Knoxville bears one of Tennessee’s most rich and varied histories. Settled in the late 18th century, it served as the state’s first capital city and played a key role in the Union Army’s success in the Civil War. Today, visitors can hike trails just minutes from downtown Knoxville to explore the area’s history, thanks in large part to the Knoxville Urban Wilderness initiative. Check out these 10 Knoxville-area hikes for a fascinating history lesson while you explore the great outdoors.
1. Fort Dickerson Park
Fort Dickerson is perhaps Knoxville’s most accessible historic hike, located just across the Tennessee River from downtown. Built in 1863 on the other side of what was then called the Holston River, Fort Dickerson was one of several forts built along the ridge to keep Confederate soldiers from bombarding the Federal army. This plan worked: when the Confederate cavalry tried to attack in November 1863, the steep terrain kept them from taking Fort Dickerson. Today, Fort Dickerson Park features three replica Civil War-era cannons, along with interpretive signs about the area’s history. Hike the one-mile out-and-back singletrack trail from either of the park’s two entrances. It’s steep in a few spots, and you can follow it to the Fort Dickerson Greenway, which heads to great views of the water along the edge of the rock quarry.
2. Tharp Trace
Just minutes from downtown Knoxville, the Ijams Nature Center is part of the Knoxville Urban Wilderness, which incorporates recreation with cultural and historic preservation. The Industrial Age-era Mead’s Quarry, a marble quarry on the National Register of Historic Places, today hikers can access Tharp Trace from the Mead's Quarry parking lot. At just over a mile, the trail is short and steep, and there’s a short spur that offers access to the Stanton Cemetery. The trail is named for Minnie Tharp, who advocated for restoration of the quarry.
3. Marble Springs State Historic Site
The home of John Sevier, Tennessee’s first governor, is accessible to the public. Sevier’s family took over the farmstead, named for its deposits of Tennessee Rose Marble, plus its six natural springs, sometime in the 1790s. The family sold the farm when Sevier died in 1815, though it continued to be operational until it was established as a state historic site in the mid-20th century. A smokehouse and loomhouse, along with the historic Walker Cabin and the original two-story pine log house, stand on the site. Visitors can hike the trails around the property free of charge, or sign on for regular tours and demonstrations, which give an excellent idea of what life on the farmstead was like in the 19th century.
4. Andrews Ridge Trail
Half an hour from Knoxville, Norris Dam State Park is the product of the Great Depression-era Tennessee Valley Authority’s earliest venture: the Norris Dam. Construction began in 1933 with the goal of bringing electricity and economic development to the area. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) also built 19 cabins, which today are on the National Register of Historic Places and available for overnight stays. The park is home to the Lenior Museum, which contains Southern Appalachian artifacts ranging in age from pre-historic to contemporary, plus the Rice Gristmill and Caleb Crosby Threshing Barn. The best history-filled hike here is the Andrews Ridge Trail, which is just under two miles each way and winds through the remnants of historic homesites from the area’s pre-dam days.
5. Ghost House Trail
Big Ridge State Park is nestled in the Appalachian Ridge and Valley Range, less than 30 miles north of Knoxville. The moderate, 1.2-mile loop starts near the park’s group campsite and ventures into the woods, where the Hutchinson family lived in the 1930s. The Norton Cemetery houses the grave of Maston Hutchinson, the family patriarch, who’s thought to be responsible for some of the strange occurrences along the trail. Visitors occasionally hear dogs barking when none appear to be present, and ghostly silhouettes are said to sometimes appear in photos taken at the cemetery. Head down the trail toward Big Valley, where you can see what’s left of the reportedly haunted Hutchinson home.
6. South Old Mac Trail
Just an hour outside the city, Frozen Head State Park was once part of a huge network of Cherokee hunting trails. The U.S. acquired the territory in 1805, and European settlers promptly arrived. The state of Tennessee bought the land at the tail end of the 19th century to establish Brushy Mountain State Prison, in hopes of using prisoners to mine coal, and in 1933, a huge portion of the land was set aside for Morgan State Forest. The CCC soon began constructing maintenance roads, and the South Old Mac Trail passes a shack they once used to store dynamite.
7. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
Cumberland Gap was long used by Native Americans and, eventually, early American settlers as they made their way through the mountains. The national park was established in 1940, and today, visitors can hike more than 80 miles of trail within the park’s boundaries. The Harlan Road Trail is just under half a mile each way and leads to the saddle of the historic gap, and the Fort Lyons Trail at Pinnacle Overlook leads to an old cannon. Visitors can also take a guided tour of the early 20th-century Hensley Settlement, which contains the still-standing buildings inhabited by the park’s former residents.
8. Porters Creek Trail
This four-mile out-and-back hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park follows its namesake creek through the woods to the base of a gorgeous waterfall. It’s what you see along the way, though, that makes Porters Creek really special: Just over a half-mile in, hikers pass the foundations and rock walls of the historic Elbert Cantrell farmstead, followed closely by the Ownby Cemetery. A spur trail one mile into the hike leads to the John Messer farm site, where you can still view the cantilevered barn built around 1875. The same site features a hut built by the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club in 1934. The Knoxville SMHC has conducted weekly hiking outings since 1924, and this cabin was in use until the early 1980s.
9. Old Settlers Trail
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to tons of historical buildings, many of them on the National Register of Historic Places. This smooth, nine-mile out-and-back trail leads to the Tyson McCarter Place, a homestead characteristic of the farms built in the area before Great Smoky Mountains was established as a national park in the 1930s. Park along the road, avoiding the gated entrance, or in the Steiner Bell Lodge parking lot. The trail is marked with distinctive OST signage and leads to several structures; though the house isn’t standing, visitors can still see McCarter’s barn, corn crib, and smokehouse. Its springhouse, an early version of the modern refrigerator, is the only structure of its kind in this part of the park.
10. Cades Cove Historic District
Cades Cove boasts the widest variety of historic buildings in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so it’s worth the trip—the whole area is on the National Register of Historic Places. Cherokee people once hunted in the region, though there’s no evidence of major settlements there. Europeans settlers, however, entered the area in the early 19th century, and by 1830, nearly 300 people lived in what’s now Cades Cove. Along the loop road, you’ll find three churches, several barns and log houses, a functional grist mill, and a variety of restored structures. The Abrams Falls Trail and Cades Cove Nature Trail offer a closer look and more information on the area’s history.
Originally written by RootsRated for Visit Knoxville.