With endless outdoor activities in Knoxville, it’s no surprise the city is well known as a haven for nature enthusiasts and folks who prefer an active lifestyle.
From visiting the Great Smoky Mountains to lakes, trails, and parks galore, you may have a hard time pulling yourself inside! Plus, not only can you enjoy all manner of outdoor recreation here, but you also get gorgeous natural scenery as the backdrop.
Join us as we explore the top outdoor activities in Knoxville. We cover something for every outdoorsy person, from laid-back to heart-pumping, to kids and those who are kids at heart.
Fun Outdoor Activities in Knoxville
Whether you’re seeking a challenging hike, a leisurely kayak trip, or an adventurous day exploring in town, Knoxville has it all.
1. Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness
You truly don’t have to venture far to find some of the best outdoor activities in Knoxville.
Right in the city, Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness has over 60 miles of trails and greenways — and it’s just six minutes from the Sunsphere downtown!
This vast trail network directly connects the Urban Wilderness to several city parks, lakes, playgrounds, the Ijams Nature Center, and more. It’s essentially a hub for limitless outdoor recreation!
Whether you enjoy hiking, trail running, mountain biking, rock climbing, fishing, or paddle sports like kayaking, the Urban Wilderness has something for everyone. There are even designated kids’ areas!
Year-round, several groups host outdoor events at the Urban Wilderness. For example, you could take an Intro to Climbing class, go on an evening bike ride, or help clean up a trail.
To really make this a one-stop shop for outdoor lovers, there are even onsite gear rentals available.
2. Explore Ijams Nature Center
Like the Urban Wilderness, Ijams Nature Center is another hub for outdoor activities in Knoxville. And amazingly, it’s right in town!
Spanning over 300 acres, of protected wildlife habitat, Ijams offers hiking and biking trails, rock climbing, children’s play areas, and more.
Water is a major highlight at Ijams. Swim, paddle, or tube Mead’s Quarry Lake, once used to mine marble. Kayak, canoe, SUP, and tube rentals are available onsite through River Sports Outfitters. You can launch your own boat, or take guided kayak tours from May through September.
Speaking of guided tours, Ijams offers a huge variety of programs year-round. On the calendar, you’ll find everything from yoga classes to family “owl prowls” and animal scat identification courses.
One of the newest additions is the “Primal Playground.” This outdoor exercise space makes use of the natural surroundings and offers a unique challenge. Use the boulders to do step-ups or as a jumping platform. Jump from stump to stump, and use the logs to hone your balance skills.
As if all that weren’t enough, Ijams Nature Center is also home to Navitat, a super fun treetop zipline and adventure park.
3. Hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
True, it’s not in Knoxville proper, but the city’s proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park makes it a haven for hiking enthusiasts. In fact, most people consider this one of the best outdoor activities near Knoxville!
The park has over 850 miles of trails, including a 70-mile stretch of the iconic Appalachian Trail.
These trails range from easy-to-reach waterfalls to challenging multi-day treks in the backcountry. You can also hike many of them year-round, including some of our favorite trails accessible right from Gatlinburg.
It can be overwhelming just choosing a trail, so here are some of our personal favorite picks.
- Clingmans Dome
- Laurel Falls
- Alum Cave
- Abrams Falls
- Andrews Bald
Best of all? GSMNP doesn’t charge anything for entry – it’s totally free! However, note there is a parking permit system in place. Depending on exactly when you visit, you may need to pay a few dollars to park.
The park is open and accessible year-round, but does experience a huge range of weather. Before heading out, always check online for weather updates and current conditions on roads and trails.
4. Bike Local Greenways
Knoxville’s commitment to outdoor recreation extends to its local greenways. The city has over 40, totaling more than 100 miles. Additionally, many of them connect with one another to form larger trail networks.
About half of the greenways in Knoxville are paved, making them wheelchair-accessible and suitable for strollers and skates, too.
Many of the trails follow rivers, streams, or other bodies of water, and several of them also connect to parks or other recreation areas. Exploring them is a great way to try out more than one of the outdoor activities in Knoxville.
5. Paddle Knoxville’s Rivers & Lakes
One of the (many) things that makes Knoxville so naturally beautiful is that several rivers run through and around the city.
There’s the Tennessee River, the French Broad, and the Holston, and just a bit further out, there’s also the Clinch, Pigeon, Big South Fork, and the Obed.
In addition, there are a handful of lakes, quarries, and countless mountain streams! It goes without saying that all this water makes for some amazing outdoor activities in Knoxville.
Right downtown, head to Volunteer Landing for a leisurely paddle with city and campus views. If you can time it right, try to be on the river during a Vols home game (wear your orange!).
Otter Island, near the confluence of the French Broad and Holston rivers, also offers a fantastic, laid-back paddle. It borders Ijams Nature Center and has a boat ramp.
Finally, there’s the Knox County Water Trail. This 44-mile stretch of water spans five neighborhoods and has several access points for putting in and pulling out of the water.
6. Whitewater Rafting
Are you a fan of water sports, but more of a thrill-seeker? If so, you’re in luck! Again, thanks to the abundance of nearby water, Knoxville has easy access to exhilarating whitewater rafting adventures.
The Pigeon River, just outside Knoxville, is one of the closest rafting destinations. It has both gentle, beginner-friendly rapids (the Lower Pigeon River) and thrilling Class II rapids (Upper Pigeon). Book a trip with Nantahala Outdoor Center to experience either.
For a more family-friendly experience, head to the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. Although some of the rapids here are strictly for experienced paddlers, there are also calm stretches. Specifically, consider paddling the 6-mile stretch from Peters Bridge to Brewster Bridge.
South of Knoxville, the Ocoee River is renowned for its challenging Class III and IV rapids. If you’re exploring the Cherokee National Forest, this would be a perfect addition! Stop into Ocoee Rafting Center to book a trip and learn everything there is to know about whitewater rafting.
Finally, the Obed Wild & Scenic River, one hour west of Knoxville, offers a wild, guaranteed-to-be-wet ride through challenging rapids and scenic gorges.
7. Rock Climbing
Speaking of the Obed, some people are surprised to learn that one of the more popular outdoor activities in Knoxville is rocking climbing. Especially if you’re willing to take a little road trip from Knoxville and drive 1-2 hours, you’ll be in climbing heaven!
The Obed Wild and Scenic River beckons climbers to its 350-plus dramatic sandstone cliffs and diverse routes. In particular, check out the Lilly Boulders and Clear Creek areas (both North and South).
In 2023, the National Park Service received a grant for an Adaptive Outdoor Rock Climbing for Amputees program (pictured above). To learn more about this program and future programs, visit the National Park Foundation’s website.
Another notable climbing destination is the “Devil’s Racetrack.” This unusual rock formation is inside the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, about one hour north of Knoxville. Here, it’s all about the bouldering.
Black Mountain in the Cumberland Mountains is also an hour north of Knoxville. The prominent peak has several challenging climbing and bouldering routes. Most are rated between 5.7 to 5.12, so Black Mountain attracts more experienced climbers.
8. Play a Round of Golf
Knoxville offers golf enthusiasts an ideal blend of scenic courses and challenging play.
The city has several golf courses catering to players of all skill levels, and even better, the mild weather means you can play most of the year.
Tee off among rolling hills and picturesque landscapes right in the heart of town at places like Williams Creek Golf Course and the Knoxville Municipal Golf Course. Be sure to order their famous chili dog!
Interested in joining a local club to play golf regularly? Consider Holston Hills Country Club. Built in 1927, it’s not only one of the oldest courses in Knoxville, but widely considered one of the finest in Tennessee.
9. Disc Golf
Maybe a different type of golf is more your style? Disc golf, AKA frisbee golf, is a much less serious sport. That’s probably why it’s one of the fastest growing outdoor activities in Knoxville. In fact, the city even has its own official Disc Golf Association!
For anyone who may not know, disc golf combines many rules and strategies of traditional golf with throwing a frisbee.
Knoxville has nine disc golf courses, and is within a 1-hour drive of another 30 or so. For those who are more serious about it, you can also join one of a handful of leagues.
Most of the courses are at local city parks. One of our personal favorites is Victor Ashe Park, which has an 18-hole course that’s considered “tournament quality.” The course offers a mix of open fields and wooded areas, providing both beginners and advanced players with an enjoyable challenge.
10. Camp Out Overnight
With outdoor recreation being practically a way of life here, it’s no surprise that camping near Knoxville is a big deal.
Obviously, options are limited within the city itself. However, just a short drive out of town yields dozens of awesome options.
One of the closest and most popular is camping at Norris Dam State Park. The park has over 80 campsites spread out between two campgrounds. Sites accommodate everything from tents (no hookups) to big rig RVs (full hookups).
Also, keep your eyes and ears open for a brand new camping experience coming to Knoxville. The Drop Inn partnered with Ijams Nature Center, and is set to open a seasonal summer campground soon.
Looking for slightly more luxurious camping digs? Check out our guide on RV parks in Knoxville.
11. Go Fishing
With its abundance of lakes and rivers, anglers will find Knoxville to be a prime fishing destination.
If you want to fish from a bank, the Tennessee and Holston rivers both provide endless opportunities. Fly fishing, especially for trout, is also popular in both rivers.
And if you’re after bass specifically, you’ll be very happy in Knoxville. The city hosted the “Super Bowl of bass fishing,” the Bassmaster Classic tournament, in 2019 and 2023.
Fort Loudoun Lake, which is where the tournament was held, offers unmatched bass fishing. Catfish, crappie, sauger, walleye, and lake sturgeon are also among the catchable species.
Bass also love the confluence of Knoxville’s rivers at certain times of year. Hop on the French Broad or Holston River in a boat, particularly near Holston River Park.
12. Community and State Parks
Of course, the national park is an incredible gem. But don’t overlook Knoxville’s parks! There’s everything from local neighborhood parks to impressive state parks, with ALLLL the outdoor activities in Knoxville.
We’ve already mentioned several in this guide (we’re looking at you, Ijams Nature Center and Norris Dam State Park!). However, we haven’t even discussed some of the best area parks!
Lakeshore Park, situated along the Tennessee River, offers views of the Smokies and Fort Loudon Lake. It has waterfront walking trails, an extremely popular inclusive playground, and a lawn for concerts.
Sequoyah Hills Park is renowned for its historic mansions and well-maintained gardens, offering a tranquil escape within the city. It also offers two access points to the Tennessee River for fishing and kayaking.
World’s Fair Park, home to the iconic Sunsphere, is a vibrant hub in downtown Knoxville. It hosts countless festivals and events, and also has stunning gardens, seasonal splash pads, and trails.
For a quiet park just outside the city, head to Seven Islands Birding State Park. Yes, birdwatching is huge here, but there are plenty of other things to do, too. Plus, it sits between the Great Smokies and Cumberland Mountains, with amazing views of both.
What do you think about these outdoor activities in Knoxville? Let us know in the comments below! 👇