River Circle Loop Trail – Ft. Donelson

Enttrance Marker  Ft Donelson Battlefield

Saturday, Carrie (my wife) had plans to get her hair done. This normally takes about four hours. Yes you read that right. FOUR HOURS to get her hair did. I decided to redeem that time and spend some time with my son. Since he haunted my whole LBL trip a few weeks back by his last words to me as I walked out the door, “Daddy, I wanna go hiking with you,” I decided to take him up on his request and go to Ft. Donelson just minutes away from Carrie’s hairdresser.


We stopped in at the visitor center to grab a map. The lady behind the counter acted like I didn’t know what I was doing. She was trying to explain the hike even though she had just hiked it for the first time the day before. I also mentioned I was taking my three year old with me and she gave me a look like I was crazy. I asked her if she had a more detailed map besides the one in the brochure they had and she said no and again began to explain the trail. I mentioned to her that I hiked the North/South Trail just three weeks ago. She tossed the map at me and said I should be fine.

(side note: this interaction really didn’t bother me. She was trying to help based on most people’s experience on the trails. I took no offense to her tone. I actually thought it was funny when she realized my experience.)

Fort Donelson National Battlefield Official Map   Fort Donelson Tennessee • mappery

Click for a bigger map

There are two roads in the battlefield area. One that takes you down to the where the garrison was. The other takes you to the left where Smith’s attack happened. We turned left by the Confederate Monument and parked at the dead end loop where the trail begins. This trail is called the River Circle Trail and follows the Cumberland River banks and leads you to the cannons then loops back up through the woods on the Donelson Trail creating a loop.

When we parked, there was a park ranger parked too. I walked over to talk to her and Levi was enamored that we were talking with the “police”. We discussed what to expect on the trail while we out. After a few minutes, she gave Levi a metal Park Ranger replica badge. He loved it and had me put it on his shirt. She also gave him a Junior Ranger book and talked with me about signing him up for the Junior Ranger program.


He likes his badge. Honorary Park Ranger

When we finished talking, I grabbed my daypack. I packed my hammock, first aid kit, compass, Katadyn water filter, water and some food. Put on my hiking boots and grabbed my trekking pole and off we went. The trail descended straight down the hill then right back up the next one for a decent view of the river though the trees. We practically kept this view the whole time as we paralleled the river till we reached the cannons.

The trail is kept up very well and at times would get wide enough to walk side by side so this would make a great day hike for couples. Although the trail is considered a moderate hike I would say at times it can get difficult on occasion simply because the hills you have to climb or descend. There are no switchbacks to make the hike easier however they do have 4×4 landscaping timbers anchored to the ground every ten feet or so to help with the climbing so this does make the hiking easier.


We reached an area where the trail went left and the sign pointing the correct way yet there was a field that went right with a worn path. I figured the trail kept left but decided to break out the map and compass to be sure I was going the right way. When I pulled my bag off, I noticed about five deer resting about 50 yards away. I pointed them out to Levi and we watched them for a few minutes while I got my bearings.


Deer straight ahead

We also came across a rope swing tied to a tree. We walked down to check it out and watch the local fishermen do their thing. Levi loved the boats and said he wanted one. So do I. Later in the hike he saw a Jeep and said he wanted one. So do I. There is no doubt that I have a son!

Rope Swing on the Cumberland River

Rope Swing on the Cumberland River

The River Circle trail is roughly a mile then the loop back is about 1.9 miles making this loop trail about 3 miles. I’m not going to say the signs are wrong but it felt more like four miles altogether. The Donelson Trail actually felt shorter than the River Circle Trail. I didn’t check the mileage so by the signs it should be three miles.

When we reached the cannons, we walked along the cannon area checked out the artillery cave that housed the cannon balls. We took a break in the shade till another three year old girl and her mom came by in which Levi wanted to play with her and her binoculars. After about fifteen minutes we headed back on the Donelson Trail.


Cannon overlooking the Cumberland River

The Donelson Trail is little more ups and downs but still very well maintained and wide in areas to walk side by side. The country side has some nice views as you look off the hills into the woods. There are also these posts ever so often highlighting various animals that can be found in the park. Levi would look at them and identify the animal by the picture and would occasionally say that we needed to look out for their foot prints.


We were beginning to run low on water and I was beginning to think I may need to filter some water when we came across a couple and their dog, Cooper. Levi petted Cooper as I talked with them. They told us we were only .1 mile away from the end but about twenty feet of exiting the woods, we might find a five foot long chicken snake they moved just off the trail. We said good bye and when I was able to see the car, I picked Levi up just in case he got too close to where that snake was. I never saw the snake.

Levi done an amazing job on our hike considering the elevation we had to walk. I did have to carry him a couple of times up a couple of really tall hills. I was ok with that considering how great of an attitude he was having being on the trail for the first time for so long. When we reached the car he said he enjoyed hiking. I agree with Carrie when she said, “That’s good because this would not make a good hobby if he didn’t.”


When we left we stopped by the visitor center again for some water and to watch a sixteen minute movie on the Battle of Ft. Donelson. After we left, we scooted over to Land Between the Lakes South Welcome Center, bought a Snickers and M&Ms and played on the slide. When we were about to leave, I met a young man named Drew who was cycling from Chicago to Chattanooga. We shot the breeze on his trip and backpacking until he decided it was time to leave and get to his hotel in Dover.

We then went and picked up the wife, had dinner at the Log Cabin Restaurant and then home. It was a great day spent with my son hiking and bonding. With this trip, next we will try a backpacking trip a few miles in and camping out. Levi loves camping.




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