Tennessee's Harpeth River (HR) is part of the Mississippi watershed and a 115-mile long tributary of the Cumberland. Its headwaters are in Rutherford County and it ends near Ashland City, the county seat of Cheatham county. It absorbs several smaller waterways that share its name: West HR, Little HR, and South HR.
This is a class II river, which means it has stretches of fast moving water but its hazards - rocks, holes, and rapids - are easy to avoid or navigate. This classification of difficulty is good for intermediate canoeists or kayakers who need to learn to handle their craft in moving water. A lot of the HR is peaceful, with few challenges.
There are many public access points on the HR, including 9 in the HR State Park, which follows HR for 40 miles. The Park includes several spots of great historic interest, such as an antebellum plantation house near the confluence of HR and West HR, called 'the Meeting of the Waters'.
There is also a tunnel through solid rock made by slaves to divert water for their master's iron mill. The tunnel was an engineering marvel of its time. The mill was built near the Narrows, where the banks come close together and the water flow is accelerated. This part of the waterway is also near a prehistoric Native American burial ground called Mound Bottom.
The HR parallels the Natchez Trace for part of its length. This trail or primitive road was used by farmers on the frontier to take livestock and crops to markets farther east. It was famous for bandits and mud. Local legend says that the name 'Harpeth' comes from notorious outlaw brothers, the Harps, who lurked along the Trace. However, earlier maps recorded the name so it's origin is unclear; it may come from the Native American.
The whole length of HR is open to canoeists and kayaking, but the lower river is where visitors can rent boats and other gear for a day on the water. With an official 'scenic' designation, HR is well worth exploring for anyone who likes paddling, scenery, and local color. Go online to find maps and put-ins guides, historical notes, and descriptions of HR posted by those who've made the trip.
Online you'll see that many people love this waterway and take its preservation seriously. Community organizations hope to engage the public on ways to keep HR clean and healthy for people and wildlife, which include freshwater mussels and crustaceans, beaver and otter, and many species of fish.
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