Paddling Franklin, Tennessee
A lazy day in and around the Harpeth River
A GUIDE TO EXPLORING THE CUMBERLAND RIVER BASIN
The charm of historic downtown Franklin, Tennessee immediately shows why it continues to make appearances on lists with titles like America’s Best Small Towns and America’s Best Main Streets. And the best part? A river runs through it.
Historic Downtown Franklin
Established in 1799, Franklin is one of those towns that has grown by leaps and bounds over the years but has fortunately managed to retain a small town feel—largely due to the fact that the heaviest area of growth is geographically separated to the north from downtown.
But it’s also due to the residents of Franklin who early-on saw the economic value of historic preservation. The 16-block area of more than 75 businesses is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
110 Fourth Ave. South, Franklin, Tennessee 37064
Because I planned on starting my day with a float down the Harpeth River, I began the day with breakfast at a Franklin institution: Merridee’s Breadbasket. To me, Merridee’s is synonymous with downtown Franklin and is one of the first places I ever visited prior to my relocating here from Nashville.
After opening in 1981, the small bakery cafe instantly became a Franklin favorite, establishing itself as a popular gathering spot for employees and owners of downtown businesses to congregate for coffee and meetings.
The breakfast menu is quite large and offers a multitude of savory goodness: biscuits ’n’ gravy, breakfast burrito, quiche, and breakfast sandwiches. Wanting to try something new and on the sweeter side, I opted for Stuffed French Toast. It’s just like classic French Toast but “stuffed” with cream cheese and homemade maple syrup—though it wasn’t actually stuffed but rather placed atop. NOTE: Be aware that if you eat the entire entree, you yourself will become stuffed and will likely require a nap. Consider yourself warned.
With no clouds in sight, the sun (and two coffees) isn’t wasting anytime getting the morning off to a good start. It was the perfect time to put “The Green Manalishi”—my canoe—in the river and burn some of those French Toast calories while the temperature was still relatively cool. The run I intend to do is just under five miles and is considered easy to moderate.
One of my favorite features of Franklin is its proximity to the Harpeth River, which flows through the heart of town as it cuts its northwest trajectory from its headwaters near Eagleville in Rutherford County to its confluence with the Cumberland River in Cheatham County more than 110 river miles away.
The Harpeth River Blueway, which was developed by Tennessee Scenic Waters Association in partnership with Harpeth Conservancy, provides numerous access points throughout the Franklin area. In other words, there are many stretches of river canoeists can paddle. The hard part is picking which one.
Before setting off on my paddle, I check out the Cumberland River Compact’s iCreek tool to see the health status of the section of the Harpeth I’m paddling on today. The watershed map on iCreek will show all of the rivers and streams that make up your watershed, their health status, and ways to help them if they are unhealthy. I like to check it out before each paddle to get a sense of what I can expect in terms of water quality, and just to be aware of the impairments that may exist in the water I’ll be on.
Since I own my own canoe, today’s paddle will be a self-shuttle—my wife dropped a car at the Williamson County Recreation Center where the takeout I will use is located. For those who may not have the luxury of a self-shuttle, you can contact Franklin’s favorite outfitter, Paddle Dog Adventures. They will not only handle transportation to and fro, but they will also rent you the boat and life vests.
The canoe/kayak access point is located at the Eastern Flank Park on Lewisburg Pike, across the street from the historic Carnton Plantation, the site of where one of the bloodiest battles ever to occur on United States soil took place, the 1864 Battle of Franklin (not to be confused with the minor 1863 Battle of Franklin).
If you have the time and are generally interested in Civil War history, I highly recommend the guided tour of the plantation. Each room in the antebellum home has a tale to tell, although be prepared as many are quite macabre. If you don’t have time or budget for the guided tour, visit the numerous storytelling kiosks along the paved sidewalks on the battlefield that offer a good overview of what happened on that fateful November day.
Enjoying the serenity of floating this lazy section of the Harpeth, I am reminded of the wonderful parks and green spaces the city of Franklin provides. And on this particular float, you pass through four of them. Not long after leaving Eastern Flank Park, as you make your way drifting alongside the old short-line railroad you will then pass through Pinkerton Park and underneath the pedestrian bridge that connects the park to downtown. As you paddle alongside the park, watch for the sharp bend to the left. Look up to the top of the bluff on the right and you will see Fort Granger, remnants of signaling station used by Union troops during the Civil War atop Figuer’s Bluff overlooking downtown Franklin. You can visit the 20-acre city park and enjoy walking trails and the remaining earthworks which still exist today.
Once I pass beneath the railroad trestle on the edge of Pinkerton Park, and shortly after, the US 31 bridge, and the river begins to wind its way around the north side of town, I catch a glimpse of a popular watering hole, Americana Taphouse, a newer establishment with outdoor dining that overlooks the river. It will be opening soon for lunch and I make a mental note to return on foot.
As the river bends to the west, you will pass the Bicentennial Riverwalk to your left, a popular city park that features a greenway where you’ll see residents walking, biking or relaxing next to the river. A newly constructed observation deck protrudes over the river to give people a place to admire and take photos of the lazy stream.
The river meanders away from downtown following its northwest trajectory, cutting its way along the edge of a fourth park, Harlinsdale Farm. This historic 200-acre park and former horse farm is primarily known to non-residents as the site of the popular Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival, a two-day, outdoor music festival held annually in September and has featured artists such as Willie Nelson, Justin Timberlake, Wilco, Brandi Carlisle, Jack White and hundreds of others since it began in 2015.
Once I pass underneath the Mack Hatcher bypass bridge, I immediately remember to be on the lookout for the takeout which is about a half mile from the bridge and can be easy to miss, especially if the water is high. As I make my way to the platform and stairs at the recreation center I startle a green heron perched on a log. No bald eagle sighting today but a green heron is just as good in my book.
94 East Main Street, Franklin, Tennessee 37064
All the paddling, lifting, and carrying of my boat had once again made me hungry. Remembering the Taphouse, I made my way back to downtown (on wheels this time) to grab a seat next to the river.
The Taphouse was opened in 2020 and was a revamp of sorts to the location’s previous restaurant concept, Puckett’s Boathouse. As the name implies, the Taphouse puts an emphasis on their beer selection, many of which are from local craft breweries. Franklin restauranteur Andy Marshall is the visionary behind the restaurant. Marshall’s other concept, Puckett’s Grocery, has its origins here too, and has grown to include additional locations in Nashville, Murfreesboro, Columbia, Pigeon Forge and Chattanooga.
The casual and laidback Taphouse has traditional American cuisine with a Southern flair. I recommend the turnip green dip—their Deep South’s take on spinach and artichoke dip.
Being seated next to the river, I looked down at where I had just floated only hours ago. I wondered if I could convince Mr. Marshall to put a dock below to allow weary paddlers a place to tie their boat so they can refuel mid-float.
114 East Main Street, Franklin, Tennessee 37064
Opened in 2005, Landmark Booksellers is a locally-owned, independent book store specializing in rare and out-of-print books, as well as books by local authors.
Casual book lovers can get lost in the many rooms and shelves featuring new and popular titles. Though the serious book collector may want to plan at least an hour (or three) in the store as they may just find that rare edition of Moby Dick or Grapes of Wrath they have been searching for for years if they look hard enough. Landmark is a true gem for book lovers.
234 Public Square, Franklin, Tennessee 37064
Onyx & Alabaster bill themselves as an “interior design studio, home market + coffee lounge that inspires you to live a beautiful life!” The modern two-story space has a little of everything: furniture, art, jewelry, kitchenware. The coffee lounge to the side is a great addition, giving downtown yet another coffee shop (six if you don’t count Puckett’s and Merridee’s, which are more of restaurant than coffee shop).
304 Public Square, Franklin, Tennessee 37064
This local design and screen printing company has a little retail shop on the square. Twine’s is an excellent place to grab a Franklin-themed t-shirt- their unique designs are all created in-house and printed on high-quality cotton tees.
345 Main Street, Franklin, Tennessee 37064
Though, not a Franklin original (the flagship store is in the 12 South district of Nashville) it’s vintage feel fits in well with the town’s folksy vibe. The vision of owner Holly Williams (her dad and grandfather both are named Hank—yes, those Hanks), White’s is part general store , part apothecary, part clothier.
The items stocked vary from soap, beard oil, coffee table books (on subjects ranging from fly fishing to gardening) and pocket knives to regional foods like Goo Goo Clusters and homemade jams and jellies. When you hear the clichéd line, “There is something for everyone”, it could not be more fitting for a store than White’s Mercantile.
400 Downs Bouldevard #110, Franklin, Tennessee 37064
Before ending your day in Franklin, be sure to visit Green Daisy, a locally-owned store specializing in hemp products for people and pets. The Daisy is a favorite spot for CBD and other hemp-based products including baked goods and other edible products—many of which are made in Franklin and the surrounding area—that can be beneficial for relaxation, mood elevation and pain relief. One of the biggest assets of Green Daisy is their staff who know their products well and have a friendly way of explaining the science and health benefits for us laypeople.
Natchez Trace Parkway
As the afternoon sun begins its downward arc I decided to end my day as it began: in nature. Taking a short and scenic drive to the western outskirts of town, I set out for a late afternoon stroll at Timberland Park. One of the newest Williamson County Parks, the 72-acre property is located west of town, and is accessed via the Natchez Trace Parkway, just a quarter of a mile south of the iconic Birdsong Hollow Bridge.
Opened in 2017, the park features nine hiking trails, with one that is ADA accessible. The park backs up to the Big East Fork Reserve and hikers are allowed to access the Reserve’s trails as well, directly from Timberland, making for longer hikes. The interpretive center is open during park hours and has clean bathrooms and a helpful staff that can answer questions about the park, its history and wildlife in the area.
The late afternoon sun lights the west-facing ridge of mostly beech and oak forest aglow in fluorescent green and yellow. I follow Dry Creek—an intermittent stream and tributary of Big East Fork, which is itself a tributary of the South Harpeth River—over to the Ravine Ridge Loop Trail.
Nearing the end of the trail I spot a critter 100 feet in front of me moving in the same direction as I am. By the look of its bushy tail I know it’s a coyote and I try to get a little closer to get a photo. But as the trail winds around a bend I lose sight of him, and just like today’s adventures in Franklin and the Harpeth River Watershed, he’s gone.