A few month’s ago, when I interviewed Martha Wilkinson for a FACES of Nashville interview, I asked her a question I ask all the people I interview: “Tell me about a hidden gem in Nashville that many people may not know about.”
She paused to think for a moment, and then replied, “Hidden Lake.”
I’m not “Mrs. Nashville” by any stretch, but having grown up here and worked in local media as long as I have, I do consider myself pretty Nashville-savvy. And yet, Martha stumped me, thereby passing my hidden gem test. Intrigued after my interview, I made two treks there the following weekend to experience it for myself. Hidden Lake is part of Harpeth River State Park, which is located a couple of miles off of the McCrory Lane exit off I-40. Both times I visited, the parking lot was nearly empty, which tells me I’m not the only Nashvillian unfamiliar with this gem.
As the story goes, Hidden Lake was a “pleasure resort” located a mere 16 miles from Nashville. Owned and operated by Benjamin Lewis (aka “Ben”) Cunliff and his wife, Lillian, Hidden Lake opened for business on June 24, 1931, and it was met with much fanfare and excitement. According to the announcement in the newspaper, the resort’s highly anticipated grand opening was one of the “summer’s interesting social events” enjoyed by several hundred guests. An orchestra performed on the beach beside the lake (referred to as a “mini Riviera”), and the celebration continued into the evening when guests ascended to the clubhouse veranda on the hill for more music and dancing.
By day, guests enjoyed swimming, fishing, a water wheel and a very steep water slide that began at the top of the quarry in which the lake was created, and provided a thrilling adventure all the way down into the waters below. Additional non-water activities on the property included golf ball putting and driving, pony rides and picnics. By night, guests enjoyed more elevated dining in addition to live music and dancing with views of the lake below.
As I researched to learn more about Hidden Lake, the headlines and articles conjured up images of carefree crowds. Women in their “swim pajamas” were tended to by the staff, which was largely comprised of male students from Vanderbilt University. Women’s clubs held their monthly meetings, and Greek affiliations enjoyed many social events at Hidden Lake. The whole thing seems surreal to think about, and yet, a 20-minute drive West on I-40 still has the evidence that Hidden Lake absolutely DID exist. If you listen closely, you may just hear the echoes of music and laughter from a much simpler, more carefree time.
If you want to explore this hidden gem, take I-40 from Nashville to the McCrory Lane exit. Go right off the interstate, and travel a couple of miles. You’ll pass the veterans’ cemetery on the left (also a breathtaking sight), and once you cross the Harpeth River, the parking lot is on your left. From the parking lot, you’ll take a short, flat walk along the Harpeth River. I spied several folks fly fishing during my visit. As you continue along the quiet, grassy path, you’ll see several markers to help you identify foliage. Eventually, you come to a fork — go left, and you’ll make your way to Hidden Lake. I took that path on my first visit as I had my 4-year-old daughter with me, and I anticipated the ascent to the resort might be too much. When you arrive at the shoreline, it does, indeed, feel mystical and hidden — especially when you imagine a time nearly 100 years ago when women relaxed in their swim pajamas and big bands provided the summer’s soundtrack. You can hang out at the lake’s shoreline, of you can go beyond and venture up a very steep and narrow path — that’s where we had to turn back as it was definitely not appropriate for a preschool hiker. There were additional turn-offs, though, that take you along the Harpeth River — equally as impressive.
If you opt to go right at the fork, you’ll make your way up a slow, ascending two-mile loop that leads you past old cabins and abandoned stills. At the pinnacle of the hike, you’ll find yourself on a flat, circular piece of marble, which is the former dance floor of the Hidden Lake Resort. From there, you descend, passing various overlooks offering peeks at the lake below, each as magical as the next.
I never was able to track down the reason for the demise of the Hidden Lake Resort, though one may surmise that the fellows who served on staff may have headed off to war. And at the time of Ben Cunliff’s death in 1966, he and his family had since left Middle Tennessee and moved to Fort Myers, FL. Regardless, of how it ended, relish the fact that it existed. Enjoy a magical, mystical outing and head to Hidden Lake.
Hidden Lake is located at Harpeth River State Park, 7851 McCrory Lane, Nashville, TN 37221. To learn more, click HERE.
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