From the 50 miles of trails at the Urban Wilderness to the 85 miles of paved greenways along the city’s rivers and ridges, Knoxville, Tennessee is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. There are waterfalls, a solid microbrewery scene, a dynamic climbing scene, and miles of mountains. Knoxville also has a vibrant, historic downtown, and happens to be quite walkable, too. The city is perfectly situated location close to both the Smoky Mountains and Cherokee National Forest, so every possible outdoor activity is within a short drive. Whether you prefer adventuring on your feet, up and down rock rock walls or rivers, or on two or four wheels, there’s an adventure (and a microbrew) ready to be savored. Here are a few of our favorite excursions both in and near Knoxville.
1. The Urban Wilderness
Believe it or not, just three miles from downtown along the South Waterfront, you’ll find 1,000 acres of forested wilderness. With the 42-mile network of trails known as the South Loop Trails, the Urban Wilderness is an easy escape from the city for hikers, mountain bikers, or anyone who just wants to take a leisurely stroll through nature without having to venture too far from town. There are several sections of the park, offering different scenery throughout. The main South Loop Trail is 12.5 miles, connecting to secondary trails and several other natural areas for another 30 miles of trails. The 100-acre Baker Creek Preserve was recently added onto the Urban Wilderness, with 7.1 miles of mountain biking trails, including an expert downhill track.
The last section, the Battlefield Loop, is a work in progress that will eventually include three Civil War forts and a battle site.
Within the wilderness, you can find giant sycamore trees, wildlife management areas, the turquoise waters of Mead’s Quarry Lake, a historic cemetery, and even a rock bridge. If you’re visiting and would like to rent a bike—or would like to rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard to get on the water, swing by Ijams Nature Center (you can get there from the South Loop Trail).
2. Visit Nearby Waterfalls
Everyone appreciates a good waterfall. Within an arm’s reach of Knoxville (well, almost) are five of Eastern Tennessee’s most beautiful waterfalls. If you’re game for a strenuous 8-mile hike, Ramsey Cascades is calling your name. The trail is, at times, steep, but the 100-foot falls are a reward that is totally worth the effort. Abrams Falls—which are only 20 feet high, but have a wild volume of water pouring over their edge—are one of the most popular falls in the park, being that it’s a mild 2.5-mile hike. If you’d prefer falls that you can access via car, Bald River Falls are visible from the road *and *have a nearby trail for those who’d like to venture on foot.
3. Partake in the Local Climbing
If you’re new to climbing but looking to get your feet wet (or hands chalked), get some practice in at Knoxville’s newest rock-climbing gym, Onsight. The gym was built *by *climbers *for *climbers and is a world-class facility, though the owners *want *you to get outside. Beyond the indoor climbing courses, they’ve created programs that help new climbers move from inside to outside. If you already have experience climbing outdoors, Obed is for you. Del and Marte’s Lilly Pad Campground is a “mecca” for outdoor climbers (and kayakers and campers, too). Climbers camp at the Lilly Pad and head to Obed’s sandstone cliffs nearby. With more than 1,000 routes, Obed has, arguably, some of the best sport climbing in this part of the country. There are some great boulder problems worth getting on here, too.
4. Take a Field Trip to the Smokies
The gateway to Great Smoky Mountain National Park is just a little over an hour southeast of Knoxville. The northern edge of the Smokies surrounding Gatlinburg is the easiest section of the park to reach from Knoxville, and has plenty to explore. In this area you’ll find short trails like Laurel Falls, Metcalf Bottoms, Cucumber Gap, and Jakes Creek. East of Gatlinburg you’ll find the trailhead for the longer Ramsey Cascades and Porters Creek Trails, which, in the spring, have the best wildflower display in the park. Whether you prefer a leisurely or a strenuous hike, or even scenic drives, the Smokies puts it all at your fingertips.
5. Outdoor Clubs and Resources
Whether you’re new to town and looking for an outdoorsy community, or you’re already part of the Knoxville community and looking for like-minded adventurers, there are many local organizations that can help you polish your passions or learn new ones altogether. Knoxville on the Water is a great group for more than water—they organize local excursions and meetups both on and off the water, and you can join day trips and bigger adventures ranging from flatwater paddling to biking the greenways. If biking is your outdoor activity of choice, the Appalachian Mountain Biking Club is behind many of Knoxville’s singletrack trails, while also encouraging sustainable trail usage. The Smoky Mountains Hiking Club plan weekly hikes and trail maintenance outings in the Smokies and other nearby areas.
No matter what activity is your forte, there is a Knoxville club eager to welcome you to the fine city.
6. Have a Beer to Rinse Down the Adventure
We all know a cold draft or two can be one of the best parts of a good adventure. It feels like a reward for doing something you love (albeit often a strenuous challenge). And, many of us love a good pint, so it’s like a double reward. Along with the outdoor recreation, Knoxville’s beer scene is growing. We put together a bike-to-bar guide for the city, taking you to some of the city’s finest watering holes like Crafty Bastard Brewery, Knox Whiskey Works, and to the Trailhead Beer Market. A historic building that was a barbershop in 1945, the now-revitalized bar and beer market is right next door to the Urban Wilderness, beckoning trail visitors to have a craft beer-on-tap or bottle after their urban adventures.
If beer isn’t your drink of choice after a long day of adventuring, try the Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain on Gay Street. This blast from the past has an actual pharmacy, but also offers ice cream sundaes and real, old-fashioned fountain sodas (they make their own soda syrups).
Written by Ashley Halligan for RootsRated in partnership with BCBS of Tennessee.
Featured image provided by Alan Cressler