Knoxville’s location hasn’t changed, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t evolved. Once the capital of Tennessee, Knoxville grew into a railroad and manufacturing hub in the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s perhaps best known as the home of the University of Tennessee. But in the 21st century, the growing city has developed a new identity, tied into the fact that it serves as a gateway to some of the best outdoor adventure in the eastern United States.
While Knoxville isn’t the only town in the southern Appalachian region that’s known for its world-class hiking, paddling, mountain biking, and other outdoor pursuits, it may be the biggest city to have so many experiences close to town. It’s surrounded by mountains, with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the east and south and The Cumberland Plateau to the north and west. It’s also got all the amenities of a larger city—breweries, art galleries, cafes, and restaurants—that make it a destination on its own.
For anyone looking to pair a day outdoors on the trails with a night celebrating over an excellent meal and locally brewed beer, it’s tough to come up with a better option than Knoxville. Here are just some of the ways you can enjoy a trip to this scenic spot in eastern Tennessee.
Perhaps no other city in the eastern United States has embraced mountain biking like Knoxville. You certainly won’t find many other in-town riding options like Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness, which has served as a model for other cities to follow. With more than a hundred miles of trails within 20 to 30 minutes of downtown, Knoxville has everything from beginner trails to double black diamond gravity trails. You’ll find some of the best public trails in the country here. The main areas for mountain biking are south of town around Baker’s Creek, Ijams Nature Center, and a few surrounding areas that are all accessible by trail. To the north of the city, Sharp’s Ridge is another great option, especially since it tends to dry out quicker than the southern trails.
On the Water
Off-trail, downtown Knoxville borders the Tennessee River, which is formed just a mile upstream of town where the Holston and the French Broad converge at the Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area. From several launches and takeouts, you can develop your own canoe or kayak adventure. Rent stand-up paddleboards from Billy Lush Paddle Shop right on the river and explore steep granite bluffs, historic bridges, and Knoxville’s waterfront.
Speaking of water, the fishing is pretty hard to beat, too. The Bassmaster Classic was held in Knoxville in early Spring of 2019, in no small part because of the excellent fishing opportunities right in town. Whether you want to fish the Holston for trout, the French Broad for smallmouth, or the Tennessee River for largemouth and legendary catfish.
Hiking is in no short supply in Knoxville. House Mountain State Park east of town gives you a chance to reach Knox County’s highest peak, while hiking-only trails around the Urban Wilderness give you options within minutes of downtown. Around Mead’s Quarry, you can set out to hike or bike, and then rent a paddleboard to cool off in the clear, flooded Quarry area right next to the parking lot. In the summer months, East Tennessee-based brewery Yee Haw sets up a trailer to provide fresh beer on draft. And, of course, you’re less than an hour away from the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and the hundreds of miles of trails to explore there.
How many cities can boast outdoor climbing without leaving town? In Knoxville, the Ijams Crag in the Urban Wilderness has become a top destination for rock climbers across the Southeast. There you’ll find 33 different routes ranging from 30 to 50 feet high and rated in difficulty between 5.6 and 5.13. For sport climbers, there are bolted routes for all levels of ability.
If going up sounds like too much work, let gravity be your friend on a ziplining adventure in the Urban Wilderness. The Navitat Canopy Adventure features six different elevated trails—that is, above the ground among the trees. Easier trails are closer to the ground (10-15 feet) while the more challenging routes reach as high as 60 feet. Along each path, you’ll find a variety of obstacles, including bridges, elevated tunnels, climbing nets, and rolling barrels, plus the signature ziplines. You can even do it at night. There may not be a more fun way to explore the Urban Wilderness.
When you’re done enjoying the day’s pursuit, you have lots of choices when it comes to relaxing and enjoying Knoxville’s culture. Knoxville has a hometown feel and an authentic culture that developed from the people who live, work, and play here.
Gay Street and Market Square are some of the most popular hotspots for beer, Appalachian cuisine, and live music throughout the warmer months. From there, you can head to the Old City and north side of town to find local breweries like Balter Beerworks, Crafty Bastard, and the German-inspired Schulz Brau Brewing Company, to name a few. If the day is too nice to enjoy inside, try hitting up Central Filling Station, an old gas station turned into an outdoor bar with a daily rotation of several food trucks and local beers.
No matter what direction you go, Knoxville has adventure waiting for you—and you won’t have to face crowds of tourists to enjoy some of the best biking, hiking, and paddling that the South has to offer.
Written by Charlie Morgan for Matcha in partnership with Visit Knoxville.