Tennessee - Nature and Scientific Wonders

Once you visit the outdoors of Tennessee, you can’t help but think that the land was molded just for hikers. The state’s landscape goes skyward, then deep back down, upward again, then down in the rolling hills. Even the so-called flatlands offer woodland and river hikes of satisfying beauty. The vegetation changes, as does the animal population, but from end to end, the state presents hiking enthusiasts with a wealth of choices.

In the east, what is called the Blue Ridge area takes in the Great Smoky Mountains and Cherokee National Forest. An hour drive west toward the middle of the state puts you in the Cumberland Mountains, with their flat tops and steep valleys. Even further west, you’ll find scenic trails through Land Between the Lakes and Reelfoot Lake (home of the bald eagle in the winter), and, of course, there are lots of surprises sprinkled here and there.

Near the middle of the state, the Tennessee Wildlife Refuge along the Tennessee River offers nature trails throughout its 80-mile-long stretch. Beautiful during the spring, the area really comes alive in the winter when migrating waterfowl sweep into the area.

Hiking in Tennessee is not interstate-traveling to get somewhere the fastest way possible. It’s a leisurely journey to enjoy the sights, the sounds, the solitude. Hikes can range from less than an hour to a few days, depending on your skill level. Many of the hiking areas are in parks that allow for overnight camping.

Seasonal changes are a major consideration too. Hiking areas show different sides of themselves when the trees are full leaved and lovely. Come back in the fall and winter and the leafless trees reveal still other scenic secrets like rock formations and sudden sheer drops into a valley below.

To many hikers, the big mountains in the eastern part of the state are too alluring to ignore, and certainly the Smokies live up to their reputation for scenery and excitement. From Johnson City/Bristol in the northeast down to Knoxville and over to Chattanooga, you can enjoy city comforts at night and wild nature during the day.

The fall changing of the leaves attracts many to the Smokies, but the hiking is good almost year-round. Higher elevations, of course, are prone to snow and ice in the winter. Spring storms can flood streams; so always be prepared when you’re in the mountains.

So much of Tennessee is still unpopulated by humans that it’s been easy for the state and federal governments to set up parks and wildlife refuges—and none are too far way from the comforts of home. So, you can stay a day here, move on for a day there, spend a day or stick around for a week. The Tennessee outdoors is open all year.

East Tennessee State University Gray Fossil Site
East Tennessee State University's prolific Miocene-aged fossil site at neighboring Gray, Tennessee, is attracting scholars, volunteers, and visitors from across the country seeking to learn about the rich paleoecology of Southern Appalachia. The Gray Fossil Site, run by ETSU’s Department of Physics, Astronomy and Geology, contains a wealth of animal remains, including several species not originally thought to have inhabited this part of the world. These species have now become a part of Tennessee’s natural heritage.

Careful examination of the site and recovery of the fossils found at the site provide a rare opportunity to study the paleoecology of Tennessee and southern Appalachia. Half museum and half laboratory, the 33,000-square-foot Gray Fossil Site visitor center should be complete by mid-December 2007.

Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park
One of the oft-overlooked hiking jewels of West Tennessee is 20 minutes outside of Memphis: Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park. Because the land slopes toward and eventually borders on the Mississippi River, rain run-off over tens of thousands of years has carved deep gullies that make hiking both adventurous and highly accessible with more than 20 miles of trails.

Fort Pillow State Park
An hour and a half north is Henning, hometown of Alex Haley, and nearby Fort Pillow State Park. Many of the park’s trails offer great views of the Mighty Mississippi from atop high bluffs.

Reelfoot Lake
Yet another hour north, and you’ll be at Reelfoot Lake, a shallow but vast body of water formed in the 1800s when an earthquake cracked the land open and the Mississippi filled it in. In addition to eagle-watching January through March, the area is a hiking paradise year-round, with hikes to suit the beginner or the expert. While you’re there, you can check out Boyette’s, a favorite stop since 1921. Their home-made tartar sauce and fried catfish bring people from counties around.

Land Between the Lakes
An hour east is Land Between the Lakes, a national wildlife refuge with several hundred miles of hiking trails. From easy to difficult, it’s your choice.

Cumberland Plateau
Traveling back east past Nashville, you’re up on the Cumberland Plateau, which stretches from Chattanooga in the southeast to the Kentucky line. Near Oneida, the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area has 400 miles of trails, including the John Muir Trail. Looks for natural arches and waterfalls.

Fiery Gizzard
Fiery Gizzard is in the South Cumberland State Recreation Area between Nashville and Chattanooga, close to Monteagle. The hike here is an easy three miles, and it includes a lot of shade trees to keep the temperature cool even during the hottest months. Again, look for the waterfalls.

Tennessee seems blessed with an abundance of waterfalls, adding a little extra magic to many of its hiking trails. However, each hike is different, each with its own beauty, if you know where to look. Plants, animals, even turkey tail fungus growing on the side of a tree—each detail can be savored for a memorable trip.

Ijams Nature Center
Just a few miles from downtown Knoxville is a popular hike in the Ijams Nature Center. Actually, there are several easy treks available, but the River Trail has a nice boardwalk that sits just above the river and runs along the bottom of a bluff.

Porters Creek trail
Not too far from Gatlinburg is the Porters Creek trail, an easy entrance into the world of hiking in the Smokies. If you do the whole 7.5-mile trail, you’ll run from the easy to moderate section of hiking, but at the trail’s beginning, families can do the easy parts, then backtrack and call it a day.

Beauty Spot Bald, Stamping Ground Ridge
Up north near the Johnson City area, the Smokies present two great trails for families or beginners. Each is 2 to 3 miles long but can be hiked in about an hour and a half. Beauty Spot Bald (a bald is an area on a mountain ridge with no trees) and Stamping Ground Ridge are noted for their scenery and plant life, ranging from blueberry bushes to mountain laurel and huckleberries.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.