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Here’s Why Thrill Seekers Love Tennessee

The outdoor attractions and activities here are as long and wide as the state itself.

By Cary Estes on July 26, 2022

Ziplining in the Smoky Mountains of Gatlinburg is one of the many great outdoor activities in Tennessee.
CLIMB Works Smoky Mountains

Finding outdoor activities in Tennessee isn’t a problem. The issue is deciding which one of the numerous outdoor activities to do next.

“It all depends on what part of the state you’re in,” says Victor Wilson, a pharmaceutical rep and real estate agent from Nashville. “On the western side of Tennessee, you have the Mississippi River. In middle Tennessee you have numerous massive waterfalls. Around Chattanooga you have rock climbing and whitewater rafting. And then, of course, you have the Great Smoky Mountains.”

Indeed, the outdoor activities in Tennessee are plentiful across the 440-mile-wide state. Want to travel along one of the most famous rivers in the world? It doesn’t get much better than the mighty Mississippi from Memphis northward. Looking for Olympic-caliber whitewater rafting? The Ocoee River has it. Interested in rock climbing? Some of the country’s best can be found just outside Chattanooga.

Hiking? Mountain biking? Horseback riding? Yes, yes and yes. The state is filled with natural beauty and attractions, many of which are bringing new economic opportunities to some of the more rural areas of the state.

“There are just a lot of places to choose from,” says Jamie Smith, a middle-school administrator in Dayton, TN, located approximately 40 miles north of Chattanooga. “And there’s an amazing assortment of almost any outdoor activity that you’d like to do.”

Blue Bank Resort on Reelfoot Lake
Jeff Adkins

Pristine Parks in Tennessee

Tennessee’s most popular attraction is Great Smoky Mountains National Park (which the state shares with North Carolina). In 2021, more than 14 million people visited the park, enticed by both the breathtaking beauty and the outdoor activities.

But there are plenty of other amazing outdoor activities in Tennessee. The state has 11 additional national parks, along with a total of 141 state parks and natural areas that, combined, offer more than 1,300 miles of trails.

“It’s amazing the number of state parks we have, and they’re all free (to enter). The state park system in Tennessee is just incredible.”

Victor Wilson, Nashville resident

These parks can be found literally in all corners of Tennessee. One of Wilson’s favorite out-of-the-way spots is 15,000-acre Reelfoot Lake State Park, just a few miles from the Mississippi River near the Missouri and Kentucky borders. Visitors can paddle among cypress trees in this flooded forest, which also is home to a number of bald eagles.

On the opposite end of the state, Smith recently discovered 2,000-acre Roan Mountain State Park in the northeastern corner near North Carolina. The Doe River winds through the middle of the park’s hardwood forest, providing a picturesque location for kayaking and trout fishing.

Whitewater rafting in Tennessee
Jeff Adkins

The Waters Are Wild in Tennessee

Water seemingly is everywhere in Tennessee, with more than 60,000 miles of rivers and approximately 1,400 lakes. The rapids of the Ocoee River are a big draw, attracting nearly 250,000 rafters and kayakers each year.

There are approximately two dozen official whitewater outfitters along the Ocoee and nearby rivers. Relaxing raft trips are available on the Hiwassee River and the Pigeon River, while the truly adventurous can tackle the intensity of the Upper Ocoee, which is demanding enough that it was the site of the kayak events during the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics.

Bald River Falls along the Cherohala Skyway in Tennessee
Misty Wong

Fall in Love with Tennessee

Meanwhile, closer to the central part of the state, the Cumberland Plateau area between Nashville and Knoxville is filled with many of Tennessee’s more than 500 waterfalls. The highlight (emphasis on high) is Fall Creek Falls, which at 256 feet has the longest single plunge of any waterfall east of the Mississippi River.

“I love the waterfalls,” Wilson says. “People think you want to go in the summer when it’s hot, but there’s less rain and less water that time of year, so they’re not as dramatic. Go in the winter and the waterfalls will be gushing.”

Smith agrees that the waterfalls are among the best outdoor activities in Tennessee. “You can be driving along, and maybe 50 feet off the road there will be a waterfall,” Smith says. “If you like scenery, you can find plenty of it in Tennessee.”

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