With the full understanding that we’ve all gone a little stir crazy lately and that the prettiest time to live outdoors in the South is upon us—hello, fall foliage and dreamy weather!—we’ve been dipping our toes in the water of regional travel and rediscovering places that make up the beating heart of our community. To get an idea of what the near term looks like when visiting a drivable, new place that feels like they’re doing it right on preventative measures, consider a day trip to Clarksville, which is snuggled up against southern Kentucky about an hour northwest of Nashville.
With 160,000 residents, Clarksville is emblematic of what we think of as a big little city in the South and is a nucleus of activity that’s far removed from the congestion of an actual big city. Anchored by Austin Peay State University and a sprawling Army base that straddles the Kentucky border, the landscape is cleaved limestone, hardwood forests and farmland with a very large, very pretty downtown core.
Surrounded by miles of woods and snaked through by the Cumberland and Red Rivers, the region has an expansive, roomy feel despite its robust population, and the two of us had no problem burning a day exploring.
Based on travel and livability trends, areas like Clarksville are teed up for families and individuals who want a better quality of life, but Montgomery County is also an interesting place to visit if you’ve never been to this part of Tennessee. An easily accessible college town, Clarksville has cute shops and restaurants and tons of free outdoors on which to frolic safely.
On our day trip to Clarksville last month, there was a mask mandate, so everywhere we went—including at the outdoor farmers’ market—there were reminders to mask up. I appreciated the city and all businesses taking responsibility to keep everyone safe, and as a result, I felt safe walking around the town. The mandate has recently expired, but please continue to wear masks even if they aren’t required and keep yourself a healthy distance from everyone. It’s just the right—and safe—thing to do.
What to do on a day trip to Clarksville
With a historic theater and attractive courthouse square at its epicenter, Downtown Clarksville is a very walkable area that has seen a clear trajectory of internal investment since we last visited in 2017. The urban infill that has grown into the traditional downtown is clearly having an effect on use and private aesthetic improvements, and we saw a lot of evidence that more development is in the pipeline. Keep an eye on this one, folks: The military base and college aren’t going anywhere, and the city seems to be gathering energy.
You know I love a town with an obvious art presence because it’s a key metric in success stories across the country, and not only did we pop into Drafts by Olasubomi, a great visual arts gallery in the downtown corridor, but we also tracked down just about every sculpture in town like the Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Fire memorial that honors all soldiers in all wars. I was surprised—and overjoyed—to see how much 3-D art lives all over Clarksville.
By far my favorite is “Tennie,” the brand-new resident of the courthouse square who was installed just prior to the 19th Amendment centenary. Created by Nashville artist Roy Butler, the sculpture entitled “Tennessee Triumph” celebrates our state’s position as the “Perfect 36,” the final state to ratify the amendment in 1920.
But Tennie is hardly the only figure rendered in bronze downtown. There’s a sculpture of local photographer Lenora “Nora” Witzel and her dog, as well as a life-sized depiction of actor Frank Sutton, who is donning a mask these days, across from the Roxy Theatre.
There is also a trio of gorgeous fountains that add to downtown’s character, my favorite being the 20-by-15-foot Strawberry Alley Children’s Fountain that was commissioned in 2008.
For those who prefer art to take home as a souvenir, there are several great downtown shops like Hey Noli, The Copper Petal, Grand Divisions on Franklin, Vinyl and the Downtown Artists Co-Op where you can exercise your credit card and outfit your home (or yourself).
Getting outdoors in Montgomery County
Perhaps the most surprising part of our first day trip to Clarksville in quite some time was the abundance of green space. In a season like autumn that shines in the South, there’s no one I know who wants to be cooped up indoors in Tennessee when it’s finally a blissful 75 degrees out with the promise of crisp evenings on the horizon.
In the downtown, the Cumberland RiverWalk parallels the Cumberland River for a mile and a half of paved sidewalk that’s perfect for walking or running. There’s a Pedestrian Overpass that links downtown to the river, crossing over Riverside Drive/U.S. Highway 79, and is a great spot to catch the sun setting over the water. We caught the remnants of a purple sky and the fingernail sliver of a moon on a sunset walk to the river with local friends.
Follow the line of the Cumberland south of downtown and you’ll find yourself in Liberty Park, 10 acres of river-adjacent lands with opportunities for outdoor activity galore.
There’s a dog park, nearly two miles of paved walkway, four pavilions and a marina, among other features. Most notably, we saw fishermen of all ages out casting poles on the 10-acre fishing pond that lives within the park, as well as cyclists making use of the trails that flank the water.
Don’t have your own bike? No problem—you can rent a Bcycle bike for just a couple of dollars.
If you fancy yourself a captain, you can also rent boats from the Clarksville Marina at Liberty Park.
And don’t miss the bronze statues that commemorate the lives of female superstars Wilma Rudolph, an Olympic gold medalist, and Pat Head Summitt, former University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach and the winningest coach of all time. Both late, great sports legends were born in Montgomery County.
Of course, the county’s most popular outdoor draw by far is outside of downtown, not far from Interstate 24: the 144-acre Dunbar Cave State Park.
A few years ago, I made it my mission to visit all 56 state parks in Tennessee, and while I’ve hardly whittled down that list much, I was excited to be able to cross Dunbar off—and was also enamored with how cool this park’s history is.
In addition to being a habitat for rare animals—among them, the Northern long-eared Bat, a blind cave crayfish and the southern cavefish—Dunbar Cave, which stretches nearly eight miles inward, has been occupied by men for thousands of years, excavations revealed. If you venture inside, you’ll spy Mississippian native American iconography, dating from approximately 1350 AD. For those who want to go deep into the bowels of the cave, you should make a reservation in advance as groups are limited in size, and the day we dropped in, all tours were sold out. The cave is open year-round, and children have to be at least four years old to go inside.
After the Civil War, Dunbar became a resort. A century ago, the mouth of the cave was used as a dance floor, and the informational signage around the park tells the story of its years as a “show cave,” from when the concrete dance floor was built in 1916 to the Big Bands who played shows here in the 30’s and 40’s to its decades under country music star Roy Acuff’s ownership, from 1948 to 1966, when he also broadcast a live country music radio show from the cave. Dunbar Cave became a state natural area in 1973.
However, the park is more than just the caves, and even if you drop in and can’t get on a tour, you can still wander down to the cave’s mouth and mosey around the paths and pond.
For more outdoor options in Clarksville, check out:
Eating in Clarksville
Like many people we know, we’ve been hesitant to eat at restaurants that don’t have patios as we’re not entirely comfortable being indoors around others. Better safe than sorry, right? I was thrilled to find that so many Clarksville restaurants have patio options.
We went several places with patio dining like the Thirsty Goat, a good 20 minutes outside of the downtown but well worth the drive thanks to its great outdoor space, tap list and inventive pizzas like the Pregnant Lady, which SVV ordered for the crazy combination of bacon, dill pickles and potato chips as toppings.
Since our last day trip to Clarksville three years ago, Strawberry Alley Ale Works opened right in the heart of downtown. This locally owned gastropub is from the same team behind Old Glory, and not only does it brew up its own dozen or so rotating beers, in addition to hundreds of others available, it has a deep well of food items—think: beer cheese soup, fish tacos, Southwestern egg rolls, potato chip nachos, doughy pretzels—that pair perfectly.
The inside is open, airy, and a mix of historic and industrial. Strawberry Alley Ale Work also has a two-story patio on the backside of the building; seating is first-come, first-served, and this is a popular spot, so don’t show up during peak dining hours and expect to be able to sit outside.
If you’re staying for a full weekend, there are enough places with patio dining—including Liberty Park Grill, Yellowtail Robata Grill & Sushi and Kimo’s Hawaiian Grill—to fill all of your meals, but there’s one place we opted to go inside.
Formerly Yada Yada Yada, the bigger, better Yada on Franklin has been in its current location for a little over a year, and boy is it a beauty. The inside is absolutely massive, and tables are spread far apart so you can safely dine within without being around anyone but your masked server.
The cocktails, in particular, are mindblowingly good—so delicious, in fact, that SVV and I ordered the same thing two rounds in a row, something rare for a pair of serial cocktail enthusiasts who like to sip their way through an entire menu.
I’m basically never drinking another cocktail that doesn’t have moon water in it, because who doesn’t want their drink to sparkle? We also opted to eat lunch there since we were already two cocktails in, and I can vouch for the quality of their sandwich-and-side-salad combos.
If you’re in the heart of Clarksville and picking up food to go, head to the Downtown Commons, a central gathering place with ample lawn space for the kids (both big and small) to play and plenty of outdoor seating.
Drinking in Clarksville
Another way Clarksville has grown since our last visit is the numerous options for libations: The city now boasts a distillery, a winery, breweries and a meadery. Be still, my spirited heart!
At Beachaven Vineyards & Winery, reservations for tours and tastings are currently required to keep both staff and patrons safe (i.e. no walk-ins). Once you arrive and check in at the front desk, you’ll go to the tasting counter where masked employees will divvy out pours into barware so you can then take them out on the lawn, where there’s usually a food truck as well, to enjoy.
Down the road at Old Glory Distilling Co., you can take a tour of this small-batch artisan distillery that’s on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail. A former firefighter, Clarksville native Matt Cunningham founded the distillery at the age of 22 and released his first whiskey earlier this year. We visited when they first opened, and the products were heavy on the shine, so I was thrilled to see a diverse mix of vodka, bourbon whiskey, white rum and gin on the shelves this time around.
Even if you don’t have time to do the tour and tasting, Old Glory has a full bar that’s worthy of exploring. The cocktail menu is extensive, and there’s a seasonal boozy slushie on tap at any one time. I tasted the caramel apple, which was delicious and not too sweet, then washed it down with a bourbon lemonade.
Have you been to Montgomery County? Anything you’d add to a recipe for a perfect day trip to Clarksville?
This project is in partnership with Visit Clarksville. All opinions and decisions to do acro after three beers are entirely my own.