tree ID portion of the hike, and we wanted to get off the trail before dark. Also, we had dinner plans!
When we’re in a new place hiking, we like to look for interesting places to eat, and if possible, to try some local craft beers. Murfreesboro’s Green Dragon Public House would fit the bill nicely. It was only a few miles away, and offered hearty pub food and an impressive selection of brews. This Tolkien-themed pub was quite popular — we squeezed into a small table next to a (fake) fire and perused the food and drink menus. I was intrigued by the Guru Gish, a Goo-Goo Cluster inspired created from Mantra Artisan Ales in Franklin, TN. Ruth set her sights on Portly Stout, from Turtle Anarchy brewing (also in Franklin). But then tragedy struck! I had stupidly left my wallet at the house, and even though I’m older than Radagast the Brown, when I couldn’t produce an ID I was politely informed that the Eye of Sauron, in the form of Tennessee State Law, had fallen upon me and I was to have no beer. I sipped my iced tea and watched a couple at the Hobbits Only bar (it was on the end of the regular bar, but scaled down to normal table height) while milady enjoyed her stout. This is not a diss on the Green Dragon — they were following the law and company practice, and I was the one at fault. We enjoyed our dinner, particularly the creamy tomato basil soup, since it was getting a bit chilly by the time we got off the trail. I’m thinking I might have to plan a hike somewhere in the Franklin area soon since they seem to have some interesting local beers!
All in all, it was a good day out. The folks in Murfreesboro have a really unique facility that pairs active and passive recreation and gives each equal time. While some parks in north Alabama blend ballfields with walking trails, the trails are usually paved greenways without any kind of programming planned around them, clearly put in as an afterthought. Barfield Crescent took 275 acres and turned it into a vibrant environmental educational center that lays the foundation for a lifetime love of the outdoors. Aragorn would approve.