We know it’s the birthplace of country and blues – and the big cities that showcase the state’s music scene don’t disappoint. Quieter, though, are the state’s wide range of outdoor pleasures found outside of Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis. The Appalachian Mountains and Great Smoky Mountains wind their way through the eastern part of the state, while the western half houses the Mississippi River. Between state lines, Tennessee boasts 56 state parks – many a short drive from prominent cities – filled with gorgeous hikes, mountain vistas and rushing waterfalls.
Yet another curious fact: Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains (or "Smokies", for short) get twice as many annual visitors as the Grand Canyon. Straddling Eastern Tennessee and North Carolina, the area’s raw beauty is undeniable, with a dense fog that settles between its forested peaks, giving the majestic vista its trademark smoky color.
Hundreds of hiking trails wind their way through the mountain range, but you can also conserve your energy with a drive up Clingmans Dome Road for panoramic views 100 miles out in all directions; or wander over to Tuckaleechee Caverns for a striking array of stalagmites and stalactites. Fall Creek Falls offers a 26,000+ acre wonderland along the Cumberland Plateau, filled with hiking and biking trails.
71 miles of the Appalachian Trail passes through the Smokies, and not surprisingly, backpackers abound in the region. Hikers love to hit Sugarlands, a truly stunning valley that will have you rummaging for your iPhone for a snap; or the equally photogenic Cades Cove, with its sun-dappled meadows and powerful mountains rising in the distance. Take the 5-mile hike to Abrams Falls to enjoy one of the biggest waterfalls in the park.
Even outside of the Smokies, Eastern Tennessee is a hotbed of outdoor fun with Obed Wild & Scenic River, the Cherokee National Forest, the 9 Lakes Region and seven state parks. Serious rafters may want to head to Ocoee River in Cherokee National Forest, where you can take guided rafting trips on the intense (up to Class V) rapids. If you like your dare-deviling on dry land, check out Ocoee’s new zip line, where riders zip 45 mph down 95-foot high lines.
Did we mention there’s wine? Yes. Three wine trails snake through the beautiful countryside, with nearly two dozen wineries for you to sip your way through. Come summer, the area lights up with the Nine Lakes Wine Festival, an annual event that brings local vintners together for one spectacular lakeside event.
Stretching out in every direction from the thumping country music scene that defines Nashville, the quiet countryside beckons to outdoor explorers. Walk the quaint streets of historic Franklin, twenty miles south of Nashville; or hike to the Upper Cumberland region to find waterfalls around every bend.
Take the ultra-steep trolley ride up to Lookout Mountain, overlooking Chattanooga. Up top, you can explore the deep caves of Ruby Falls, which houses the largest underground waterfall in America; or wander the dramatic cliffs of Rock City. Better yet, go for broke and jump off the edge on the wings of an experienced hang glider. You can soar up to 4,000 feet for breathtaking views of Lookout Valley, and a tandem flight with an instructor requires no prior experience.
Big Hill Pond State Park in Pocahontas, Tennessee, is potentially one of the cooler, less-discovered hiking spots. A little more than 4,000 acres of forests and swamps surround Travis McNatt Lake. Along the western portion of the Tennessee River Trail, you can fish, canoe, or duck into Loretta Lynn’s plantation home and museum.