Nearly every time my family and I travel to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), we stop and take a picture at the entrance sign. It’s kind of amazing to look back and see how much they have changed with each visit. We are blessed to live close to such a national treasure. A visit to the Smokies should be on everyone’s list, but I’d like to share six East Tennessee National Parks and over 20 places within to see beyond America’s most visited National Park.
6 East Tennessee National Parks
All photos by Clayton Hensley unless otherwise noted or watermarked. You can see more of Clayton’s photos and writings at @KnoxRoadtripper.
Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area
A deep river gorge, natural arches, waterfalls and a historic coal mining camp have kept me coming back to Big South Fork National River for years. I’ve never been stuck in traffic or fought for a parking space in this wilderness wonderland covering 125,000 acres along the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee and Kentucky.
The Tennessee Side
The South Fork of the Cumberland River carves out a masterpiece in this part of the country. The deep gorge is best seen from one of the overlooks like the East Rim or the one at Devil’s Jump. For a closer view, Leatherwood Ford provides access to miles of trails along the river to places like Angel Falls and the O&W Bridge.
The Tennessee side is also home to stunning natural arches, the Bandy Creek Campground, and just outside the park, the historic town of Rugby, an English Utopian settlement seemingly stuck in time.
The Kentucky Side
Places like Blue Heron on the Kentucky side transport you back to the region’s coal mining roots. Get there by train from the historic company town of Stearns, or just drive. Other things to do nearby, visit the 113-foot high Yahoo Falls, spend time at the Yahoo Arch, or stand in awe of the river gorge at Devil’s Jump.
Obed Wild and Scenic River
The Obed River System is a hidden gem along the Cumberland Plateau. Like its name suggests, this is a truly wild part of East Tennessee. The park’s remote nature makes it a great place for adventure. While the main draw is the river itself (known for great fishing and whitewater paddling opportunities) the views from the Lilly Bluff Overlook are in my opinion, its best asset. An elaborate boardwalk runs along the top of the massive rock walls providing an unforgettable glimpse into the wilderness.
Bonus Tip: Take the trail from the bridge at the bottom and hike up to the bluff. Bouldering and Rock Climbing are other popular activities, some of which are offered free at different times of the year.
Cumberland Gap National Historic Park
The original gateway to the West is at the heart of the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park located in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. Daniel Boone led thousands of people through a narrow gap in the mountains to settle the Bluegrass State and places further west. While the park’s focus is on the story of the Wilderness Road, the natural wonders abound.
On nearly every visit, I go to the Pinnacle Overlook which stands at 2,400 feet above sea level. The dramatic views of three states make this one of the most popular spots. For a very different view, go deep underground by taking a tour of Gap Cave (formerly known as Cudjo’s Caverns or Cudjo’s Cave). Skylight Cave and Sand Cave can be reached by short hikes and do not require a guide. For the more adventurous, hike up the White Rocks on the Virginia side or trek to the Hensley Settlement, an old farming community straddling state lines on top of the mountain.
Chattanooga/Chickamauga National Military Park
Another park charged with the task of telling stories about history is split between the city of Chattanooga on one side of Lookout Mountain and Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia on the other. What happened here has been called the “Death Knell of the Confederacy.” I think a visit to Chattanooga just isn’t complete with at least a visit to the Point Park section (where there is a small entrance fee). The stone castle entrance is just the beginning of an awesome tour. You’ll see massive monuments and stunning views of the city. Visitors can also learn immersive lessons on life as a Civil War-era soldier.
On the Georgia Side, Chickamauga Battlefield
The Georgia portion sprawls out along the Chickamauga Battlefield. Dozens of monuments and memorials line the drive around the park. When you visit, you’ll see the Wilder Brigade Monument that rises high above them all. The 85-foot tower, with steps leading you to the top, gives a nice bird’s eye view of the battlefield.
Andrew Johnson National Historical Park
Growing up in Greeneville, Tennessee, it was hard not to know that a former US President had called the town “home.” Andrew Johnson was the 17th President, taking the oath of office after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. As a result, streets, banks, and businesses named after Johnson fill the town today. At the center of it all is a small National Park preserving two of his homes, his tailor shop, and his final resting place.
How to Explore Andrew Johnson National Historical Park
Start your journey at the Visitors Center where the Tailor Shop and Museum are located. Also, allow time to tour his main home a few blocks away. The best view in the park is from the National Cemetery. Be sure and get there before it closes to catch unrivaled views of the Unaka Mountain range.
Manhattan Project National Historical Park
This is one of the newest parks under the National Park Service umbrella. Part of the park is in the “Secret City” of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a city once home to more than 70,000 people all working on a project (The Manhattan Project) that helped end World War II. Note: Many of the sites are still working installations. The Park Service is trying to find the best ways to tell this incredible story. Start at the American Museum of Science and Energy where the World War II “secret” is revealed through various exhibits and the park’s visitors’ center.
Our Thoughts and Yours, Too!
So, which of these places and East Tennessee National Parks would you like to explore first? Ever been to any of these places that I’ve listed? They are pretty awesome, but we greatly appreciate your input! We’d love to read your thoughts in the comments section below.