If you live in Knoxville and you love to backpack and hike, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park casts a long shadow.
The park has 900 miles of hiking trails, the most famous being the Appalachian Trail, which stretches 72 miles through the Smokies and reaches its highest elevation from Maine to Georgia near the summit of Clingmans Dome, elevation 6,625 feet.
Less famous, but equally worthwhile, are some of the municipal and state parks located within minutes of downtown Knoxville. In terms of day hiking, two of the very best are House Mountain State Natural Area and Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge, both in East Knox County.
As their names suggests, both are natural areas where development has been kept to a minimum.
Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge offers almost five miles of trails through a diverse ecosystem of upland hardwood to river bottom fields sown in native warm season grasses. The 360-acre area fronts the French Broad River and includes a small boat ramp suitable for kayaks and canoes. Douglas Dam is 16 miles upstream from the park, and downtown Knoxville is 19 miles downstream.
Another excellent choice for stretching your legs is House Mountain State Natural Area, also about a 20-minute drive from Knoxville. The park's centerpiece is House Mountain, the highest point (2,100 feet) in Knox County.
The park covers 500 acres. Two trails lead to the summit of House Mountain, each about a mile climb with an elevation gain of 1,000 feet. From the top you can see all the way to the Cumberland Mountains to the north and the Smokies to the south. With binoculars, the Sunsphere is visible in downtown Knoxville.
A little more driving will get you to the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, a 125,000-acre national park situated on the Cumberland Plateau on both sides of the Tennessee-Kentucky border.
The Big South Fork has 400 miles of trails for hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking. The park allows hunting, so keep that in mind during deer season. The Big South Fork protects about 70 miles of the Big South Fork River, a free-flowing river whose upper section is Class IV whitewater, while the lower is mostly flat and suitable for overnight camping trips.
The whitewater equivalent to the Smokies is the Ocoee River, a class IV-V river in the Cherokee National Forest that sees about 300,000 rafting trips a year.
And speaking of the Cherokee National Forest, one of East Tennessee's unsung jewels for outdoor recreation is the Ocoee Whitewater Center, located just north of the Georgia border near Ducktown, Tenn. Constructed for the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, the center features a 7,200-square-foot visitor center fronting the 500-meter whitewater slalom course.
Just across the river is a 30-mile trail system designed for mountain biking. The trails radiate throughout the Cherokee National Forest and range from easy to expert in terms of difficulty.
Morgan Simmons may be reached at 865-342-6321.
© 2009, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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