Breakdown: Why Shelby Farms is more than just a park

Shelby Farms is more than a beloved park; it’s also a conservancy, protecting wildlife, plants, and land – all in the heart of Memphis, TN.
Published: Jan. 23, 2022 at 6:23 AM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Within the city limits of Memphis, Tennessee lies a beautiful park that accommodates many hobbies, whether you enjoy hiking, cycling, paddling, running, or even just going out for a relaxing day in nature.

Encompassing 4,500 acres, Shelby Farms Park is one of the 20 largest urban parks in the U.S. and it covers more than five times the area of Central Park in New York City with only 843 acres.

Shelby Farms is a vast oasis filled with lakes, forests and wetlands -- a natural and beautiful environment for the small creatures that live here and a quick escape from the bustle of the city.

Shelby Farms Park Greeline
Shelby Farms Park Greeline(City Parks Alliance)

But, it wasn’t always this lush parkland. In 1825, before the park was even an idea, Francis Wright -- a feminist and slavery opponent -- founded the Nashoba Commune on 670 acres of what’s now the park’s eastern tip. It was supposed to be a multi-racial collective where former slaves could prepare for their freedom.

More than one hundred years later, freedom was replaced by imprisonment when Shelby County took title of the land. The land functioned as a working prison farm for the Shelby County Penitentiary from 1929 until 1964.

When the Penal Farm shut down, the land was “unprotected,” meaning there was talk of selling parcels of land for profit for it to be developed, but, nothing ever materialized.

Still unprotected, Shelby Farms was opened for recreational purposes in the 1970s.

Protection of the land didn’t come until 2007 when the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy (SFPC) -- a non-profit organization -- was formed that could manage the property on behalf of the citizens of Shelby County, providing the daily operation of the park and to plan for its future use.

Shelby Farms is now part of a conservation easement that legally protects it as parkland. And today, it’s filled with 20 bodies of water for fishing, paddle boating or boarding, and kayaking with 40 miles of trails and part of the Greenline that spans from Midtown Memphis to Cordova.

Map of Shelby Farms Park
Map of Shelby Farms Park(Shelby Farms Park)

The park has its own team of horses for rent — just be sure to call ahead — or you can bring your own.

The stables offer guided trail rides, birthday parties and other equine activities to the public.

Shelby Farms Stables is horseback riding facility offering guided trail rides, birthday parties...
Shelby Farms Stables is horseback riding facility offering guided trail rides, birthday parties and other equine activities to the public.(Angie McDowell | Shelby Farms Stables)

Of course there’s plenty of room for your smaller 4-legged companions to roam, too, with more than 100 acres dedicated to off-leash fun for dogs.

Additionally, Shelby Farms Park is home to a thriving herd of buffalo! There are usually around 15 buffalo roaming the Park each year--the number of buffalo fluctuates as calves are born each spring. The herd roams on its own in a nearly 50-acre range specially designed range for the buffalo that features a self-filling water trough, hearty native grasses and plenty of shade for hot summer days.

Shelby Farms Park says two buffalo recently gave birth. Both moms and calves are doing well and...
Shelby Farms Park says two buffalo recently gave birth. Both moms and calves are doing well and thriving.(Shelby Farms Park)

Buffalo played an integral role in the ecological and cultural history of the United States, but for a long time, herds across the country were dwindling in size and number. Conservation efforts were launched throughout the country to help restore the once thriving buffalo populations.

In 1989, the Park’s superintendent, Tommy Hill, brought six buffalo to the Park, and they have called the Park “home” ever since!

The herd is cared for by Park Rangers and by large animal veterinarians. This hardworking team makes sure that the herd’s diet is naturally supplemented and that they are cared for every day.

Wildlife, including beavers, deer, turtles, and different species of birds, can be observed in its natural environment. Although the park is surrounded by routes used by commuter traffic, smaller species can still find habitats large enough to survive.

In the modern-day park, traces of a settlement from the late 19th century can be found at the eastern tip of Shelby Farms park, consisting of ruins of a residential building, a disintegrated barn, car wrecks dating from the 1950s and 1960s, old fences and a family burial site.

In addition to the history, Shelby Farms offers a number of recreational activies, including horseback riding, disc golf course, hiking and biking trails, off-leash dog areas, and so much more.


For more information on all the fun there is at the park, check out our 5-Star Story.

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