Best Day Hikes in the Memphis Area
Disclaimer: You should only be hiking trails that aren’t overcrowded during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and keep at least a six-foot distance from others. Before taking on any outdoor activity, be sure to follow all CDC guidelines, state-by-state regulations, and to stay up-to-date on changing circumstances.
I find it easy to become ungrateful. When I returned to Memphis after living in coastal North Carolina for six years, it was easy to recognize the city and surrounding areas only for their familiarity and mundanities of everyday life. At first, Memphis was filled with nothing but experiences I had already had, and BBQ restaurants that I had already eaten at.
I simply accepted Memphis as an urban hellscape. How could I be comfortable among the steel girders and office buildings when my heart longed for the mountains and the cool morning mist of the mountains? In order to appreciate the hidden gems that awaited me in my own backyard, I had to become a tourist in my own city and seek out the hidden pockets of swamp and rolling meadow as well as the city. I had to rediscover the paved path just as much as I needed to rediscover the dirt trails.
The following hikes are all within a 30-minute drive of downtown and offer a pleasing change of pace from the traffic and endless overpasses that any city offers. The Bluff City is not known for her mountains so don’t expect very much elevation change when you hit the trails here. Make sure to pack the bug spray as you meander through the cypress groves and flooded forests filled with old-growth oaks and birch trees, especially during the summer months when the heatwaves arrive and bring with them the punishing humidity.
But ignore the heat and the bugs, if you follow the paths that I lay out for you, and be prepared to experience incredible moments that are unique to the home of the blues. You will have the chance to watch a herd of American bison roam, experience the vastness of a 32-story glass pyramid, and enjoy the rambling surge of the South’s most prolific trade river. I hope you enjoy the hidden gems of Memphis as well as the opportunities to re-wild yourself that they provide.
Note: Dogs are allowed on all the trails mentioned below as long as they are leashed.
1) Tour de Wolf Trail
Distance: 5.6 Miles
The Tour de Wolf trail is one of the more isolated loop trails in the Shelby Farms complex. Built on the grounds of a formal penal farm, the expanse of nature and conservancy area provides excellent recreation opportunities for Memphis residents year-round. Ample parking is available directly across the street from the trailhead in either the Pine Lake parking lot or in a gravel lot, both located on Great View Drive, the park’s primary road. Park rangers and staff routinely patrol the access roads and parking lots during the day. This trail is beautiful year-round but offers its best views during the fall as the leaves in the surrounding forest begin to change while the evergreens have the chance to demonstrate their longevity.
The trail winds its way through a young oak forest and regularly winds through expansive, open fields and grasslands. At some points, the trail does come close to, or even parallel Walnut Grove Road, but also provides a sense of isolation from the hectic traffic and population as you traverse the maintained trail through gorgeous forest and numerous flowing creeks.
The Tour de Wolf can easily be connected to the Baptist Memorial Promenade, a 2.5-mile paved loop around Hyde Lake, or the Chickasaw Trail, a 2.8-mile loop around the park. If you decide to venture out to the Chickasaw Trail during your time in the park, you will have the chance to sit and watch the rolling grasslands that house Shelby Farms’ large herd of American bison. It is truly otherworldly to have the chance to observe these magnificent animals and it is a wonderful way to round out your natural experience.
2) W.C. Johnson Reservoir Loop Trail
Distance: 3.4 Miles
The W.C. Johnson Reservoir Loop Trail is an escape into the natural world in the midst of an urban sprawl. Parking is available in the large paved region of the park and at the trailhead access.
The trail begins on an expansive boardwalk that takes you through a gorgeous lowland marsh and eventually through a swamp filled with cypress knees and Spanish moss. Shortly after, the boardwalk empties out onto the trail that will take you around the remainder of the park. You will have the chance to pass through meadows that are budding with wildflowers if you choose to go in the early spring. This is also the best time due to the lack of bug activity and the moderate temperatures. Being able to watch the forest come alive for the season is a gift that is often overlooked in the municipal areas around the city.
The trail frequently makes its way to the banks of the Wolf River, one of the many powerful inlets to the mighty Mississippi River. You’ll have the chance to listen to the babbling and splashing of her waters as you explore the expanse of the nature center. Around the halfway point of the hike you can follow a brief side trail to an exposed sandbar on the river, an excellent place to relax and pretend that you’re on a tropical beach. A few other side trails exist but they primarily lead you back to the main trail within a few hundred feet. There are no alternate routes to this trail.
As the hike comes to a close, you will have to exit the woods and follow a paved trail through a city park area to get back to your vehicle. It’s easy to complain about the lack of wild space, but the pavement and softball fields almost make the magnolias and old-growth oaks behind you seem even sweeter.
3) Wolf River Blue, White, and Yellow Loop Trails
Distance: 1.9-12.5 miles
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
The loop trails in the Wolf River Refuge are some of the most scenic and versatile trails in the area. The refuge, while a part of the Shelby Farms complex, is located down the street and is accessible by a paved road off Germantown Boulevard. The road will lead you to a large paved lot with plenty of parking space.
The beauty of this trail is that it is, in a way, a kind of “choose your own adventure” type of trail. You can easily make your hike last anywhere from 1 mile to over 15 if you take all the side trails and smaller loops. If you follow the main white trail blazes you will be on the primary 12.5-mile loop that parallels and zig-zags across the Wolf River. The environment is similar to the swamp and lowland area that I described in the W.C. Johnson Reservoir Loop Trail. The trail is also open to mountain biking so several areas have been carved out and supplemented with steep hills and hairpin turns, which make the trail even more exciting and strenuous.
As you follow the path back into the nature area you will be able to see the magnificent variety of Mid-South flora as it encroaches on the edge of the trails. Several placards are placed along the trail to identify the trees and give you information on their growth, age, and if they are a native or invasive species. Multiple steel bridges pass up and over the river and give an excellent vantage point to observe the churning muddy water as it passes under you. The banks are also lined with accessible sandbars, an excellent place to kick off your shoes and cool off your feet in the river.
The primary trail, as well as its alternates, are not always well marked, though blazes can be found on trees and posts throughout the park. Due to the straightforward nature of the loop trail and its ample opportunity to amend the distance of your hike the lack of consistent blazing is a negligible to say the least.
4) Trail Name: Memphis Riverwalk
Distance: 2.5-8 miles
After spending all day in the green tunnel of the forest, sometimes a change of pace is in order. While paved walkways and urban scenery don’t usually bring the same joy to my heart that the muddy trails and old growth forests do, it’s hard to deny the beauty and evident strength of the Mississippi River while you walk down her scenic banks.
The Memphis Riverwalk can easily be connected to other urban trail systems in the area taking you across the pedestrian bridge and into Arkansas or over the inlet to explore the vast outdoor amphitheater on Mud Island. Parking is easily accessible up and down the trail due to the urban nature but the easiest place to begin is on Virginia Drive beside the News Channel 3 complex. A small lot is available as well as street parking.
While you walk you will be able to take in the amazing views of downtown on your right while the big river rushes and churns only feet away on your left. You’ll pass by the historic Memphis Riverboats while modern barges push their cargo down the river. At the halfway point you can stop to marvel at the Memphis Pyramid, its glass walls reflecting every drop of sun. Hopefully you can ignore the fact that it now houses a massive Bass Pro Shop. You can easily branch off from the path and walk into downtown. The Lorraine Motel, the sight of Dr. Martin Luther King’s tragic murder, now houses the National Civil Rights Museum.
All too often we become caught up in the idea that civilization must be abandoned in order to fully embrace the outdoors, that man-made architecture has no place in the world of hiking. I don’t believe that the idea could be any further from the truth. There is beauty in the coexistence between man and nature and there is something magical about spaces carved out and specifically dedicated to the outside. So enjoy the Riverwalk, embrace the culture, and savor the sweet moments that we are able to spend without air conditioning and Netflix.
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