NOTE: As you head out on the trail, remember to follow the guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local governments. For resources on how to #SharetheTrail and #RecreateResponsibly, go to railstotrails.org/COVID-19.
Tennessee’s state slogan is, “Tennessee: America at Its Best.” Although this isn’t as quippy as one of the many quotes shared by famous Tennessean Dolly Parton, it really does describe the state’s trails and stunning natural areas. From the magnificent Smoky Mountains to the Appalachian Trail to impressively expansive assets like the Cumberland Park State Trail system, Tennessee has plenty of nature to go around. Its rail-trails and greenways run their course through these picturesque surroundings and, equally, pay homage to urban areas where they can be found. Here are 10 of our favorite trails in this Southern state.
If you’re searching for a rail-trail that comes with a heaping side of things to do, you’re in luck with the Shelby Farms Greenline. At just over 10 miles, running from midtown Memphis to Cordova, the asphalt trail resides alongside the accompanying 4,500-acre Shelby Farms Park, the largest urban park in the United States. It’s a place packed with family-friendly activities. Bike rentals? Horseback riding? Ziplining? A water play sprayground? Yup, they’ve got it all. The park even has its own herd of American Bison, rounding out the diverse experiences this trail, and park, has to offer.
Counties: Carter, Washington
Adorably named after steam whistle sounds of yore, today, the 10-mile crushed stone Tweetsie Trail between Johnson City and Elizabethton is a local treasure. If you’re interested in railroad history, this trail is for you, featuring nearly two dozen markers with historical info, along with nature facts, too. At mile marker 2.5, there’s the Milligan Depot, a replica train station. Still jonesing for local history? Don’t miss the 70-acre Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, just off the trail. Several important 18th-century events took place here, where you can view historic reenactments and see the oldest standing frame house in Tennessee.
Don’t fear—you don’t have to be an actual mountain goat to tackle this trail! The 7.5-mile, asphalt Mountain Goat Trail, starting in Sewanee, was once a railway that carried coal and passengers. Punctuated with striking wooded scenery and wooden bridges, this trail has plenty of opportunities to see nature in all its glory, especially since it runs alongside the Hawkins Cove State Natural Area, a 249-acre destination dotted with limestone formations.
Acting as a connector between Athens and Englewood, the Eureka Trail comes in at nearly 5 miles. The gravel surface was once an old railroad bed, making its way through wooded areas and bucolic farmland. Named after a cotton mill that once resided at the Englewood trailhead, today, the trail holds a couple notable destinations that will give your excursion a real flavor for the area, like the Loch Low-Minn Scuba Diving Resort. If you’re an avid scuba diver, you’ll love viewing fish and other aquatic wildlife in a pristine 10-acre quarry lake. In Athens, you’ll discover the nearby Mayfield Dairy Farms, where you can savor locally-churned ice cream.
There’s a reason why trails are sometimes called “greenways”—they’re just so lush and green that the name is fitting. And it’s certainly appropriate for the 3.5-mile, asphalt Will Skelton Greenway, which is located near Knoxville and starts at Island Home Park. Saturated with verdant trees and beautiful views of the Tennessee River, you can visit the Ijams Nature Center to enjoy even more of the outdoors, and the Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area, where sunflowers bloom as far as the eye can see.
Oak Ridge, located near Knoxville, holds a treasure in the nearly 6-mile Melton Lake Greenway, an asphalt trail that runs alongside Melton Hill Lake, where collegiate and other crew teams frequently practice in its waters. In addition to the close-up views of the lake as you walk or ride, there are a couple of parks to check out during your excursion, such as Melton Lake Park, where you can have a picnic and play sand volleyball, and Haw Ridge Park, geared toward mountain bike enthusiasts.
Linking up with Nashville’s extensive greenway system, Stones River Greenway is one that’s particularly notable, running parallel with the Stones River for much of its 10 miles and providing pretty waterside scenes and a view of the 130-foot J. Percy Priest Dam. To see more local sites, don’t miss the neighboring Stone Hall estate, built in 1918 and still looking stately to this day. At the tunnel beneath the Briley Parkway, each entrance features kaleidoscopic murals by graffiti artists Dante Bard and Troy Duff.
While Great Smoky Mountains National Park is certainly packed with trails, they sometimes can be packed with people, too. If you’d prefer an off-the-beaten-path trail that still captures the Smoky Mountain spirit, head to the 9-mile Townsend Historical Trail. Located in the hamlet of the same name, this tranquil asphalt trail features historical markers and scenic views. Nearby, you’ll find the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center, showcasing 13 historic buildings, and the Little River Railroad Museum, an homage to local railroad history.
Celebrate all that Chattanooga has to offer with the 16-mile paved Chattanooga Riverwalk. A mix of urban sights and natural beauty, you’ll view the Tennessee River as you take in the local culture. Many people on the path make the Tennessee Aquarium a must-stop, teeming with 10,000 aquatic animals from river otters to penguins to jellyfish. Need a boost of creativity? The trail goes right through the Bluff View Art District, known for its art gallery, coffeehouse and gardens.
Winding its way through the Cherokee National Forest and into the town and parks of Erwin, the 4-mile, asphalt Erwin Linear Trail, with its mostly flat grade, is a treat for travelers of all ages and abilities. Perfect for families who want to take it easy, you’ll spot creeks and ponds as you mosey on over to the nearby Fishery Park, where you’ll find a restored wetland, tennis and basketball courts and outdoor concerts.
Thought of by residents as an iconic trail system, the Cumberland State Park Trail is undoubtedly a Tennessee must-see. Spanning over 330 miles through 11 counties, the trail is made up of several impressive segments, like the Cumberland Mountain Segment, where you’ll view the striking Cumberland Mountain Range and the Powell River Valley. Rock formations, waterfalls, mountain vistas, rivers and lakes populate this trail, making it one of the single best ways to appreciate all the gorgeous scenery this state has to offer.