South Knoxville is something of an enigma. The area doesn’t feel quite like the rest of Knoxville. It’s a subtle feeling sometimes, and it’s difficult to put your finger on exactly what it is that makes the area so different. But different it is.
Perhaps something happens when you cross to the southern side of the Tennessee River. Perhaps it’s the lack of interstate or the looming presence of the mountains in the distance. Perhaps it’s the quiet or that it genuinely feels (and is) less crowded than the northern side of the river. Perhaps it’s the last vestiges of ’50s Americana on Chapman Highway or maybe life feels just a little more simple over here. For whatever reason, though, South Knoxville ain’t quite right. And that’s exactly what makes it just right.
South Knoxville is generally considered to be the area south of the Tennessee River. That’s a lot of territory, of course. It’s Alcoa Highway on down to the Blount County Line. It’s Chapman Highway, which eventually snakes its way to the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s also John Sevier Highway, which streaks from west to east through them both and then curves back up north.
The southwest section of South Knoxville follows Alcoa Highway toward McGhee Tyson Airport and Maryville. That highway crosses the river near the University of Tennessee campus. The highway makes its way through large hunks of forest and provides spectacular view of the river. The famed University of Tennessee Body Farm is here, behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center. The Body Farm is where anthropologists study bodies decomposing under various conditions. Less creepy is I.C. King Park off of Alcoa Highway, at which you’ll find 120 acres of park. There’s boat access, fishing, eight miles of mountain biking and plenty of natural trail to keep you busy.
Further south on the highway, into Blount County, is McGhee Tyson Airport, which flies eight major airlines and goes to 19 nonstop destinations, including Chicago, New York, Denver and Washington, D.C. The airport got a $70 million renovation a few years ago. The expansion added new gates, ticket counters, elevators and escalators, and a 115-foot indoor stream. It’s difficult to objectively measure such things, but McGhee Tyson is one of the more pleasurable airport experiences in the country.
John Sevier Highway begins its eastern trek at Alcoa Highway, not far south I.C. King Park. The road is named for the governor of the same name. Sevier served four years as the governor of the “State” of Franklin (1784-1790), a secessionist territory in what is now East Tennessee that existed for only six years. Sevier later served for 12 years as governor of Tennessee and four years as a representative in Congress. The Ramsey House Plantation is off John Sevier Highway. This historic home was built in 1797 for Francis Alexander Ramsey, and it now serves as a museum.
Chapman Highway, to the east of Alcoa Highwy, once served as the gateway to the Smoky Mountains. The road will still get you there by way of Sevierville. The former hotbed of tourism still has those throwback retro signs advertising everything from skating rinks to drive-in movie theaters. Emerging from the thick kudzu jungle on Chapman you’ll find some of Knoxville’s best small businesses. There are icons like Comics Exchange and Basement Records and the Disc Exchange. There’s even a Kay’s Ice Cream, with its colossal skyward cone begging you to grab a ladder and scale it for a lick.
Chapman Highway also gives you access to Fort Dickerson Park. The 85-acre park has a Civil War fort, replica cannons and a tremendous view of a rock quarry. Swimming in it is illegal, but college kids are known to take the gamble every now and again.
Further northeast, on the outskirts of the Island Home neighborhood, is Ijams Nature Center. The 100 acre wildlife sanctuary has some of Knoxville’s most pristine views.
Sounds about right all right.