Knoxville has always boasted a perfect location, along the Tennessee River in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Lately, it has focused on welcoming new trail systems within the city limits.
“In the past decade, the outdoors has started to color the character of the city,” says lifelong East Tennessee resident Nick Waller of River Sports Outfitters. “Every year we’re getting more places to play within minutes from downtown.”
In town, there’s plenty happening, between the University of Tennessee college scene and the bustling bars and restaurants in the Old City or Market Square. When a proper escape is calling, Knoxville sits an hour northwest of the vast Great Smoky Mountains National Park and an hour southeast from the more remote Big South Fork National Recreation Area.
“You see plenty of Volunteer orange, but this city isn’t defined by the college,” adds Waller. “There’s plenty of culture, and the best part is I can be on any kind of water or trail that I want without spending a day in the car.”
Waller’s Outdoor Picks:
There’s obviously no shortage of great backpacking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But Waller likes to head to the underutilized Virgin Falls State Natural Area adjacent to the Centennial Wilderness Area. The area’s 10-mile backpacking loop has it all: waterfalls, caves, swimming holes, and isolated camping for a quiet night in the woods.
Town Day Hike
Just eight miles east of downtown, the 500-acre House Mountain Natural Area has four miles of trails for a fast urban escape. It features wildflowers, amazing views, two good lookouts, and some nice climbs.
Trail Running by the River
For a fast local trail running fix, IC King Park in South Knoxville has approximately 10 miles of trails on the shores of the Tennessee River, less than 10 minutes from downtown.
Mountain bikers head to Haw Ridge Park in Oak Ridge for nearly 20 miles of technical singletrack. The hard-working Appalachian Mountain Bike Club is also developing the new 15-mile Dirty South loop just five minutes from downtown, around the wooded sanctuaries of the Ijams Nature Center and the newly protected Ross Marble Natural Area.
Big Water on the Little River
Just outside of Townsend—30 minutes southeast of Knoxville—the Little River offers three sections for variable levels of whitewater action. Keep it mellow with the seven-mile class II-III upper stretch from Elkmont Bridge to the Sinks—a popular swimming area with deep gorge-shrouded pools. You can also try the wild class III-IV action on the Sinks to Elbow middle section.