Going Wild in Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness
The 1,000-acre patch of hills and riverfront had been right in front of us a long time. It just took some vision and a lot of work to make Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness a reality.
Now, the Legacy Parks Foundation and the Outdoor Knoxville Adventure invite you to take a closer look at the green spaces buffering downtown skyscrapers.
Vendors, such as Tennessee Valley Bikes, make it so easy to join the fun. This bike shop edges the Old City entertainment district and is located less than a half mile from historic Market Square. From there, it is a quick ride down Gay Street and across the bridge. In 15 minutes, bikers are on miles of backwoods bike trail
Scott Smith, who co-owns the shop, says he does it all the time. Even a lunch break is enough time to get out on the trails.
“There are some interesting places to see back here,” he said as he pointed out spots on a trail map. “And there is so much of it that you don’t get bored.”
While most cities, Knoxville included, have constructed greenways for biking and walking around town, the Urban Wilderness is a step beyond. The South Loop of the still-evolving Urban Wilderness was opened in 2012. It has 40-plus miles of biking and hiking trails.
The launch point for most adventures is Ijams Nature Center, a 275-acre protected habitat with plenty of paved trails. But the real mountain biking begins back by Mead’s Quarry, where bikers climb up and fly down the trails. Man-made palisades of jagged limestone form an almost primeval backdrop. A formation called The Keyhole seems like an open door cut through the rock base of a mountain.
Biking in this part of the Urban Wilderness is not for the faint of heart, and is designed for more experienced riders. Rocks and tree roots are part of the challenge, turning the ride into an awesome adventure.
Ijams is just a small, bumpy stretch of the trail that rolls right along the Tennessee and French Broad rivers, cuts back inland to places like the Hastie Natural Area and Marie Myers Park, and eventually circles around past Ross Marble Quarry to Ijams.
Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness is the brainchild of a nonprofit organization called the Legacy Foundation, which has tasked itself with making Knoxville and Knox County more of an outdoor destination.
“It is all-encompassing,” said Carol Evans, Legacy’s executive director. “We looked at what cities like Chattanooga were doing. Urban Wilderness was our project to create a wilderness recreation area on the south shore [of the Tennessee River, which runs through Knoxville]. We created connections among the trails that already existed and made an outdoor adventure area within the city.”
Evans said Legacy hasn’t had time yet to measure the success of Urban Wilderness with data, but “I know the parking lots are full on Saturdays.” She said a study has shown people are seeking out homes with quick access to the Urban Wilderness. When we talked on the last day of Outdoor Knoxfest, Evans said attendance at events had been great — “much better than we expected.”
Outdoor Knoxfest kick-starts spring recreation in April each year, making it easy for people of all ages and experience levels to try new activities, including paddle boards, rock-wall climbing, or mountain biking.
Evans said the Urban Wilderness project enhances, rather than competes, with the many outdoor destinations of East Tennessee.
“It has been said that in terms of recreation, if it is good for your residents, it will be good for visitors,” said Evans. “We think having something like Urban Wilderness for our residents is really important. At the same time, if you are traveling from Seattle, you come here to go to Big South Fork or the Great Smoky Mountains. We want to be a part of the mix. It’s not an either-or thing, but it all becomes part of the experience.”