Welcome to another installment of our “Trail Town” series spotlighting the third largest city in Tennessee – Knoxville: population 189,797. Located in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, Knoxville is situated in the Tennessee Valley, about halfway between the Great Smoky Mountains to the east and the Cumberland Plateau to the west.
[Editors Note] At the time of publication some of the parks listed below were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check with local authorities before using any of the trails mentioned below and respect applicable travel restrictions.
Knoxville was first settled in 1786 and was the first capital of Tennessee. Located at the at the intersection of I-40 and I-75, just minutes from I-81, Knoxville is within a day’s drive of more than half the U.S. population and one of the region’s most accessible cities for trail running. Whether on a greenway through a historic park or on a natural trail through the woods, you will observe Civil War relics and beautiful wildflowers among the dogwood trees. Run your way along the colorful trails on family friendly routes through scenic neighborhoods and on local greenways. Or venture out to Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness – a spectacular outdoor adventure area where you can trail run in the woods – just minutes from downtown.
Life in Knoxville is better lived outdoors, and this recreational destination offers a variety of urban trail running opportunities. With six main trail systems and over 100 miles of trails and greenways, you don’t have to go far from the city to feel totally off the beaten path.
Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness is a recreational, cultural, and historic preservation featuring over 50 miles of natural surface trails. This area provides unparalleled trail running, hiking and biking experiences for adventurers of all skill levels. A variety of terrain and destinations creates great views, great adventures and the chance to return again and again for a new experience. There are eleven trailhead destinations within the Urban Wilderness, each with their own unique characteristics and offerings. Most trails are multi-use natural surface trails and perfect for trail running and taking in the scenic 12.5-mile South Loop route that guides you through five destinations connecting multiple parks, a beautiful nature center, quarries, adventure playgrounds, and historical war sites. Parking is free at eight of the 11 trailheads.
The beautiful 500-acre House Mountain State Natural Area offers a 5.8-mile trail system that leads to some amazing lookouts, including the highest point in Knox County at 2064′ above sea level. From these scenic vistas, you’ll find views of the Unakas and Cumberland mountains, which run parallel across the valley. This heavily wooded area also contains steep slopes with unique rock outcrops and is rich in plant and bird life.
Sharp’s Ridge is situated on a steep limestone ridge that offers a great view of the city skyline and the distant Great Smoky Mountain peaks. Sharp’s Ridge Memorial Park makes up 111-acres of the 7-mile ridge featuring 4.7 miles of multi-use trails that wind across the wooded hills. About three-quarters of the way to the top of the ridge, you’ll find an overlook platform with beautiful vistas.
Ijams Nature Center has it all on their 328-acre wonderland – a wildlife sanctuary and a series of natural trails contouring the Tennessee River. The Nature Center trails feature almost 13 miles of trails of varied terrains including paved greenways, dirt and gravel trails and trails made up shale, soil, rock and limestone remnants. Tranquil trails wind through undisturbed woods and across a wooden boardwalk over the Tennessee River. There’s a lot to see along your path – a variety of wildlife and birds, a sparkling quarry lake, unique rock formations, scenic overlooks, and rugged terrain.
There are 8-miles of multi-use trails at IC King Park. Trails skirt the shoreline of Knob Creek, an inlet of the Tennessee River, and wind through heavily forested woods. These easy to moderate trails are a local favorite for trail runners, hikers and mountain bikers. The shoreline and main trails are fast and flowing while the trails that climb to the ridge are twisty with steep descent.
Seven Islands State Birding Park is Tennessee’s 56th State Park and most notably the state’s first birding park. This rich 425-acre peninsula bordered by the French Broad River also features 8-miles of easy mowed trails that weave through a diverse ecosystem. Along the route, the trails crisscross the 1.2 mile paved greenway that bisects the park as it winds to the water’s edge. The scenic landscape ranges from upland hardwoods to river-bottom fields sown in native warm-season grasses. A mowed path clears the underbrush to welcome hikers, trail runners, photographers and bird-watchers. In addition to inspiring vistas and colorful wildflower displays, there’s always the chance encounter of a startled grouse take-off, or the flight of deer as they retreat to the woods.
Parking and Transit
The Knoxville Trolley is a bus service and one of the most popular symbols of Knoxville, and it’s completely free for all passengers. Color-coded lines run along a variety of stops in and around downtown, including the Knoxville Convention Center, the Knoxville Civic Auditorium and Coliseum, the University of Tennessee and the riverfront. Trolleys are equipped with bike racks. Parking is free at trailheads. The city also offers a bike share program and scooters within the downtown footprint.
Community & Culture
With many natural assets close to Knoxville, the community enjoys spending time having fun outdoors – from trail running, walking, biking, fishing, hunting, bird watching, kayaking, to visiting the nearby Great Smoky Mountains.
Knoxville has several very active organizations whose members are committed to trail building. The Appalachian Mountain Biking Club (AMBC) and Clinch Valley Trail Alliance host volunteer days dedicated to building and maintaining trails. In 2015, the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club hosted an online national voting competition for the opportunity to win $100,000 from a Bell Helmets grant to fund a trail-building project. With more than 26,000 votes cast, Knoxville beat out Asheville and San Francisco!
Knoxville can’t be defined by just one thing. It’s a nature-loving-adventure-seeking-artsy-kinda-town… home to incredible outdoor adventure, rich history, a thriving art and cultural scene plus amazing local restaurants, breweries and distilleries. Music lovers know Knoxville as one of America’s most vibrant cities for live music, and festival goers have a year-round selection of cultural festivals from which to choose.
Where to Grab Great Coffee
Knoxville has a multitude of choices when it comes to finding a delicious cup of piping hot (or iced) coffee. Local favorites include Honeybee Coffee, K Brew, Old City Java, Remedy Coffee, Coffee & Chocolate and Matt Robb’s Biscuits & Brew.
Amazing Local Brews
With more than 15 stops on the Knoxvilles Ale Trail, Knoxville’s craft breweries are making quite a name for themselves. Whether you prefer German lagers served in a castle with a biergarten (for real) or neighborhood haunts with quirky sours, it’s all on tap in Knoxville. For a truly one-of-a-kind experience, plan a trip to Pretentious Glass & Beer Co., a studio/brewery where you can enjoy hand-crafted beer in a hand-crafted glass and watch both created on-site.
A Taste of Knoxville
Southern food and moonshine might be one’s initial impression due to the city’s geographic location, but to pigeonhole Knoxville’s culinary offerings to that alone would be to sell the city short. With a heavy focus on locally sourced foods, a group of talented local chefs continue to put Knoxville’s culinary scene on the map with top of mind restaurants like Knox Mason, Emilia, J.C. Holdway, Kaizen, Tako Taco and OliBea.
Additional local faves include Jackie’s Dream, SoKno Taco, Sweet P’s BBQ and Yassin’s Falafel House. Owned and operated by Yassin Terou, a Syrian refugee, Yassin’s won the title of “Nicest Place in America,” in 2018 in a contest sponsored by Reader’s Digest. Foodies will also find locally operated international restaurants featuring Ethiopian, Indian, Filipino, Cuban, Thai, Vietnamese, Hispanic, French and Laotian cuisine.
Due to the increase in popularity of outdoor recreation in the Knoxville area, new businesses are emerging. Not only are these businesses selling products and services to enhance outdoor experiences, they are also actively involved in promoting our natural assets. Knoxville now boasts 22 bike shops, nearly a dozen outfitters and event directors, and 20 other outdoor retailers offering all the necessary gear and encouragement for enjoying outdoor activities.
The downtown Visitors Center operated by Visit Knoxville features a variety of brochures, maps and information and a friendly staff to assist you in planning your outing.
The Outdoor Knoxville Adventure Center located on the Tennessee River and the Neyland Greenway, is home to Legacy Parks Foundation, Visit Knoxville’s Visitor Outpost and the Knoxville Adventure Collective. The Knoxville Adventure Collective offers curated paddling trips on the Tennessee River for all levels of experience. The Adventure Center provides maps, flyers and other outdoor resources to help everyone get out and play.
The Runner’s Market is a specialty running store located in the heart of Knoxville and offers a wide variety of trail running, walking and racing shoes. This locally owned business engages the community by hosting weekly group runs and marathon training opportunities.
Legacy Parks Foundation is a local non-profit that works collaboratively with the city and county Parks and Recreation departments and local trail-building groups to create parks and trails in the Knoxville community and adjacent counties, to expand the regional recreational opportunities that bolster our economy.
Legacy Parks’ Outdoor Knoxville initiative collaborates with over 30 local clubs and organizations to facilitate group outdoor experiences. From group brewery runs, paddling to pedaling and everything in between, there is something for everyone. Updated daily, OutdoorKnoxville.com lists up to 50 events each week for adventurers of all skill levels.
The Knoxville Track Club is very active in the community and hosts a wide range of races including the Knoxville Marathon and a Treadin’ Trodden Trails racing series, a no-frills approach to trail racing. This annual series features a package of eight races on some of the most popular trail systems. Dirty Bird Events also organizes several trail races around Knoxville throughout the year.
You can find even more trail races in Knoxville and throughout Tennessee in our event calendar.
The Visit Knoxville Sports Commission also recruits a variety of outdoor events to Knoxville. In addition to high-profile events like the Bassmaster Classic and the USA Cycling Pro Road National Championships, the city has also played host to the AAU Cross Country Nationals and Grassroots Outdoor Alliance Connect Show & Outdoor Retailer Summer Market.
[Editor’s Note] This edition of American Trail Running Association Trail Towns was written with contributions from Visit Knoxville Tennessee and the Legacy Parks Foundation, an East Tennessee nonprofit organization working to ensure that their community enjoys exceptional recreational opportunities, natural beauty and open spaces, and that these assets exist for generations to come.