The ups and downs of Tennessee make it an outdoor recreation destination.
The landscape of Tennessee is so distinctly diverse, it is honored on the official state flag. The three stars on the flag represent the state’s trio of geographical (and geological) divisions: mountains in the east, the rolling hills of the Cumberland Plateau in the middle, and the fertile lowlands leading to the Mississippi River in the west.
As a result of this topographic transition, the variety of outdoor recreational activities offered in Tennessee is as wide as the state itself. These range from adventure sports, such as whitewater rafting and rock climbing, to more laid-back pursuits like fishing or simply taking in the splendid scenery.
“We have all kinds of different ecosystems in communities throughout the state that provide a variety of outdoor recreational experiences,â€ says Mike Robertson, director of operations for Tennessee State Parks. “That gives us a lot of different opportunities to introduce people to the natural environment we have here.”
The parks are a great place to start.
Tennessee’s 56 state parks and 85 state natural areas offer more than 1,300 miles of trails and 80 waterfalls. In addition, Tennessee is home to one of the nation’s grandest outdoor attractions in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which spreads out over 522,000 majestic acres and welcomed more than 12.5 million visitors in 2019.
But Robertson says natural beauty – and the accompanying activities – can be found throughout Tennessee. One of the newer examples is Rocky Fork State Park in Erwin, which was established in 2012. At an elevation of more than 4,000 feet, it is the highest state park in Tennessee, providing picturesque visuals as well as a stream that is popular for trout fishing.
Other highlights include South Cumberland State Park for hiking and backcountry camping; the Wolf River Valley region for paddling and biking; Reelfoot Lake State Park in western Tennessee for fishing and bird-watching; and the Tennessee River Valley, which runs through the heart of the state and includes millions of acres of public land and hundreds of miles of waterways.
“Those all provide great opportunities for people to enjoy Tennessee’s nature,â€ Robertson says.
A Spirit of Adventure
For people interested in reaching the (rocky) top of outdoor recreation adrenaline, Tennessee provides numerous opportunities for adventure tourism. These include ziplining in the Great Smoky Mountains, rock climbing and rappelling around Chattanooga, which Climbing magazine named “America’s New Climbing Capital,â€ and cave dwelling at Tuckaleechee Caverns, a 5-star AAA attraction that features 150-foot-deep openings and a 210-foot underground waterfall.
One of the most popular adventure activities in Tennessee is whitewater rafting, especially along the Ocoee River. In addition to all the canoers and kayakers who flood the state’s numerous waterways, approximately 200,000 people tackle the Ocoee’s rousing rapids every year.
“One thing that’s really nice about the Ocoee is it follows the road (Highway 64, aka the Ocoee Scenic Byway), so that provides a level of safety and convenience,â€ says Ryan Cooke, owner of Ocoee Inn Rafting and president of the Ocoee River Outfitters Association. “And then the mountains that surround the river are just great. It’s a beautiful area to raft.”
There are 23 official whitewater outfitters along the Ocoee River. Most of the action takes place along the Middle Ocoee, which offers an exhilarating ride but is certainly manageable with a guide. More relaxing rafting trips are available nearby on the Hiwassee River and the Pigeon River, while many experienced rafters prefer the intensity and technical challenges of the Upper Ocoee, which is demanding enough that it was the site for the kayak events in the 1996 Summer Olympics.
“There’s a river available around here to raft on for everyone, regardless of your age or level of experience,â€ Cooke says. “There are a number of outfitters that handle large groups, and others where you have just three customers for every guide. So you can usually find anything that you’re looking for.”
That can be said about outdoor recreation in general in Tennessee. After all, it’s in the stars.
Recreation opportunities in Tennessee don’t just stop at its parks and rivers. One unique option available to residents is The Block, one of the largest climbing complexes in the United States. Located in Chattanooga, this state-of-the-art, 28,000-square-foot climbing and bouldering gym opened in 2013 and includes an 11,000-square-foot dual art piece and climbing wall on the building’s Broad Street faÃ§ade – many of the climbing walls are found on the outside of the building, while the inside also includes an obstacle course.