10 Best Parks and Outdoor Recreation Areas in the Knoxville Area
By Amber Nolan
The city of Knoxville is becoming a nature-lovers paradise as it continues to launch more public projects to increase the number of acres dedicated to preserving the land. Visitors to Knoxville will find 81 parks within the city limits, and the surrounding area features world-famous outdoor attractions, like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, or -- slightly more under the radar-- the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park.
The city of Knoxville's most iconic park is the World's Fair Park, home to an amphitheater, Sunsphere, and giant, playful water fountains. There's always something going on down at Ijams Nature Center, part of Knoxville's Urban Wilderness, a 1,000-acre park system with plenty of trails. Pet lovers can bring their dogs to Concord Park, one of many pet-friendly parks that are great for human's too! Visitors can take a stroll along the waterfront at Volunteer Landing, or for another scenic vista, head to Sharp's Ridge around sunset for some unbelievable photo opportunities.
For a weekend break out of the city (without quite as many crowds), Big Ridge State Park and the Cherokee National Forest are two alternatives to the big-name national parks. Mountain biking, hiking, swimming, tennis, golf and wildlife viewing are just a few of the many activities available in and around Knoxville.
So, pack the picnic basket and head to one of these top 10 parks in the Knoxville area.
In West Knoxville, just along the riverfront, this sprawling, 87-acre park is situated in a quiet, residential neighborhood. The park has three different entrances, as well as three baseball/softball fields and numerous jogging trails. A 1,000-year old Indian mound can be found and the surrounding suburban neighborhood is full of 1920s historic homes. The park also features two blueways, concession stands, and picnic tables and is peaceful place to relax away from the typical tourist trail. It is especially scenic in the fall. The nearby Whitlow Logan Park also offers basketball, tennis, and a playground and Talahi Park offers a beautiful fountain. (865-584-6403)
Big Ridge State Park
This under-the-radar gem is located about a 30-minute drive from Knoxville. While the Great Smoky Mountains National Park hogs the spotlight, the Big Ridge State Park is a quieter alternative for campers. The 3,687-acre park is located in the Appalachian Ridge and Valley Range, with more than 15 miles of hiking trails ranging from easy to extremely rugged. There are 50 campsites surrounding Norris Lake, a sandy beach next to Big Ridge Lake, volleyball, tennis courts, horseshoe pits, a basketball court and a softball field. A number of historic log cabins, cemeteries, and houses can be found throughout the park. ((865) 992-5523)
World's Fair Park
Knoxville was the host of the 1982 World's Fair that drew 11 million people, making it the last successful World's Fair. Decades later, the area where the fair was held is still a top draw for visitors. Attractions include The Candy Factory, a conglomeration of Victorian homes hosting arts and crafts shops, and Fort Kid, which is a large playground. The world-class Knoxville Museum of Art is also located here, as is the memorable symbol of the World's Fair, the 26-story Sunsphere. Take the elevator up for sweeping views of the city and the amphitheater below. It's a good choice for a first stop in the city to help visitors get their bearings. (865-523-4227, 800-727-8045)
Cherokee National Forest
Located 50 miles southeast of Knoxville, this vast 625,000-acre national forest offers great outdoor opportunities to people for miles around. It is the largest tract of public land in Tennessee and adjoins other national forests in Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. This is a hikers and photographer's paradise, with more than 105 well-marked trails that lead to some incredible vistas. Trails are also available for horseback riders and mountain bikers. Visitors may camp in tents or several cabins, or hunt, swim fish, and pan for gold. In the winter it is virtually untouched, making it ideal for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. (423-476-9700)
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
This historic park covers 21,000 acres, making it the largest National Historic Park in the country. Located 60 miles north of downtown, this is still a popular destination because of its numerous offerings, such as scenic picnic areas and trails for running, biking, and horseback riding. This park also features numerous examples of Native American history. The famous mile-long tunnel through a mountain, which must be traversed to reach the park, is a thrill for the kids and adults alike. At the Hensley Settlement, visitors can wander down fence-lined lanes, peek into the blacksmith's shop, or sit in the one room school. (423-248-5766, 606-248-2817)
Volunteer Landing Park
This 3-acre, paved waterfront park on the banks of the Tennessee River is a picturesque stroll past the Three River Rambler near Calhoun's restaurant (which serves amazing barbecue). Kids will love the small playground and splashing in several of the fountains or behind the man-made waterfall (you can see right through it). Pack a picnic lunch - tables are available - as well as a concession stand, restrooms, and fishing docks. Both the Neyland and James White Greenways connect to Volunteer Park, and the Blount Mansion is just steps away - making this a perfect way to spend a day outdoors. (865-633-5004)
Pet Safe Concord
As one of Knoxville's newest dog-friendly parks, Concord features water fountains for pets, four acres for them to play, and even a dog shower. There's also a dock and idyllic boat marina, restrooms, picnic areas and plenty of space for a leisurely walk or your favorite athletic pursuit. Tennis courts, roller hockey, a playground for the kids, an outdoor swimming pool, and 9.4 miles of trails for running or in-line skating let you enjoy 500 acres of Tennessee's great outdoors. There's also a beautiful cove and swimming area, and par 3 golf course that offers camps and clinics for kids, as well as a convenient golf clubhouse. ((865) 777-3647)
This 111-acre park boasts the highest elevation point in Knoxville and is located just 10 minutes outside of downtown. Views of the mountains and skyline make this a peaceful place to meditate, read a book, birdwatch, or just soak it all in. The memorial park offers a large observation deck from which it is said you can view the most beautiful sunset in America. A multi-use trail runs a three-mile loop with the bottom leading to a picnic area. Parking is available on the lower part of the trail, at the overlook, or the very top. There are no restrooms.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
This is the most visited national park in the country, and one glimpse at it lets you know why. The park includes more than 520,000 acres, 735 miles of streams, and 800 miles of some of the most scenic hiking and biking trails in the world. The peaks reach over 6,000 feet, providing unforgettable scenic vistas and several visitor centers are scattered throughout the park. Located less than an hour from Knoxville, pack a picnic lunch and spend the day. Activities include fishing, horseback riding, camping, ranger-led programs, and wildlife viewing. Black bear, white-tailed deer, and elk are just a few animals that live in the park. (865-436-1200)
Knoxville's Urban Wilderness
This 1,000-acre, trail-blazing project is helping to define Knoxville as a cultural center for outdoor enthusiasts. Located three miles from downtown, this dedicated area is perfect for hikers, bicyclists, dog-walkers, and those seeking a quiet reprieve from the city. The South Loop contains 42 acres of trails, including the Will Skelton Greenway (partially paved) that runs along the river to the Downtown Island airport. The main loop connects Ijams Nature Center (a hub for outdoor activities), Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area, Anderson School Trails, William Hastie Natural Area, and Marie Myers Park - so there are plenty of opportunities to explore. (865.525.2585)
About Amber Nolan
Originally from upstate New York, this restless traveler has a knack for befriending interesting characters. You can usually find her just about anywhere that has a hammock. Amber's favorite places are Iceland for its remoteness; Panama for its parties; and Peru for its history. Her work can be found on MSNBC.com, Frommers, and Sherman’s Travel, where she served as the Cruise Editor and Senior Producer. She is currently working on a comic novel about her shoestring travels as she hitchhikes on airplanes across the country in an effort to visit all 50 states. See Jethiking.com.
Read more about Amber Nolan here.