Thunder Road 

Runnin' and gunnin' down Tennessee's two lanes

Runnin' and gunnin' down Tennessee's two lanes

The following quartet of summer drives is an admittedly idiosyncratic—even arbitrary—collection of itineraries intended to showcase the charms of Middle Tennessee roads and scenery. We’ve boxed the compass from north, east, south, and west, and we’ve provided full-circle routes from crossroad to crossroad (along with very approximate distances).

Your choice of vessel, of course, is entirely up to you—be it sedan, SUV, convertible, or motorcycle. Let’s just stipulate, however, that the journey’s the thing, not the stops in between. So if you’re looking for best places to buy boiled peanuts or corncob knickknacks, you won’t find ’em here.

There’s no reason why we Middle Tennessee landlubbers can’t enjoy a little navigational satisfaction of our own making. This, after all, is our inimitable summer cruising season. So start you engines, tune up the stereo, and let the regatta begin.

Northern exposure

Nashville-LaFayette-Springfield

Round-trip approx. 140 miles, 8 legs

The scenic and uncluttered terrain north of Nashville is arguably Middle Tennessee’s most exotic. It takes a little patience to untangle the inner-city highways and commuter roads that lead there from the center of town, but once you’re north of Old Hickory Lake, the roads—and your spirits—open up to clear sailing.

The odometer starts at I-40 and I-265, and you head north from here along I-65 past Madison. Exit at Goodlettsville onto Long Hollow Pike/TN174 (13.8 mi.) and head east (right). Long Hollow is newly widened, yet it retains a sweeping rural feel on its way to Gallatin (15.7 mi. leg/29.5 mi. cumulative). Here, negotiate your way across the infamous US31E to pick up TN25, which approximates the famous Avery Trace of pioneer settlement days. This highway skirts the famous Cragfont mansion of President Jackson’s buddy General Winchester, then it slips past the faded glory that was Castalian Springs. At the crossroads hamlet of Paynes Store, the road changes its identity to TN10 (11.1/40.6).

Follow TN10 through Hartsville. As you approach Rock House, keep an eye out for the highway’s abrupt left hook to the north (before you get to the village). At the southwest outskirts of LaFayette (20.1/60.7), turn west (left) onto TN52 and brace yourself for one of the region’s premier scenic bouquets and driving pleasures. The highway wigs and wags through the rugged north highlands of the Cumberland watershed, and at Westmoreland the road pares itself down from a commercial artery into one of the great sport roads of Middle Tennessee.

At tiny Orlinda (40.2/100.9), TN49 takes over and converges upon Springfield (12.1/113) at US431/US41/TN11. It’s important to pay attention as you head south so you don’t miss the hard right at US431/TN65 (1.3/114.3). From here, it’s a lazy drive back through Joelton and Whites Creek until you tie back up with I-65 near its junction with 1-24 and Briley Parkway (23/137.3).

Eastern flyway

Nashville-Watertown-Lascassas

Round-trip approx. 105 miles, 7 legs

This short-and-sweet sprint to the east stops just short of the foothills of the Cumberland Plateau before lacing its way back to Nashville’s southeast underbelly. It’s a perfect route for the motorcyclist, be it the solo sport-bike jock or the fringe-and-tassel crowd with their gleaming heavy-metal cruisers. Start the odometer at I-440 and I-40 East, and head for Knoxville. At the Hermitage Exit/TN45 (7.5 mi.), go left over the interstate and take the immediate right onto TN265, better known locally as Central Pike. Once the congestion clears, Central Pike becomes a virtuoso flyway, both scenic and serious—and exceedingly well patrolled.

After skirting Cedars of Lebanon State Park and passing through Doaks Crossroads farther on, Central Pike dumps into US70/TN26 out of Lebanon (24.3 mi. leg/31.8 mi. cumulative). Turn south (right) and barrel through Watertown and Alexandria on the approach to Center Hill Lake. At TN96, however, backtrack to the west (right) for a smooth cruise to Lascassas (16.5/69.5). Pick up TN 266/Barlow Lane by choosing the right side of the approaching fork, and skirt along the East Fork of the Stones River as it swells into Percy Priest Lake. The bridge outside Jefferson Springs drops you just north of Smyrna, where I-24 provides a short-cut home (18.4/87.9).

If you’re not tired yet, however, cross over the interstate and turn left on Blair Road, followed shortly by a right onto Rock Springs Road, which itself tapers into Rocky Fork Road before entering Nolensville (6.3/94.2). From here it’s an easy hop onto US41A/Nolensville Road for a return to Nashville at I-440 (11.3/105.5).

Southern sinking spell

Nashville-Sinking Pond-Normandy Lake

Round-trip approx. 145 miles, 13 legs

Since almost 100 miles of this jaunt is spent on the interstate, its 145-mile length is a bit deceiving. The 50 or so miles spent “on the ground,” however, represent an unexpected chance to explore some very unfamiliar turf just south of Nashville. The leg bordering Sinking Pond is an improved gravel road, so it’s accessible even by the old family wagon; but why don’t we just call this a quasi-off-road adventure to give all those SUV owners out there an excuse to shift into four-wheel-drive just for once?

The trail begins at I-440 and I-24, whence you head southeast toward Chattanooga. Passing through Murfreesboro and Manchester is routine. It’s vital, however, to look for Exit 117 (just past the truck weigh station), where the real journey begins (64.6 mi.). Proceed right (south) off I-24 along Arnold Center Road, then turn right again (0.5 mi. leg/65.1 mi. cumulative) on the smooth gravel road marked by an obscure sign for Sinking Pond Natural Area.

The unmarked road proceeds southwest for about 3 miles, until you’re greeted with a forked intersection. Proceed right into the heart of the Arnold Engineering Development Center. For landmark confirmation, you’ll catch a glimpse of a hush-hush military landing strip at the unmarked intersection where you need to turn right (parallel to the strip). If you look closely on the right, atop a small rise in the road, you’ll see another sign for Sinking Pond (4.3/69.4). Park opposite if you have the time for a short hike. Sinking Pond is a mysterious hydro-geologic phenomenon. Like clockwork it fills with inky, black water for part of the year, only to drain to a leafy, dry clearing with no undergrowth for the remainder of the calendar.

From the pond, continue as before to TN55 and the hamlet of Belmont (3.3/72.7). Almost immediately, the faintly identified Wilson Boulevard appears on the left (0.3/73.0). Now you’re in a warren of roads circulating Normandy Lake. (That’s Nor-MAN-dy in these parts, please know.) Wilson Boulevard becomes Mountain View/Devil’s Backbone in very little time (1.3/74.3), which in turn spills left into Sugar Camp Road (4.1/78.4), then left again into Hite Road (2.6/81). The bridge over Normandy Lake will deposit you at Burton Springs (2.9/83.9). Turn right on the casually marked “Normandy road” that passes below the dam, and then wend your way into Normandy (8.4/92.3).

From here, TN269 zigs and zags north and downhill from this secluded portion of the Highland Rim. The road clips through the quiet whistle-stop of Wartrace. After Bell Buckle, it rises toward the Civil War battle site at Liberty Gap before cutting hard west to Christiana and US231 (15.5/107.8). From here, it’s a quick clip north (to the right) to the outskirts of Murfreesboro (7/114.8), where I-24 awaits for a return sprint to Nashville (28.6/143.4).

Western rimshot

Nashville-Dover-Dickson

Round-trip approx. 175 miles, 14 legs

Although you’ll need to give yourself the day for this trip, it’s a perfect choice for the Sunday driver who prefers poking along at a stately pace to pushing the envelope at the ragged edge. It’s also the most nearly nautical of our summer drives, considering the proximity of the Cumberland River to so many different legs of the route.

Start off with a run up White Bridge Road/Robertson Road/Briley Parkway (a.k.a. TN155) to Ashland City Highway (TN12), and turn left. This lazy meander along the north side of the Cumberland ends as you cross south over the river on TN49 (12.7 mi.). A beautiful stretch atop the Harpeth Ridge winds southwest into Charlotte (20 mi. leg/32.7 mi. cumulative), where TN48 zips north up and down the corrugated ridges and valleys of the Cumberland watershed. At Cunningham (12.7/45.4), the highway changes almost imperceptibly to TN13, rising to a minor climax at Hilltop (3.6/49).

Here, you peel off to the west along TN149, playing hide-and-seek with a Cumberland River now swollen to the bloated proportions of Lake Barkley. At Cumberland City (15.8/64.8), under the shadow of the awe-inspiring steam towers, TN233 takes over with a bluff’s-eye view of Cross Creek’s National Wildlife Refuge. The road descends to Carlisle on South Cross Creek (7.6/72.4), and TN49 reappears to make a dogleg entrance into Dover (9.6/82). The Fort Donelson National Military Park makes a good rest stop at this approximate halfway point, if you can tolerate the view of military history as written by the victors.

From here, continue west along US79/TN76 until the crossroads with TN232 (8.5/90.5), just north of Mulberry Hill. Now you’re breasting the flooded margins of the swollen Tennessee River in its guise as Kentucky Lake. At the tiny airport in McKinnon (11.5/102), bear east on TN147 as the road reascends the western portion of the Highland Rim known as the Tennessee Ridge. At Gray’s Crossing (10/112), the ubiquitous TN49 takes over once again, snaking through the scenic coves and draws around Erin. Splitting off onto TN46 (8.4/120.4), the route winds its way toward the headwaters of Yellow Creek and then into Dickson (21/141.4). From here, it’s a lazy cruise back to Nashville along US70 (or even I-40, if you prefer) until you rendezvous once again with White Bridge Road/Briley Parkway (34/175.4).

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