Overton Park’s 342 acres sit directly in the heart of midtown Memphis. This public park was established in 1901, and in addition to the natural area, there’s also an art museum, a nine-hole golf course, a lake and veterans’ memorial, and the Memphis Zoo. In 2011, the Tennessee General Assembly designated 126 acres of the park’s Arboretum, known locally as “The Old Forest,” a state natural area, and today the Old Forest is managed by the Overton Park Conservancy with cooperation from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC).
What Makes It Great
“Nowhere in the United States, except in the Pacific Northwest, will you find tree growth as luxuriant as in the Western Tennessee forests,” said George Kessler, Overton Park’s landscape architect. He was right. A ride through the Old Forest is basically a trip back in time—without ever having to leave the city. The ecosystem dates back at least 10,000 years, and since the area has never been cleared or farmed, it’s what Tennessee looked like before humans arrived on the scene.
Some of the parks trees are hundreds of years old, adding to the novelty of riding through old-growth forest in the middle of the city. The designated natural area contains several miles of unpaved paths, plus a mile loop around the perimeter. Though not all trails are meant for cyclists, make no mistake: Overton is super bike-friendly. For proof, start your ride at the Bike Gate arch, constructed by a local artist from over 300 scrap bicycles, and take the TDEC-funded connector trail from the Bike Gate plaza to the Old Forest trail system. (You can also take the Hampline Trail to Broad Ave. and connect to the Shelby Farms Greenline from here.) To get your heart rate up, take a few laps to warm up or cool down on the Old Forest’s 1.4-mile gravel loop.
Who is Going to Love It
Old Forest State Natural Area is ideal for folks looking to get some quick, convenient exercise—for Memphis residents, this often means early morning workouts or lunchtime rides—rather than to hone technical skills. Trails here are short, relatively flat, and don’t have much in the way of technical elements, so they’re well suited to novice or timid riders.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
Overton Park is free and open to the public daily from dawn to dusk. Thanks to the dense forest, the park tends to stay considerably cooler (think tens of degrees), even during the sweltering summer months. Though Overton’s proximity to downtown Memphis is convenient, it also means the park is often crowded, so visiting on weekdays and at odd hours means you’re more likely to have a quiet ride. Since the park is meant for all sorts of recreationists, be considerate and avoid trails that aren’t marked as bike-friendly.