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Outdoor Adventures Are Calling From Knoxville, TN

You don’t even have to leave the city to enjoy the great outdoors.

By Rebecca Treon on October 13, 2022

Knoxville has the nation’s most visited park, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, practically in its backyard, but there’s no need to go far if you’re looking to get into nature — there are tons of green spaces right in the city, offering a wealth of options for outdoor enthusiasts of every stripe. Best of all, there’s something to do in every season. From Tennessee’s mild winters to its temperate summers, any time is a good time to be outside.

One of the city’s standout destinations is the Urban Wilderness, a 1,000-acre corridor that runs along the Tennessee River, encompassing 50 miles of trails and greenways and five city parks. You can hike, climb and paddle within minutes of downtown Knoxville.

“We have these amazing resources right in the heart of town and we wanted to see everything we had differently, connect spaces and make access available to create a place that people want to live,” says Carol Evans, executive director of the Legacy Parks Foundation, a nonprofit responsible for the creation of the Urban Wilderness.

“We calculated that we have 1,000 acres of forest that’s literally 2 miles from downtown Knoxville, so we have created access and it’s become a real asset. You have a unique juxtaposition of urban and wilderness — you can be in the woods all day long and then be sitting on Market Square at a restaurant having a nice meal and a glass of wine 15 minutes later.”

In addition to parks and trails, the Urban Wilderness encompasses a nature center, lakes, quarries and 500 acres of wildlife area. And, if you’re in need of equipment or skills to take advantage of all the activities, there are local businesses that rent gear and organize classes and excursions.

“Knoxville previously didn’t have a really entrenched outdoor scene, but it had this great asset in the river that wasn’t being utilized,” says Jon Terry, owner at the Knoxville Adventure Collective. “The long-term benefit of getting people into the outdoors is that once people see how great it is, they don’t want to get out of it.”

Here are some ideas on where to go and what to do in and around Knoxville.

Walk This Way

There are plentiful greenways that link Knoxville together and offer residents places to walk, jog, run and cycle. Along the way, you’ll find playgrounds, splash pads, dog parks and dozens of community parks, including the Ashley Nicole Dream Playground, which has accessible equipment for kids of all abilities. World’s Fair Park includes a playground and a splash pad and hosts numerous events, festivals and concerts throughout the year.

“We’ve seen a very strong natural reinvention of areas of town with greenways,” says Evans. “People will say, ‘I want to live near a trail’ and there were a lot of young people and young families moving in and rehabbing older homes and starting businesses, and it all happened in a genuine, authentic, organic way.”

Dogwood Festival bicycle ride in Knoxville, TN
Andrew McMurtrie / Visit Knoxville

Happy Trails

With a network of more than 112 miles of trails crisscrossing the area, Knoxville is an epicenter of trails for residents to enjoy, from dirt and gravel paths to paved trails accessible to strollers, wheelchairs, bicycles and dogs.

Within the Urban Wilderness managed spaces, there are 11 trailhead destinations, offering unique and varied terrain with spectacular views. The popular Battlefield Loop at the William Hastie Natural Area, for instance, features two natural lakes, a pristine quarry and a bluff overlooking the University of Tennessee.

Minutes outside of Knoxville, you’ll find numerous state parks offering even more adventures. Big Ridge State Park features a wooded mountain lake, trails and a historic mill. Cove Lake State Park offers 717 acres of wetlands and forest.

As you get closer to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’ll find numerous hiking options, including kid-friendly trails, sweeping vistas and waterfalls.

Sleepaway Camp

Just minutes from Knoxville, you can be camping, glamping or RVing in nature’s glory. As the gateway to the Smokies, there are ample places just outside of the city and not yet inside the national park to set up camp.

State parks are an excellent resource for locating campgrounds, and there are several near Knoxville, including Norris Dam, Cove Lake, Hiwassee Ocoee Scenic River and Frozen Head, each offering different amenities, campground options and points of interest.

Play Ball

Knoxville has scores of city and county parks offering amenities like golf courses, disc golf, paved walking trails, playgrounds, picnic shelters with grills and more.

The city operates 20 ballfields available for practice or play, with fields for baseball and softball, soccer and football, as well as batting cages. Baseball/softball programs are available for youth and adults.

And you won’t need to leave your best friend at home. Knoxville has several dog parks that offer off-leash fun.

On the Rocks

Climbers will also find a bevy of opportunities to do their favorite sport. The Ijams Crag offers 33 routes that range from 30 to 60 feet and range from 5.6 to 5.13 in difficulty. With bolted routes for climbers of all abilities, the climbing area has a cliff line with moderate grades, solid rock and reliable access.

Meads Quarry in Knoxville, TN
Courtesy of Knoxville Chamber

Like a Duck in Water

Water lovers will find plenty to do as well. Knoxville has lakes, rivers and quarries where outdoorsy types can kayak, stand-up paddle board, float in a tube, white water raft, fish and swim.

“We (Knoxville Adventure Collective) offer equipment, classes and we will shuttle people upriver several miles so they can put in and float down, plus we organize group sunset floats,” says Terry. “Our goal was to get people out into the water and my perception was that once they were in, people didn’t want to get out.”

On a Roll

Knoxville has some of the most diverse biking trails in the southeast, with seven distinct systems and more than 65 miles of trails. The area’s byways offer everything from a relaxing ride with the kids to challenging singletrack and doubletrack trails on a variety of surfaces from paved to packed dirt to wooden walkways. Within the Urban Wilderness, there are three dedicated downhill trails that navigate through the trail system. A 12.5-mile loop takes riders through five destinations.

Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah

Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness features a zip lining park, too. At Ijams Nature Center, Navitat Canopy Experience offers six adventure trails ranging in skill level from easy to difficult. Using tree-based courses, each trail has various adventure elements, including zip lines, bridges, tunnels, balancing challenges, rolling barrels and climbing nets to give visitors a range of exciting options.

“You can access the outdoors so easily here — you can go play after work. You can go play before work. You can go on a hike on your lunch hour,” says Evans. “That makes it so popular for residents and visitors, and it’s just incredible to see what it’s become.

This article was sponsored by the Knoxville Chamber. Learn more about the amazing quality of life Knoxville offers at LifeRedfined.com.

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