Welcome to Tennessee. Everything you want is outside. The great outdoors is a playground, whether you seek awe-inspiring views or heart-pumping adventures. Hiking, biking, waterfall trails and wildlife viewing can all be found here. Read on for just some of the adventures you can have in Tennessee.
Climbers will find the craggy terrain of Tennessee to their liking. The Obed Wild and Scenic River, which is managed by the National Park Service, is home to more than 300 climbing routes covering a range of difficulties. There are others such as those at Castle Rock, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area and Stone Fort Bouldering, rated one of the best in the Southeast. You’ll have no trouble finding a climbing pathway to match your experience and skill level.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a natural jewel. The 522,427-acre (211,419-hectare) wonderland is the most visited national park in the U.S., notching more than 11.3 million visitors annually. (It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.) It’s easy to see why. A dazzling array of wildlife, including a healthy and growing black bear population. More than 1,600 species of flowering plants. A timbered, rugged landscape that opens to stunning vistas at nearly every turn. The park is laced by more than 700 miles (1,100km) of fish-harboring streams. Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee, rises within the park. Its 6,643-foot (2,025m) elevation can have you wearing a sweater on the warmest summer day. For a bit of solitude, hit one of the trails. A 5-mile (8km) round-trip hike from Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Cades Cove loop to Abrams Falls—named for a Cherokee chief—is a bucket list destination.
Waterskiing, wakeboarding & parasailing
Bring your boat, canoe, kayak or rent one. Waterskiers, wakeboarders and parasailers are welcome on Tennessee’s many federal and state lakes and reservoirs. Chickamauga Lake is one of the top lakes in the nation for bass fishing. Kentucky Lake is the state’s largest man-made lake. Norris Lake is the clearest and cleanest lake in the state. Waterskiing is a Tennessee summer staple. Cool off and have fun.
Tennessee is a land of flowing water, including more than 500 waterfalls. The highest and possibly best-known waterfall in the state is Fall Creek Falls, which plunges 256 feet (78m) within the state park of the same name. There are many more. Some are reached by an arduous hike; others a short stroll. One, Ruby Falls, is located underground, plunging 145 feet (44m) within Lookout Mountain, making it the largest underground waterfall in the U.S. Discover Jackson Falls from the Natchez Trace Parkway. Stop by Machine Falls near Tullahoma. Hear the roar of Twin Falls at Rock Island State Park and admire the interesting rock formations along the way.
If you like to boat, you’ve come to the right place. Tennessee has thousands of acres and miles of lakes, rivers and streams. Admire the wildlife around Center Hill Lake in the middle of the state. Head east to enjoy Nickajack Lake, where the world’s largest freshwater drum fish was caught, weighing in at more than 54 pounds (70kg). In West Tennessee, explore Pickwick Lake at Pickwick Landing State Park, where you can cool off at Dry Creek Cove.
Tennessee’s natural wonders extend below ground with more than 10,000 caves. That’s more than any other state. With so much subterranean territory to explore, where to start? Consider Craighead Caverns, a massive underground system near Sweetwater. Craighead Caverns also harbors the Lost Sea, the country’s largest underground lake. No one knows how deep the lake cavern plunges. See it for yourself. If you dare, explore the Bell Witch Cave near Adams, which is haunted by a ghostly story. Jackson Cave within Cedars of Lebanon State Park has its own mysteries. Bunkum Cave near Byrdstown is where Cordell Hull’s father made moonshine in the 19th century. Step beneath the surface and take a look.
Biking in Tennessee is as varied and challenging as the state’s terrain. Options abound regardless of locale, but don’t miss the Bikeways of the Scenic South that crisscross seven counties surrounding Chattanooga, winding through small towns and picturesque landscapes in the Sequatchie Valley and Three Rivers Way. Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness is also bike friendly. Our cityscapes welcome riders, too, with designated greenways and bike routes. Many state parks offer quiet biking trails, as does the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Dover.
The adrenaline rush of ziplining can be experienced throughout Tennessee. The bulk of the high-line excursion outfits are scattered throughout Middle and East Tennessee, where the topography lends itself to zipping through the air. Outfitters abound, including Adventure Park at Five Oaks in Sevierville, Go Ape Zipline & Treetop Adventure at Shelby Farms Park in Memphis and Adventureworks, with locations in Pigeon Forge and in Kingston Springs near Nashville. If you’ve never tried ziplining, buckle up and take the plunge. But be warned: Tennessee ziplining can be addictive. You’ll want to hang around awhile.
State & National Parks
Tennessee is rich with state parklands, home to the nation’s most visited national park and filled with other state and federal natural areas that await every outdoor enthusiast and adventurer. Explore on your own, join a group or experience a ranger or naturalist-led day, evening or overnight program.
The spotlight on whitewater rafting in Tennessee falls on three main rivers—the Ocoee, the Nolichucky and the Pigeon—all located in the eastern part of the state. The Ocoee was the host site for the 1996 Olympic canoeing slalom competition. Its Class IV runs are thrilling and unforgettable as is the rugged countryside through which the river flows. The same holds true for the Nolichucky River, located in the northeastern part of the state. The river was recently included in the International Rafting Federation’s Top 10 Best Rafting Rivers in the World for its Class III and IV rapids. The Pigeon River has rapids ranging from Class I to Class IV and was ranked No. 3 among the top whitewater rafting rivers in the nation. If you’re looking for a quieter paddling experience, Tennessee is also cut with creeks, streams and rivers that offer more placid floats but no less pleasant surroundings, including the 125-mile-long (200km), primarily Class I, free-flowing Buffalo River. Numerous outfitters offer trips on the popular river. Paddle on.
Hiking opens doors to nature accessible by no other route. Fortunately, Tennessee is laced with footpaths that lead to an infinite display of wonders. The Alum Cave Trail tops out at Mount LeConte, which, at about 6,400 feet (1,950m), is near the pinnacle of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Some hikes have monikers as colorful as the scenery they traverse, like the challenging Fiery Gizzard Trail at South Cumberland State Park in Monteagle. And don’t miss The Wandering Llamas near Greeneville, where hikers are accompanied by these curious and gentle pack animals on the Evergreen and Hobbit Creek trails.
Geocaching is a real-time outdoor treasure hunting game. Participants follow specific GPS coordinates to try to find the geocache, or container, hidden at a particular location. If you’re already a geocacher, you know the challenge and excitement. If not, you’re in luck: Tennessee is a geocaching destination. Check out the Tennessee Valley Geocachers or Middle Tennessee Geocachers Club to help you get started. There are tours in all corners of the state, such as the South Central Tennessee GeoTour and The Jack Trail GeoTour, as well as in all 56 state parks.
Color My World
You just can’t get away from it—scenic beauty is everywhere you look in Tennessee. But for some people who have color vision deficiency, that beauty is harder to behold.
Visitors with red-green color blindness are now able to enjoy fall’s brilliant changing leaves and spring’s beautiful blossoms, thanks to special viewfinders that were installed in late 2018 in 12 scenic locations around the state.
The viewfinders, which have innovative EnChroma® lenses designed to alleviate red-green color blindness for the more than 13 million Americans who suffer from protanopia and protanomaly, have opened up a whole new world for travelers who are unable to see all of the subtle hues and shades that color our surroundings.
Viewfinders can be found from Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park near Memphis to Ober Gatlinburg in the Smoky Mountains, South Cumberland State Park and Cherohala Skyway–Lake View Overlook.