5 Nearby National Parks
Tennessee's highest peak lies deep inside the Great Smoky Mountains, the nation's most visited National Park. From the observation deck at Clingman's Dome you get a real sense of the beauty throughout East Tennessee (and Western North Carolina). While more than 9-million people come to the Smokies each year, it's one of a handful of national parks all within a couple hours drive of Knoxville.
Big South Fork National River and Recreation area straddles the Tennessee & Kentucky state line. Compared to other National Parks, it's relatively new, created in 1974 with Sen. Howard Baker, Jr. one of the primary proponents of the park. The gorge created by the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River is the main draw, but the park is filled with natural arches, waterfalls, opportunities for whitewater kayaking, and a great deal of history including a look at life in a coal mining camp, and an English utopian settlement. While this park isn't much further from Knoxville than GSMNP, the crowds don't seem to gravitate toward it, making it easy to really get away from it all.
Not far from Big South Fork, the Obed Wild and Scenic River offers spectacular views of a truly wild river and abundant opportunities for rock climbing. In fact, the park service actually offers free rock climbing opportunities once a month.
The original gateway to the west is actually located where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia all come together. Now, that location is home to Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. Whether it's walking out to the Pinnacle Overlook, hiking to the Tri-State peak, going deep inside the mountain in the Gap Cave, or just learning more about Daniel Boone's travels, this park should be a must see on anyone's list.
And last, but not least, consider heading to the Chattanooga/Chickamauga National Military Park. From the top of Lookout Mountain you get unparalleled views of the city and the Tennessee River. You also get an idea of what soldiers in the Civil War went through as they camped out on the mountain. Just a few miles away, on the other side of Lookout Mountain is the Chickamauga Battlefield portion of the park (in Ft. Oglethorpe, GA), a solemn reminder of the many sacrifices soldiers made during the Civil War.