Knoxville: The Unexpected Outdoors Wonderland

Suddenly, Knoxville's a recreation destination complete with its own urban wilderness. Let's go explore it.

For decades, Knoxville hailed itself as the Gateway to the Smokies. Not many cities identify themselves by wonders that are an hour's drive away, but the practice offers obvious advantages. It doesn't cost anything, doesn't cause traffic or parking tie-ups in town, and if something goes wrong, it's never our fault.

It worked so well that Knoxville made a general policy of crowing about regional attractions: the Smokies, Watts Bar Lake, Douglas Lake, Norris Lake, later Big South Fork and Frozen Head. It was all okay with us, more and more natural amenities that made it seem nicer to live around here. Knoxville's used to thinking of East Tennessee's outdoor amenities as our own, even when they're a county or two away. When gas is cheap, it's a logical way of thinking. It also distracts us from our own problems, and very effectively. Even when Knoxville was being credibly described as the "Ugliest City in America," it boasted of its relative proximity to natural beauty. Our municipal motto was, "But look over there!"

But lately, that's been changing. Hikers, mountain bikers, kayakers, fishermen, and other outdoorsy sorts have found many opportunities close by—even, as crazy as it sometimes seems, within city limits.

Several efforts seem to have landed at around the same time: The city's expansive greenway system connected neighborhoods and commercial areas via little-seen forests, creeks, hollers and vales. Then, after decades as a staid, modest nature preserve, Ijams Nature Center expanded to something like a compact national park. Then private foundations Legacy Parks and the Aslan Foundation blazed new trails along neglected riverfronts and beautifully unusable back yards, some of them concerning half-forgotten historic sites. When a mountain-biking club blazed an 11-mile trail connecting private and public natural refuges on the south side, it was becoming clear that Knoxville—rather suddenly, as these things usually go—had an extraordinary asset within its own corporate boundaries.

And it seems to spawn activity, a whole new culture for the city. Is it solving our obesity epidemic, or reducing our health-care costs, or making our air cleaner? Maybe, but that's something only historians will be able to tell us. For now, it's just fun.

So, it's May. Get out this weekend. And if you can't, take a vicarious tour through these pictures.