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8 Gorgeous State Parks Near Knoxville You Have to Visit

Although Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the crown jewel of East Tennessee, there are several awesome state parks near Knoxville worth exploring, too!

Many of them sit right on a lake and offer activities like fishing and kayaking, and have great hiking trails and awesome camping options.

Some even have unique, unexpected attractions…like a distillery inside an old prison!

Best of all, between the Smokies, all the theme parks in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, and the University of Tennessee, state parks near Knoxville typically don’t get too crowded.

So whether you’re a local or just visiting, add one (or two!) to your Knoxville weekend itinerary.

All the ones in this guide are within a 1.5-hour drive from downtown, and most are closer than one hour!

The Very Best State Parks Near Knoxville

Long exposure waterfall in Frozen Head State Park in East Tennessee. Photo by Laurie Drake via Getty.
Waterfall in Frozen Head State Park (Photo by Laurie Drake via Getty)

If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, it’s hard to beat East Tennessee’s state parks. They’re very well-maintained, rarely crowded, and offer a huge variety of activities and amenities.

Keep reading to learn about eight of the best state parks near Knoxville!

Seven Islands State Birding Park

  • Location: Kodak, 19 miles east of Knoxville
  • Hours: 7:00 am to 8:00 pm daily
  • Camping available: No
Photo by Kaitlin Hopkins/TN State Parks via Facebook

Even if birding isn’t really your thing, don’t worry — that’s just one of many activities available at Seven Islands Birding State Park. If it is, though, you’re in luck…the park is home to nearly 200 bird species!

Seven Islands sits right along the picturesque French Broad River just east of Knoxville. The peninsula creates a unique, postcard-worthy habitat that enjoys views of both the Smokies and Cumberland Mountains.

Visitors can explore eight miles of trails, fish or paddle the river, or of course, go birding.

Keep your eyes (and ears!) open for barn owls, tree swallows, and Purple Martins!

If you want to get out on the water, bring your own kayak or canoe, plus fishing gear. While there is a small boat launch, rentals are not available.

Although Seven Islands doesn’t have any camping, its proximity to Knoxville makes it a perfect quick excursion. Pack a picnic lunch or head to the park after work to catch the sunset!

Park amenities: hiking and biking trails, boat launch, scenic viewpoints for birdwatching/wildlife viewing.

Norris Dam State Park

  • Location: Rocky Top, 25 miles north of Knoxville
  • Hours: 8:00 am – 5:00 pm winter, 8:00 am – 7:00 pm summer
  • Accommodations available: Yes – 85 campsites across two campgrounds and 29 cabins
Photo: Norris Dam State Park Facebook

Centered around the Norris Reservoir, AKA Norris Lake, Norris Dam State Park is less than 30 minutes from downtown Knoxville.

The large lake boasts more than 800 miles of shoreline and every type of water recreation imaginable, from boating and fishing to water skiing and swimming.

Full-service Norris Dam Marina is open to the public and has a boat ramp, plus offers a variety of rentals. Paddle boats, kayaks, canoes, pontoons, and even houseboats are all available.

On land, the state park has 15+ miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, and visitors can also go horseback riding. For a dose of the area’s history rooted in Appalachia, explore the Lenoir Pioneer Museum or the historic Rice Grist Mill.

Something that makes Norris Dam especially unique among state parks near Knoxville is its many community events throughout the year. These include guided spring wildflower hikes, fall color pontoon boat rides, and Pickin’ in the Park, a free bluegrass festival in October.

Park amenities: Marina with boat ramp and rentals, historic CCC cabins, deluxe cabins, two campgrounds with hookups, hiking and biking trails, equestrian trails, seasonal swimming pool.

Big Ridge State Park

  • Location: Maynardville, 26.7 miles north of Knoxville
  • Hours: 7:00 am – 9:00 pm daily
  • Camping available: Yes – 50 campsites (plus one large group site) and 19 cabins
Credit: Big Ridge State Park Facebook

On the southern end of Norris Lake sits another of the best state parks near Knoxville: Big Ridge State Park.

Big Ridge Lake is technically a dammed-off 49-acre portion of Norris Lake, categorized by several heavily-forested ridges surrounding the water. Like Norris Dam State Park, recreation here is largely focused on the lake.

The large sandy beach and swimming area are the park’s star attractions. Fishing and boating are also popular, which can be enjoyed anywhere other than the designated swimming section.

No gas-powered motors are allowed (small trolling motors are okay), because the lake is small and spring-fed. However, the park rents kayaks, row boats, canoes, and paddle boats FREE. Visitors are also welcome to bring their own.

This means fishing in Big Ridge Lake is excellent, with lots of opportunity for catching bass, bluegill, and crappie. 🎣

Big Ridge has several miles of trails designated for hiking or biking only. It’s also one of the only Knoxville-area state parks with backcountry camping.

This is an especially social park. Rangers lead guided hikes and full moon paddles, show movies in the park, and host other community events including campfires and arts and crafts.

Park amenities: Free boat and SUP rentals, beach with designated swimming area, sand volleyball, basketball courts, seasonal swimming pool, hiking and biking trails, campground with hookups, CCC cabins.

Cove Lake State Park

  • Location: Caryville, 31.5 miles northwest of Knoxville
  • Hours: Sunrise to sunset daily (campers may check in until 10:00 pm)
  • Camping available: Yes – 100 campsites with hookups, suitable for RVs and tents
Credit: Cove Lake State Park Facebook

This smaller state park nestled in the Cumberland Plateau is barely 30 minutes from Knoxville, yet surprisingly quiet.

It’s a major destination for camping and hiking enthusiasts, since the park connects to the Justin P. Wilson Cumberland State Park Trail. More commonly known as the Cumberland Trail, Cove Lake State Park has an 11-mile stretch.

The 300-mile trail spans from Cumberland Gap to the Tennessee River Gorge near Chattanooga.

In the park itself, there’s a paved walking and biking trail, plus a nature trail through wetlands. Cove Lake is one of the best state parks near Knoxville for birding, thanks to its diverse terrain.

Cove Lake, which is surrounded by mountains, is a beautiful place to paddle. Visitors can bring their own canoes or kayaks, but note that only hard-sided vessels are permitted.

Due to the shallow water, guests can not bring inflatable kayaks, paddleboards, or canoes.

The park rents single and tandem hard-side kayaks in the summer months, starting Memorial Day weekend. Park visitors can also rent row boats for fishing, which is excellent in Cove Lake.

Park amenities: campground with hookups, dump station, seasonal camp store, and two bathhouses; kayak and row boat rentals (summer only); large reservable recreation building for events; BBQ restaurant (open year-round).

Panther Creek State Park

  • Location: Morristown, 38.9 miles east of Knoxville
  • Hours: 7:00 am to dusk daily
  • Camping available: Yes – 50 sites with hookups
Credit: Panther Creek State Park Facebook

Located on the Cherokee Reservoir, Panther Creek State Park is paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. Visitors can enjoy hiking, biking, fishing, floating, camping, and so much more.

One of the things that makes Panther Creek one of the most unique and best state parks near Knoxville is the endurance events it hosts.

The park hosts mountain bike races, endurance trail runs, half-marathons, and the Motus Triathlon, which is one of the toughest in the country.

For an adventure with slightly less adrenaline, check out the 17 hiking trails or championship disc golf course. Anglers can also cast a line, either from a boat or the shore.

Note that while Cherokee Lake is a fantastic spot for paddling and boating, the park does not rent boats. The boat ramp is open daily from 7:00 am to dusk in season, which is mid-April through mid-September.

Many people come to Panther Creek specifically to camp. The campsite has full hookups, bathhouses, a camp store, dump station, laundry facilities, and even wi-fi!

The park also has several special event venues available to reserve. Choose from observation decks overlooking the lake, open fields, covered pavilions, and even a heart-shaped space.

Park amenities: separate hiking and mountain biking trails, 18-hole disc golf course, playground, boat ramp, gift shop (inside the visitor center), campground and camp store, venues for special events.

Frozen Head State Park

  • Location: Wartburg, 47.7 miles northwest of Knoxville
  • Hours: 8:00 am to dusk daily
  • Camping available: Yes – 28 primitive tent sites (campervans, truck and teardrop campers, and small pop-ups are also permitted) in two campgrounds, plus 9 hike-in backcountry sites
Credit: Frozen Head State Park Facebook

Although it has a bit of a funny name, Frozen Head is one of the best state parks near Knoxville. Especially for those who want to unplug and immerse themselves in wilderness!

Fun fact: the state park gets its name from a 3,324-foot peak covered in snow and ice most of the year.

Despite being just 45 minutes from Knoxville, the 24,000-acre park feels like it’s worlds away from civilization.

Dense forest, uncrowded hiking trails, and primitive campsites all lend to this vibe.

Frozen Head has epic hiking, with a fire tower lookout trail, countless streams, and waterfalls.

In fact, two of our favorite waterfalls near Knoxville are in the park, Emory Gap Falls and DeBord Falls. They’re even connected by the same trail!

Kiddos in tow? They’ll love the park’s two playgrounds, enjoying a picnic, splashing, and skipping rocks in Flat Fork Creek.

Best of all, Frozen Head is generally much less busy than most other state parks near Knoxville. This is probably due to its somewhat out-of-the-way location and limited camping options.

If you visit in the summer, be sure to stop by Brushy Mountain Distillery. It’s inside an infamous prison just outside Frozen Head State Park!

Park amenities: Hiking trails, one mountain biking trail (Lookout Tower), two playgrounds, picnic tables, campgrounds with a central bathhouse.

Indian Mountain State Park

  • Location: Jellico, 59 miles north of Knoxville
  • Hours: 8:00 am to dusk daily
  • Camping available: Yes – 49 campsites with hookups, plus 10 primitive hike-in only sites
Red cardinal at Indian Mountain State Park (Photo IMSP via Facebook)

Near the Tennessee-Kentucky state line, Indian Mountain State Park is about an hour north of Knoxville.

The small park is a peaceful retreat ideal for fishing, hiking, and camping. It’s also lovely for a picnic, especially for families with young children.

Tucked at the base of a mountain and enjoying beautiful views, this is a great spot to enjoy a paddle. In the summer, the park rents kayaks, paddleboards, and pedal boats. Visitors are also always welcome to bring their own.

Another main attraction at Indian Mountain is the disc golf course, which has several water challenges. Stop into the park visitor center for any accessories you may need!

Indian Mountain is also popular for camping year-round. Sites are paved and have full hookups, and there’s a bathhouse, dump station, and seasonal camp store.

Park amenities: Seasonal swimming pool, 18-hole disc golf course, three walking trails, volleyball court, horseshoe pits, boat rentals, three picnic shelters with electricity and water, paved campsites with hookups.

David Crockett Birthplace State Park

  • Location: Limestone, 83.3 miles northeast of Knoxville
  • Hours: 7 am to 6 pm
  • Camping available: Yes – 88 campsites, both primitive and with full hookups
Credit: David Crockett State Park Facebook

One of the more unique state parks near Knoxville, David Crockett Birthplace celebrates American pioneering days.

David “Davey” Crockett was born in what’s now known as Limestone, about 1.5 hours from Knoxville.

He was a famous frontiersman and soldier who was involved in several major political movements in the early 1800s.

Today, his namesake park serves as a memorial. Visitors can also get a taste of the American Frontier with different exhibits and programs.

Tour the living 1780s homestead or watch unique re-enactments or competitions. Throughout the year, there are black powder shoots where the competitors dress in 18th century garb and have to use historic muskets! Check the park’s events calendar for updated details.

David Crockett Birthplace State Park also offers hiking and paddling. No rentals are available, but you can bring your own kayak or canoe and launch directly onto the Nolichucky River. The park has several access points.

The park’s campground is worth visiting on its own, sitting right along the Nolichucky. Bring your fishing gear, because the Nolichucky is great for catching bass, bluegill, and catfish!

Park amenities: campground, playground, small boat launches with river access, picnic pavilions with grills, living homestead and replica cabin available for tours.