As the weather warms up, it’s hard to make excuses for not getting up off the couch and getting outdoors. Personally, I’ve explored the Smoky Mountains and other Tennessee State Parks, but I often neglect the local trails just a few minutes down the road. The mountain trails have a special place in my heart, but they are a day trip away. Fortunately, Knox County has beautiful trails that are easily accessible. Ijams Nature Center—as well as other greenways, urban parks, and county parks—offer trails of varying lengths and difficulties. Getting outside has never been easier—you don’t even have to groan about following the driver in front of you who is lollygagging through Cades Cove.
In addition to easy trail access, one of the best aspects of hiking and walking in Knox County is that it doesn’t require any fancy, expensive equipment beyond a good pair of shoes. Experts like Rosemary Marshall, East Tennessee Chapter Representative of Tennessee Trails Association, and Kathryn King, Vice President of East Tennessee Wanderers, recommend visiting local outfitters such as REI and River Sports Outfitters to be fitted for hiking/walking shoes. Having the proper footwear is important for preventing blisters and foot discomfort. These outfitters will determine the best options for you based on your outdoor activity.
Hikers and walkers will also need sun protection during certain hours. King recommends starting around 9 or 10 a.m. “[It’s] early enough to get moving before the heat of the day, but not so early that you’ll need a nap when you get home.” She also recommends investing in trekking poles for hikers because the poles relieve stress on the knees.
For a beginner, trail information and maps can be quite overwhelming. There are many great resources out there such as the Tennessee Trails Association, Foothill Striders, and the East Tennessee Wanderers. These organizations are a great place to start and offer group hikes several times a month.
Marshall has been actively hiking in the area for 25 years. When discussing trails with a prospective hiker, she begins by describing some of the most popular Knoxville hikes, such as Ijams Nature Center and House Mountain.
“Trails vary in length, elevation gains and descents, historical content, and many more factors,” she says. “No two trails are the same.”
Ijams Nature Center
In the 1960s, several Knoxville organizations worked to turn the 300-acre property into Ijams Nature Center. Containing 12 miles of trails, a local nature center, and seasonal paddling rentals, Ijams is a popular spot for walkers and hikers. It’s family and dog friendly, with trails winding around the Tennessee River and Meads Quarry Lake. The trails are moderate to easy and the Boardwalk Trail is highly recommend by staffers. “In the summer, the sunflowers to the adjacent Forks of the River Wildlife Management Center are a must see,” King says.
Located about 30 minutes from downtown Knoxville, the trail to the top of House Mountain is heavily wooded and features unique rock outcroppings. In total, there are 5.8 miles of trails, but the two trails to the peak are each about one mile in length and are of moderate difficulty. As the highest peak in Knox County, the crest offers panoramic views of the Cumberland and Smoky Mountains and downtown Knoxville.
In 2016, Knoxville’s Parks and Recreation Office implemented a four-year plan for connecting the greenways and urban parks in Knoxville, making them inclusive and accessible. This plan is known as “Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness 4-Year Implementation Plan” and is aimed to encourage citizens to get outdoors. One of the popular current greenways recommended by Marshall is the Victor Ashe Greenway. Located in northwest Knoxville, this greenway connects several others and offers 1.5 miles of unpaved trails, which are popular with cross-country runners and dog owners.
In total, Knoxville currently has 112.9 miles of paved greenway and natural trails. On the city website (knoxvilletn.gov), you will find a complete trail index and can view a 360-degree virtual tour of local greenways, parks, and trails using Google Trekker Street View.
Getting involved with groups like the Tennessee Trails Association and East Tennessee Wanderers is a great way to establish a physical routine and get to know the community. Once you’re comfortable with the area, wandering on your own can be very enjoyable. In addition to hiking and walking, many people enjoy combining the activity with other hobbies such as photography, birding, and tree and plant identification.
So get out there and enjoy the trails Knox County has to offer! Your body and spirit will thank you.