The key to Knoxville's Urban Wilderness
While developers work on building a new headquarters for Regal Cinemas and people continue move into new apartments along Island Home Avenue, adventure seekers are heading just a couple miles down the road to Knoxville's Urban Wilderness.
Just past the entrance to Ijams Nature Center, the old Mead Quarry comes into view. This is a great place to start exploring the 1,000 acres of wilderness in the middle of the city. High rock walls contrast sharply with the pool of deep blue-green water below.
The beauty of the place is captivating, especially considering just how chaotic it probably felt when workers were hauling out rock there by the ton. The quarry is now a popular place for paddleboarding, swimming and kayaking as well as a place to begin backwoods adventures on foot or on bicycles. You can rent gear for going out on the water from River Sports and you can even grab a pint at the Yee Haw beer wagon, relax and enjoy the view.
Two prominent business families operated quarries in the area including the Mead Quarry and the nearby Ross Marble Quarry. These businesses helped Knoxville gain a worldwide reputation for the marble coming out of its quarries. Today, decades after their demise, the quarries have been overtaken by nature.
From the parking lot at the Mead Quarry look for signs pointing to the Imerys Trail. This relatively easy stroll back into the woods brings big payoffs. In fact, you could say it's the true "key" to finding treasures in the Urban Wilderness. As the trail passes by the railroad tracks, a couple of arched brick pits come into view. These high temperature kilns were once used to turn the limestone from the quarry into products used in agriculture.
As the Imerys Trail heads into the woods, the bustle of the world nearby starts to fade. There is a bit of an incline to deal with at the beginning, but most of the trail stays level up to the point where you see the Ross Marble sign. From here you'll want to take the Keyhole/Rockbridge Loop trail which takes you to one of the most unique spots in all of the urban wilderness. Going to the right takes you gently down to this landmark, while taking the route to the left takes you over it. Either way takes you there.
Back in the 1920's the Ross Marble Quarry was very active. In an effort to make it easier for workers to bring equipment in, they built an entrance through the massive quarry walls. Today, a short walk down some steps takes you the "Keyhole", a portal to the heart of this remnant of the "Marble City's" past. Once inside, a few more steps lead to the bottom where a couple of trails take you closer to the grooved rock walls and to an underground stream hidden under a large metal grate lined up against the quarry walls.
The key to Knoxville's Urban Wilderness is surprisingly easy to find and getting a taste of this will likely have you wanting to explore more. So whether it's the calming water at the Mead Quarry, the unusual landscape at the "Keyhole," or just a hike through the woods, it's time to take a trip.