Ringed by forest-covered hills and the nearby Great Smoky Mountains, Knoxville, Tennessee is situated to become your new favorite outdoorsy city, no matter what time of year. Spring welcomes the spectacular dogwood blooms, summer invites explorations of the city’s waterways, fall shimmers in tones of yellow, orange and red, and even winter beckons to those who appreciate crisp breezes. Here, the urban and the natural intermingle at every turn.
Whether you’re looking for an adrenaline spike or a quiet spot to take in the view, Knoxville has you covered. Here’s our guide to a perfect long weekend in the city’s great outdoors.
Morning: The centerpiece of Knoxville’s outdoor offerings is its Urban Wilderness, an impressive 1,000-acre area featuring forest preserves, city parks, mountain bike circuits, swimming holes and more. And the best part? It’s only four miles from downtown. Begin your adventure at the Ijams Nature Center, where you can snag a map detailing the 50+ miles of trails available for avid walkers and hikers. Trails vary in length and difficulty, providing options for every age and mobility capability. Keep an eye out for the area’s abundant plant and animal life as you meander through the forests; adorable mushrooms are a bonus.
Afternoon: After your hike, grab your swimsuit and head to nearby Meads Quarry Lake, where you can rent a kayak or paddleboard and enjoy an afternoon on the water. The quarry is backed by the cliffs that originally gave Knoxville its nickname, Marble City; a walk through downtown highlights many public buildings built with this very rock. A swimming area is also available for those who’d rather skip the vessel, as is a nice picnic area for landlubbers. In the summer, Yee-haw Brewing peddles beer from a small building next to the picnic tables.
Evening: After working up an appetite on the water, wander over to Knoxville’s open-air Market Square. This central spot is surrounded with atmospheric restaurants (with patios), and evenings draw musicians to the pavilion. Head to Oliver Royale for a satisfying dinner made with local sustainable and organic ingredients and a well-balanced cocktail – don’t miss the Shiny Knees, which features a decadent house-infused spiced gin.
Morning: Mountain biking in a city? Check! Baker Creek Preserve sits on the edge of South Knoxville, and it’s the perfect place to put tread to trail. Warm up at the Baker Creek Bike Park, a paved course designed to help you polish your skills. After some practice, head to the preserve’s five multi-use trails and three mountain bike downhill trails; difficulty ranges from beginner to expert.
Afternoon: Hungry? Snag some tacos from SoKno Taco Cantina, located just around the corner from Baker Creek – the carnitas taco really shines. After you eat your fill, make your way to the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum for a relaxing stroll through a showcase of the city’s native plants. In the spring, the garden explodes with dogwood blooms making for a fairytale visit. Fun fact: pink dashes along some of Knoxville’s roads indicate the Dogwood Arts Trails, the best routes for bloom viewing.
Evening: Now that you’ve recharged a bit beneath the trees, it’s time to round out the day’s adventures in them. Navitat offers a fantastic twist on outdoor ropes courses, stringing its “trails” within the canopy itself. Visit at night to explore the obstacles illuminated by the twinkle of fairy lights – you won’t know if you’re in Knoxville or Ferngully. Navitat offers several trails of varying difficulty; folks looking to stay close to the ground will enjoy the Fish and Water Trails, while those looking to test their strength and balance will love the Trees & Plants Trail.
Morning: Knoxville features a whopping 85 miles of paved greenway paths that wind along the banks of the Tennessee River and through the city’s neighborhoods and green spaces. Grab your bike, stroller and/or roller skates and enjoy any combination of scenic routes that loop past some of Knoxville’s most iconic sights and landscapes. Don’t skip the University of Tennessee Gardens, a carefully curated collection of flora that serves as a lovely backdrop for a picnic or plein-air painting session.
Afternoon: Little ones who have had enough of plant life will be overjoyed by the residents of Zoo Knoxville, a small but mighty establishment with a diverse collection of animals from all over the globe. The zoo is well regarded for its red panda breeding program, and construction is currently underway on a new, state-of-the-art Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Campus. The ARC will house some of the rarest turtles on the planet and feature an outdoor classroom and viewing area where visitors can watch herpetologists work with the reptiles. Say hello to Georgie, the zoo’s most friendly gibbon, and Big Al, an Aldabra Giant Tortoise estimated to be 120-150 years old.
Evening: Bid adieu to Knoxville with an evening paddle on the Tennessee River booked through the Knoxville Adventure Collective – kayaks, SUPs and hydrobikes are available for rent. Watch the sunset shimmer across the water’s surface and the city lights flick on for a peaceful conclusion to a long weekend of adventure.
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