The Hidden Gem of West Tennessee (Found in Memphis’ Overton Park)

In recent news, Memphis ranked 53rd (out of 60) in an assessment of the nation’s park systems. This assessment, known as ParkScore, is organized by The Trust for Public Land. Out of a total score of 100, Memphis scored a 35. This score is based on many aspects, mainly: access (that is, how many of a city’s residents live within half a mile, or a 10-minute walk, from a park); acreage (a math equation that uses “a city’s median park size and the percentage of total city area dedicated to parks”); and services and investment, otherwise known as the number of playgrounds per 10,000 city residents combined with per-capita park spending. Memphis spends $64.57 per resident on its parks; this pales in comparison to the nation’s biggest spender Minneapolis, more than tripling that figure at $213.87 per resident.


As the most obese metropolitan city in America, I’m not surprised that our public parks rank so low–our parks are unused and underappreciated. Therefore, I’m writing this article to provide awareness in support of the greatest metropolitan park in America.

In the heart of Memphis, one can find what’s been referred to by Dr. Lawrence Smith as “the hidden gem of west Tennessee.” A year or so back I had my first experience (as an adult) in Overton Park’s Old Forest. It was with Dr. Lawrence Smith and Dr. Susan Roakes, both professors at The University of Memphis, that I was given an exclusive tour of this hidden gem. Most of Memphis’ citizens are unaware of the 10,000-year-old ecosystem that provides habitats to hundreds of plant and animal species (which would not otherwise survive in Memphis).

In 1901, the city of Memphis purchased 342 acres of land, known as Lea Woods, and with it created Overton Park–as part of the plan, the park set aside 172 acres with the sole purpose of conserving Overton Park’s old growth forest.

Overton Park Map, 1901

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, in 1979, Overton Park’s Old Forest is an unbelievably gorgeous forest tract and natural arboretum. A trip to the old growth forest would provide visitors an opportunity to surround themselves with 332 flowering plant species–2 of which are listed on the Tennessee Natural Heritage Program Rare Plant List–and 70 different tree species. Additionally, while walking along the 4-mile network of unpaved public trails within the forest, take a moment to appreciate numerous 200 year old trees, standing over 100 feet tall, 60 inches in diameter.

In 2009, the city of Memphis hired Dr. Thomas Heineke to catalogue the flora inside the old growth forest. After spending roughly 200 hours in the forest, the following was his opinion on Overton Park’s Old Forest:

“Very few virgin forests exist in the Mid-South region and certainly none within a city the size of Memphis…”

“Many of the trees reach heights well over 100 feet and measure four to five feet or larger in diameter at breast height. A large number of these trees are likely greater than 200 years of age.”

“Overton Park Forest is a unique resource which cannot be replaced…[i]t is invaluable to the city and to the region as an outstanding example of old growth forest. Because it is within an urban setting, it is even more exceptional. Everything possible should be done to assure that it is protected in perpetuity. This forest is indeed extraordinary and unequaled.”

This is entirely what the members of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP) set out to accomplish in 1957–protection in perpetuity. While CPOP is widely known as the grassroots movement that combated the extension of Interstate 40 through Overton Park, winning the landmark 1971 Supreme Court case Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpethey are continually working with the community to keep Overton Park’s property free of trash and invasive, non-native plant species. Additionally, they work constantly to leave the old growth forest in its natural state. Below is a photograph of tree that had fallen onto one of the trails. Volunteers did what was necessary to make the path available, leaving the rest of the forest undisturbed.

Overton Park

“In Overton Park you have saved the other chief characteristics of this region by preserving in the forest conditions of the virgin forest upon that property. Nowhere in the United States, except in the Pacific Northwest, will you find tree growth as luxuriant as in the Western Tennessee and Eastern Arkansas forests, and in the two hundred acres of virgin forest in Overton Park you have a property which, as a heritage to the public for the enjoyment of nature, equals in value the cost of the entire park system to the present time.”

– George Kessler, landscape architect of Overton Park, in 1911

Whether you want a brisk run in the shade of tree canopies, are looking to expand your knowledge as a botanist, or just want to give your children the opportunity to enjoy Mother Nature, Overton Park’s Old Forest is a must visit for all Memphians.

Check out the gallery of photographs from inside Overton Park’s Old Forest, taken by my favorite Memphis photographer, Molly.

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To find out more information on Overton Park’s Old Forest; Rainbow Lake Playground, “a space where kids of all ages can climb to great heights, exercise their imaginations, and bring creativity to their play;” or Overton Bark, the park’s 1.3-acre enclosed dog park, check out Overton Park’s website.

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