Knoxville’s Nature Centers Are Calling
Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville stays busy on Saturday mornings.
A cross-country team stretches as it prepares for a long run through the woods; a mountain biker checks his tires before he rides the trails. A family surveys a posted map for the best directions to a rock formation known as “the keyhole,” and a group is putting on life jackets and checking out canoes.
Knoxville is and will always be a place where visitors stop on their way to nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Big South Fork or the Obed Wild and Scenic River, but the city has made a big push in the last year to become an outdoor destination of its own.
Ijams Nature Center, located just south of downtown, has plenty of flora and fauna to enjoy. With the addition of more land in 2001 including Mead’s Quarry, it has become an outdoor adventure playground.
While this Tennessee marble quarry was in operation it had a water problem. Pumps were needed to keep the runoff from a nearby spring out of the deep work area. Now the quarry operation is gone and that spring has taken over. Some parts of the 25-acre lake are 100 feet deep. On select Saturdays, naturalist Stephen Lyn Bales leads canoes around the lake, pointing out the unusual rock formations and wondrous surrounding vegetation. Mimosas are among the non-native trees that shoot from the cut-rock formations. Their pink flowers stand out among the overwhelming green.
Lyn calls attention to a few mysterious animals. He talks about freshwater jellyfish, the tiny translucent creatures that live in big colonies in the cool water. He admits it is hard for some visitors to believe there are such animals and many in the group don’t see any, but he promises they are there.
Indigo buntings flutter by occasionally. Lyn mentions that their feathers usually turn dark in the shade, but in the bright sunlight their blue goes electric. “So, they like to stay in the sunlight and show off,” he says.
His discussion of the history of Mead’s Quarry is interesting, but sometimes it is better to paddle up and admire the deep green water, brown- and grey-banded cliffs, and the forest green. A group of paddleboarders strokes to near a rock formation, puts up its paddles, and begins a yoga class on the water.
Getting away for relaxation is a theme of Ijams. Hiking trails, including a riverfront boardwalk, abound in the 300-acre park. Mountain bikers have seven miles of backwoods routes to explore. Ross Marble Quarry, close to Mead’s Quarry, was not flooded and maintains its jagged shapes. The nature center has animal displays and hands-on educational resources.
Ijams is connected to the still-developing Knoxville Urban Wilderness, a parcel of 1,000 acres of woods and fields located just minutes from downtown. The stretch of woodlands encompasses Ijams and includes a 12.5-mile hiking loop trail.
Ijams isn’t the only place for a quick urban escape to nature in East Tennessee.
The University of Tennessee Arboretum is a 250-acre research and education facility in Oak Ridge that is open to the public. Just minutes from downtown, this green landscape has a varied network of hiking trails.
Wildflower meadows, streams and forests are all part of the 317 acres that make up the Chattanooga Arboretum and Nature Center. Visitors can canoe Lookout Creek to spot a great blue heron, or hike to the restored log home of Cherokee Chief Walking Stick.
Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium near downtown Kingsport has a nature center as part of its 3,500 preserve. The park includes a 44-acre lake, live animal exhibitions, and backwoods hiking and biking.
What’s your favorite outdoor activity to do in Tennessee? Let me know in the comments!