Avoid the national park crowds and explore these underrated gems in the Volunteer State
The Great Smoky Mountains are popular for a reason. The range features one of the most stunning stretches of Appalachia with big opportunities for adventure. But it also draws big crowds. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited in the country, and visitors also flock to nearby tourist towns Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. But Tennessee also has plenty of terrain less traveled. To help you find it, a local adventurer shares her favorite spots.
Martha Sundquist State Forest
Nestled close to the Tennessee-North Carolina border and just a few miles from the northern end of the Smokies is a hidden natural gem of mature mountain and cove hardwoods perfect for family camping and hiking. The 2,000 acres that comprise the Martha Sundquist State Forest have accessible, well-maintained campsites available on a first-come first-serve basis. For an immersive natural experience in the only Tennessee state forest in the Blue Ridge region, set up camp by the water and hike the Tennessee Gulf Trail, an easy 3.5-mile footpath in the forest.
Frozen Head State Park & Natural Area
One of the most scenic areas in the Tennessee State Parks system, Frozen Head is a camping enthusiast’s dream spot. There are 20 primitive campsites with access to over 50 miles of pristine, unspoiled mountain trails that lead you to gorges, rock outcrops, watering holes, and a fire tower with views as far as the Smokies. For a backcountry experience, pitch your tent at one of the nine sites spread around the 24,000 acres that make up the park. Reservations are required.
The Cumberland Trail
The Cumberland Trail will be on the radar of many long-distance hikers when complete, extending about 300 miles from its northern terminus in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park in Kentucky to its southern terminus at the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park located just outside Chattanooga. The scenic footpath follows a line of high ridges and deep gorges along or near the rugged, eastern edge of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau. The trail is wild and sometimes very remote, with access points to popular spots that allow for day hiking opportunities like no other in the state. Scenic views, waterfalls, landscapes, gorges, wildlife, and widely varying flora are plentiful, and the crowds? Nonexistent.
Honey Creek Loop Trail
Lush and tropical, the Honey Creek Loop is an other-worldly trail deep in the Big South Fork State National River & Recreation Area. In just 4.5 miles with less than 1,000 feet of elevation gain, you’ll question whether you’re really in Tennessee when you hike through sheer rock walls, traverse through flowing water canyons, and enter and exit the woods near the river.
BY THE WATER
Kayak to the base of Burgess Falls
The Burgess Falls is a cascade waterfall on the Falling Water River located within Burgess Falls State Park in middle Tennessee. The waterfall spills approximately 130 feet into a large limestone gorge enclosed by sheer 100-200-foot walls. While hiking to the falls is a great experience, there’s no better way to truly capture its magic than by paddling straight to the base of the waterfall. If you don’t have your own gear, you can rent or go on a guided kayaking experience with Cumberland Kayak and Adventure Company. From their meetup point, it’s an easy drive to the Cane Hollow Recreation Area, where the easy flatwater paddle to the falls begins.
Paint Mountain is home to some of the most remote mountain biking trails in Tennessee. You can access well-known spots on the trails, including the famous horseshoe viewpoint of the French Broad River, through singletrack or gravel roads up to the Lone Pine Gap and Paint Rock trailheads. Either way, be prepared for a lot of climbing, incredible views, and some of the best technical backcountry downhills in the state.
Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness
Fifteen years ago the outdoor scene in Knoxville was mainly farmland at the outskirts of town, but today the home base of the University of Tennessee Volunteers is a thriving adventure hub for anyone who enjoys spending time hiking, running, paddling, swimming, or cycling. Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness is a mountain biker’s dream destination, with everything from fast and flowy trails in Baker Creek Preserve to old-school downhill or cross-country trails in the William Hastie Natural Area. The network of over 60 miles of trails has something for riders of all abilities. Check out the AMBC website to review trail conditions before planning a ride.
Cover photo: Kayaking to Burgess Falls. Photo by the author.