I love all things in nature: camping, fishing, boating. My kids – ages 13 and 9 – love their gadgets: Facepad, videogames, palm phones. Finding fun things to do together as a family is – you guessed it! – often NOT fun for at least one of us. But last year I had a moment of genius inspiration and bought a metal detector with the hope that the fancy technology, the videogame-like beeping and the “treasure hunt” of metal detecting would engage the kids while giving me the opportunity to spend time with them outside.
It worked better than I’d hoped! We’ve spent the past summer exploring Tennessee in search of treasure – and in search of good metal detecting locations. Soon, my kids and I were poring over Tennessee maps together, reading up on metal detecting laws and planning one-day, two-day and week-long metal detecting treasure hunting trips all over the state. As a single dad, I only have the kids some weekends and the majority of the summer, so I feel this intense pressure to make their time with me extra fun and exciting. Stumbling onto metal detecting as a weekend/summer family activity was like winning the Single Parent Sweepstakes.
Tennessee is not one of the most metal-detecting friendly states in the country. The options for metal detecting on public land are fairly limited, due to the type of public lands in the state and the regulations there on use of metal detectors. You can bypass those regulations if you have written permission to metal detect on private property. Absent that, here are some recommendations for the best places to metal detect in Tennessee, almost all on public land:
J. Percy Priest Lake – Two of the best areas to explore
Priest Lake is, by far, my favorite place to metal detect in Tennessee. For starters, it’s a short drive from Nashville: about 25 minutes, depending on where you’re coming from. The lake is 42 miles long and covers 14,200 acres, including an entire town, Old Jefferson, which was demolished in the 960s. The town history, particularly its demise, is fascinating and leaves the possibility that a metal detecting excursion could turn up any number of intriguing pieces of its history.
This US Army Corps of Engineers Lake allows some metal detecting – with restrictions on when and how. For the complete regulations, visit their FAQ page (link: https://www.lrn.usace.army.mil/Locations/Lakes/J-Percy-Priest-Lake/FAQ/). The general rule is: you can metal detect in beach areas where it’s not likely you’ll find archaeological artifacts. The best time to go is October to November. You’ll enjoy less crowds and less heat and humidity. Most importantly for our purposes, that’s when the lake drawdown occurs! The receding water exposes more beach areas that haven’t yet been picked over by other users.
Exploring the lake beaches – with its assortment of nearby islands – and knowing the remnants of a town lay under its waters offers a sense of exploration, discovery and intrigue for me and the kids. You never know what’s going on inside your teen’s head, but I know I enjoy feeling like Indiana Jones!
1. J. Percy Priest Lake: Cook Day Use Area
This public access area map has been linked below. As you can see, it is a large park with lots of discovery opportunities.
2. J. Percy Priest Lake: Anderson Road Day Use
Outside of the Nashville, and south of Cook’s Day Use area this spot provides another potential for finds. Below is a map of the area:
Metal detecting tip: Bring your rain jacket. It’s always a good rule of thumb when metal detecting but particularly important when exploring the beaches of Priest Lake in October and November!
Cherokee, Chattahootche, Nantahala National Forests-Specific Beaches to Investigate!
Cherokee National Forest prohibits the use of metal detectors except at certain swimming beaches, which is just fine because beaches are great places for metal detecting!
3. Indian Boundary Recreation Area Beach
By far, my favorite of the National Forest Beaches in Tennessee. You can’t beat the scenery, regardless of the success of your metal detecting!
Other National Forest Beaches for metal detecting include:
4. Mac Point Recreation Area Beach
While not my favorite location for metal detecting, the proximity to Chattanooga makes this location convenient for a day trip.
5. Chilhowee Recreation Area Beach
Though the treasure finds here have been meager, the scenery and the proximity to Chattanooga make this location worthwhile.
6. Parksville Beach
Regardless of what you find, if you take the Ocoee Scenic Byway on your trip, your day won’t be wasted.
7. Jacob’s Creek Recreation Area Beach
Shook Branch Recreation Area Beach. On the southern shore of Watauga Lake in Carter County, the closest town is Elizabethtown. I recommend bringing a picnic. Actually, I always recommend bringing a picnic!
8. Watauga Point Recreation Area Beach
9. Rock Creek Recreation Area Beach
This is one of my favorite locations. Both the stream-fed swimming pools and the creek banks offer the hopes of a metal detector find and the scenery is great. The bath house and most of the structures were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, giving it a sense of living history you don’t find at many public places where metal detecting is currently permitted.
For more information on metal detecting in Tennessee National Forest, click below. https://www.fs.usda.gov/activity/cherokee/recreation/rocks-minerals/?recid=34864&actid=60
Metal detecting tip: Sunscreen! Hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and drinking water are a must for beach metal detecting. Remember to put sunscreen on your nostrils and lips because sun reflects upwards from the sand and water.
Holly Springs National Forest, Mississippi
Getting tired of metal detecting on beaches? Head to some other National Forests. Though located in Mississippi, Holly Springs National Forest is a close drive, and my favorite place there is:
11. Puskus Lake Recreation Area
A quiet, beautiful location to enjoy the changing seasons, Holly Springs National Forest is a convenient drive from Memphis and includes the former ceremonial grounds of the Choctaw Indians. National Forest guidelines for metal detecting allow it in developed areas like campgrounds unless it’s otherwise prohibited.
The primary rule to remember when metal detecting in a National Forest: The following are prohibited: (g) digging in, excavating, disturbing, injuring, destroying, or in any way damaging any prehistoric, historic, or archaeological resources, structure, site, artifact, or property. (h) Removing any prehistoric, historic, or archaeological resources, structure, site, artifact, property.” (Historic means older than 50 years.) Read complete guidelines (link: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprd3840675.pdf)
Dale Hollow Lake
Spanning the Tennessee-Kentucky Border, Dale Hollow Lake has 620 miles of shoreline. The same regulations that govern metal detectors at Percy Priest Lake apply here, as they’re both governed by US Army Corps of Engineers. In short, beaches that are already disturbed and not likely to have artifacts of historic significance allow metal detecting. Some good spots are:
12. Obey River Day Use Area
13. Lillydale Campground and Day Use Area
14. Construction Sites, anywhere in Tennessee
Construction sites are outstanding places to metal detect! You’re pretty much guaranteed to find something and the digging is already being done for you. Plus, you don’t have to drive far or spend a whole day on it.
You’ll need to contact the property owner to secure written permission and will have to confine your activities to when the construction equipment is idling. If you want to target your metal detecting, do some historical research (at the library or local historical museum) on the area and see what existed on local construction sites in the past and focus on the ones that intrigue you most.
Metal detecting tip: Start with your own backyard. Then family, friends and neighbors’ backyards (with permission). Even though they may seem unglamorous, the benefit is that there’s most likely been fewer people and activities to disturb relics from the past in these private areas, unlike public areas that see hundreds of visitors a day.
Old Hickory Lake
Close to Nashville, Old Hickory Lake is popular for all manner of outdoor recreational pursuits. Another US Army Corps of Engineers project, Old Hickory Lake allows metal detecting at beaches. Beaches are great metal detecting locations in general because of the high traffic and the frequency that users lose items in the sand, in addition to anything washed up by the water. It’s recommended that you restrict your metal detecting to less crowded times and days – and remember to fill in any holes you dig. Some beaches to visit with your metal detector:
15. Old Hickory Beach
16. Cedar Creek
18. Dock 3
Metal Detecting tip: Remember – since we’re not supposed to keep artifacts – you’ve got the best chance of a find that’s “valuable” or “lucrative” with contemporary items like watches, coins or jewelry that have been lost by present-day visitors. With that in mind, high traffic areas can yield the most results, both in terms of quality and quantity. Think about areas like marinas, picnic areas, campgrounds, which are open to the public and “already disturbed” and not likely to contain anything of historic significance. After a summer of metal detecting, my son had a jar worth $75.00 in found coins.
Metal Detecting Laws in Tennessee
From our personal research of dozens of sources of national, state and local metal detecting restrictions, this is what it all boils down to:
- Metal detecting is not allowed in National Parks anywhere in the US, and in Tennessee it’s also forbidden in State Parks. In Tennessee National Forests, it is permitted in certain areas, primarily swimming beaches.
- National laws, including the Antiquities Act of 1906, the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the Archaeological Resources Preservation Act (ARPA), all have implications on metal detecting in Tennessee. Essentially, even on land where metal detecting is allowed, you can’t remove anything you believe is 100 years old or more, a potential archaeological artifact.
- You can metal detect on private land if you have the property owner’s written permission.
- Regulations for city and county parks and other public lands will vary from place to place, so be sure to check with the appropriate agency to determine if metal detecting is allowed.
Tennessee Metal Detecting Clubs
If you’re new to metal detecting, the best thing you can do is get involved with local metal detecting clubs. They can help you understand local laws, give insider tips, organize metal detecting events and sometimes work with state and county archaeology offices on joint projects. Some of the biggest metal detecting clubs in Tennessee are:
- The Middle Tennessee Metal Detecting Club, Nashville (http://www.mtmdc.com/)
- Memphis Metal Detecting Club (http://memphismetaldetectingclub.com/)
- East Tennessee Treasure Hunters (https://www.facebook.com/EastTnTreasureHunters)
- Murfreesboro Metal Detecting Club (https://borodiggers.wixsite.com/mmdc)
Another way to find more metal detecting opportunities in Tennessee – with the added bonus of learning about the local history and serving the community – is to get involved with local historical associations. These organizations always need volunteers, and may need metal detecting services from time to time. You’ll also get a headstart on the historical research that’s necessary for any serious detectorist.
Favorite Metal Detecting Shops in Tennessee
Metal detecting tip: Carry extra batteries and anything you need for maintenance/longevity of your metal detector, such as a coil cover. There’s nothing worse than having a full day or weekend planned and making a long drive to your destination only to abort your plans because of a detector malfunction.
- KellyCo Metal Detectors, Knoxville, TN (Link: https://www.kellycodetectors.com/). While this company has two brick and mortar shops (one in Florida, one in Tennessee), you can order online and have it shipped anywhere.
- Backwoods Metal Detectors, Greenville, TN (Link: https://backwoodsmetaldetectors.com/)
- Dixie Metal Detectors, Online (Link: https://www.dixie-metal-detectors.com/) A 34-year-old company, born and bred in Tennessee, Dixie Metal Detectors recently switched to online-only, giving you the convenience of shopping from anywhere while supporting a local company.
- Treasure Mountain Metal Detectors, Online (Link: https://www.treasuremtndetectors.com/)
Most metal detector shops are not only useful for purchases but also for information. Bring your questions about your new hobby and pick their brains. You’ll probably find most shop staff are excited to share their knowledge and their passion.
Shopping for metal detectors? Many shops, such as Backwoods Metal Detectors, offer used detectors. Before you shovel a bunch of money into a new recreational interest, it might be worth trying it out with a budget-friendly detector to make sure you like it. You can even try renting a metal detector before buying. When renting, know that the quality of the detector is often questionable (usually cheap and heavily used) and check with local equipment/tool rental companies as a large number of them also rent metal detectors.
Tips From Metal Detecting Veteran James Pastor, former president of Murfreesboro Metal Detecting Club
“Metal Detecting takes patience. You kiss a lot of frogs (find junk) more than you do treasure,” says Tennessee metal detecting veteran James Pastor. At my request, he offered his top three tips for newcomers to the metal detecting hobby:
1. Learn your detector. Every machine is like learning a new language. Listen to your machine.
2. Learn how to research. This can include library trips, online or talking to people around town. Historicaerials.com (link: https://www.historicaerials.com/) is good to find old home sites, the official records of the Civil War to find CW sites. And just know that door-knocking may be more of a challenge right now with Coronavirus. You will still get rejected (when asking permission from property owners) so have a tough skin and multiple areas you want to search.
3. Lastly, I would say to a beginner to not put too much money into the hobby until you are sure you like it. I started with a Bounty Hunter and now have a handful of machines.
Some Interesting Articles on Metal Detecting
“Treasure hunter’s metal detector finds bomb in Tennessee. Explosion heard for miles.” (Spoiler alert: It was a controlled explosion and the metal detector user wasn’t injured.) (Link: https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article240385951.html)
“Amateur Treasure Hunters Dig For Artifacts in Their Own Backyard.” (Link: https://www.npr.org/2020/08/17/903152168/amateur-treasure-hunters-dig-for-artifacts-in-their-own-backyard)
The Most Important Thing to Know About Metal Detecting in Tennessee
Buried treasure from outlaw train robbers. Confederate spoils hidden ahead of the advancing Union Army. Civil War artifacts. These are the things that make your heart quicken when you get into metal detecting. But the truth – and the reward – of the hobby is much more ordinary and readily accessible. It’s not the big discoveries of historic significance that make metal detecting worthwhile, though those are the things that give it glamor and media coverage. It’s finding small, “ordinary” objects that connect us with people from the past. Some of our favorite “treasure” finds have been:
- A padlock used in the 1800s
- A pendants from a necklace or bracelet in the 1950s
- Buttons from the early 1900s
When it comes to metal detecting finds, you can take the historical research as far as you’re interested and there’s available information. History buffs and scholarly types can delve deep into the history of specific locations, the uses and production of specific objects, the monetary value – both in the past and today.
For our family and the limited amount of attention span we have for “studying,” we like to get more creative. When we find something, we go home and research what it is, when it was used and let our imaginations roam. We imagine who the person was who owned it, what their life was like. We come up with entertaining scenarios for how they might have lost the item given what was going on in that era of history and make up our own stories.
For example, out of the items listed above: the padlock was used by a small farmer who had trouble with cattle thieves. He used it to lock them safely in their enclosure but a black bear triggered a panic in the herd and the stampeding cattle plowed through the fence, padlock and all. For the pendants, we pictured a fifteen-year-old girl (in a ponytail and poodle skirt of course), enjoying her first taste of romance. The object of her affection gave her a heart shaped pendant to wear on her necklace, but – when he told her that he planned to leave for college at the end of the summer and had no interest in a long-distance relationship, she ripped the chain off her neck and threw the necklace in the dirt. There it stayed, forgotten, until we came along with our metal detectors.
Not surprisingly, given the age of my kids, the only explanation for a lost button is a tubby little man who keeps getting fatter, bursting the buttons off his pants, much to the chagrin of his wife who sews on replacement after replacement. My kids get themselves into hysterics conjuring up embarrassing situations where the fat man pops his button off again and again. And even I, with a slightly more mature sense of humor, find myself giggling like a kid.
My kids and I have yet to discover a major treasure find, but we’ve spent hundreds of hours feeling more connected to each other and to our history. To me, that’s the most important part of metal detecting.