Going All Out(Side) In Memphis: The Best Spots To Explore

Photo courtesy of MemphisTravel.com
Photo courtesy of MemphisTravel.com
By Sally Walker Davies, Memphis Local Expert

Memphis residents are truly fortunate; we enjoy outdoor activities almost year-round, thanks to our temperate weather. Whether it's hitting the links, the trails, or family-focused attractions, Memphis is a stellar choice for outdoor enthusiasts. Biking and hiking, of course, don't really have seasons, per se, and dedicated year-round athletic types enjoy plenty of smooth and scenic trails, from the Wolf River Greenway to the challenging trails at Shelby Farms. For families, the Farms is a must-hit, as is the Memphis Zoo, where you can talk to the animals and their keepers almost every day. When it comes to nature walks, there's no better bet than Lichterman Nature Center, while the spectacular gardens at the Dixon or Memphis Botanic Gardens are rich with splendor, color, and smell.  You can add a bit of history and lore into a visit at the Mud Island River Park, where a scale model of the Mississipi River entices kids and adults alike to dip their toes in the hot summer months. Whether Memphis has more than enough outdoor pursuits to satisfy serious athletes, dedicated joggers or just those of us who love a great picnic al fresco, our list will help you plan a great day outdoors in the Bluff City.

10. Discovery Park of America
Photo courtesy of Discovery Park of America

A 50-acre wonderland of history and exploration in rural northwest Tennessee is the best way to describe Discovery Park, the brainchild of a local philanthropist. Located in Union City - the county seat of the agricultural Obion County - Discovery Park features indoor and outdoor exhibits and areas to explore, including natural history and regional museum areas, scientific and transportation areas, and pioneer and agricultural areas. Uniting everything about the Discovery Park is one thing - hands-on exploration. 50,000 square feet of exhibits inside and 50 acres of park-like grounds outside provide literally hours of exploration - for kids and adults alike. The park is closed on Mondays with the exception of Memorial Day, Labor Day and the Fourth of July.

9. Dixon Gallery and Gardens
Photo courtesy of MemphisTravel.com

Since 1976, this museum has housed a spectacular Impressionist collection including Degas, Monet and Pisarro, and the collection of art is rivaled only by the gorgeous gardens surrounding what was once one of Memphis' finest estates. The late Hugo and Margaret Dixon willed the house and grounds to the people of Memphis in order to establish this museum. The original Dixon collection included works by French and American Impressionists. Traveling exhibits are usually exquisite collections based on a certain theme or time period, and while small in scope are rich with offerings. Special concerts and picnic opportunities are offered from spring through fall in the gardens, many with no admission required.

8. Mud Island River Park
Photo courtesy of Mud Island River Park

Taking advantage of an island that sprang up in the Mississippi in the early 20th century, this park offers a variety of attractions. Among them are the Mississippi River Museum, which tracks both the river's development and the culture and towns that grew up along its route. Along the island, the River Walk, a scale model of the Mississippi's path, allows visitors to follow the Big Muddy from its start in Minnesota to its final destination, the Gulf of Mexico. The flow of the model river mimics that of the real one. The Mud Island amphitheater attracts top names in music, a monorail offers fun overviews of the area, and bike and pedal boat rentals provide energetic folks the chance to venture further afield. Restaurants and gift shops are also available on the 52-acre island.

7. Lichterman Nature Center
Photo courtesy of Memphismuseums.org

Set on 65 acres in East Memphis, the Lichterman serves as an education center and escape from the city, with lake, meadow and forest; and the plants, birds, and animals associated with this biodiversity. A certified arboretum, Lichterman features a Backyard Wildlife Center with live animals and hands-on explorations; a beautiful boardwalk winds through the forest reaching heights of two stories for a canopy-height view of the woods. There's an underwater viewing area allowing a peek into the life of the lake, and an excellent visitors center with exhibits detailing the constant metamorphosis of the center's habitats. Three miles of accessible trails wind through the center, with plenty of places to rest or simply take in the natural beauty.

6. Memphis Botanic Garden
Photo courtesy of MemphisTravel.com

With almost 100 acres of gardens set in the middle of East Memphis, there's something for any lover of the outdoors at MBG, including the serenity of a Japanese garden, a huge herb garden and a sensory garden. And there's 'My Big Backyard' - a children's garden / playground that's as popular with parents as it is with little ones. With a myriad of picnic tables and spaces, a natural play structure, a cabin, and plenty of colorful flowers and plants for children to discover, My Big Backyard has become an instant hit with families. And during the holiday season, some nights are extra-special, with a snow machine creating a winter wonderland, and hot chocolate served for all. During the spring and summer, a weekend concert series under the stars brings big names to the gardens, and concertgoers can pack picnic dinners and enjoy the music on the lawn.

5. Tom Lee Park
Photo courtesy of ilovememphis

Named for a courageous citizen who rescued 32 people when a steamer went down in the Mississippi in 1925, this park runs along the mighty river, and offers gorgeous views of the river and the city skyline. The park is home to a number of festivals and events throughout the year, including the Beale Street Music Festival in and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest - both key ingredients of the Memphis in May International Festival. When there's not a major festival, parking is available park-side, but the park is also an easy walk from downtown attractions. Wide pathways offer plenty of space for joggers and walkers, while the wide stretch of green space is perfect for a family game of Frisbee or simply relaxing in the sun.

4. Memphis Zoo
Photo courtesy of Memphis Zoo

The Memphis Zoo is consistently rated one of the top zoos in the country, both for its breadth of exhibits in an easy-to-navigate layout, and for the sheer fact that one can get pretty close to the animals in almost every habitat. With giant pandas from China, a Teton ecosystem replete with grizzly bears and wolves, and a Northwest Passage habitat filled with polar bears and river otters, this is a top-notch zoo that will enchant both kids and their parents. During the winter, a skating tent and festive lights bring the holiday spirit to the zoo, and it is open for select evening visits.

3. Greenbelt Park
Photo courtesy of Paul Ryburn

This low-lying park on Mud Island / in Harbor Town offers locals a chance to run, walk, bike or play with the dog right along the Mississippi Riverfront. With open green space, shade trees, and a view of the river and downtown that can't be beat, many folks come here on the weekend and simply set out a blanket or chairs, watching the world go by. The park's northernmost parking lot provides access to the Mississippi River via a boat ramp; nearby, Miss Cordelia's or Cafe Eclectic offer food and beverages to go for a picnic along the riverfront.

2. Wolf River Greenway
Photo courtesy of Wolf River Conservancy

Wolf River Greenway runs through Memphis and Germantown, and is part of the longer Greater Memphis Greenline that will eventually connect Collierville to downtown Memphis. The Wolf runs along the Wold River, and includes a wide paved path for non-motorized activity. IN east Memphis, access to the greenway is off Walnut Grove Road and Humphreys Boulevard, across from Baptist Hopsital, or from Shady Grove Road / Shelby Farms Park via pedestrian bridge over the Wolf River. Restroom facilities are along the Humphreys Boulevard side of the greenway, and look for benches and other relaxation spaces throughout this well-designed section of the greenway.

1. Shelby Farms
Photo courtesy of Shelby Farms Park

At five times larger than New York's Central Park, Shelby Farms is a recreational oasis at the far eastern reaches of the city, adjacent to the suburban communities of Germantown and Cordova. The farms are home to the national headquarters of Ducks Unlimited and offer hike and bike trails, paddle boats and fishing, trail rides and horseback lessons, and a shooting range. The Wolf River Greenway connects to Shelby Farms Greenline, creating a path from far east Memphis all the way to Midtown. Seasonal events at the Agricenter include a farmer's market and corn maze, and the on-site arena hosts dozens of equine events annually