Exploring Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness

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by Paul James


IjamsPicIn days of old, many of us didn’t travel far; what lay beyond was often unknown, out of reach and perhaps out of mind. Yet, the natural world was all around us; the sound of the wind, the call of the wolf or even the cry of a solitary eagle. While this sounds a little like Pocahontas’ world, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that if we put aside our multitude of electronic devices for a moment, those landscapes are still ours. And better yet, remarkably close by.

Despite the allure of the nearby Great Smoky Mountains, there is a landscape close to home that is available to everyone presenting endless opportunities for those seeking solitude, discovery, adventure or just a plain old healthy life.  There’s a common term for this “paradise” – it’s called Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness. And aside from the price of a few miles of gasoline, it’s also practically free (donations of course are always gladly accepted and appreciated)!

Where to start? Head down to Ijams Nature Center, which is the gateway to the South Loop of the Urban Wilderness. Just a stone’s throw from Market Square or a mere 25 minute cruise from West Knoxville, there are 35+ miles of trails and 1,000 acres awaiting you. Ijams has trail connections to nearby Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area, William Hastie Natural Area and Marie Myers Park. Peripheral trails on private easements have created a trail system that is both unique and uniquely Knoxville at that. Three miles of new trails at Ijams will open this spring for hikers and bikers providing endless opportunities for discovery and adventure.


“Despite the allure of the nearby Great Smoky Mountains, there is a landscape close to home that is available to everyone, presenting endless opportunities for those seeking solitude, discovery, adventure or just a plain old healthy life.”


Ijams itself is a magical place that has been called “a series of never-ending surprises”. The traditional wildlife sanctuary on one side of Island Home Avenue gives way to an expansive post-industrial location that Hollywood would be proud of. Woodlands filled with wildflowers, majestic trees and moss-covered boulder fields fill the landscape. You could easily film parts of King Kong, Planet of the Apes and The Hobbit here. The landscape can be simultaneously beautiful and somewhat strange, yet always captivating. And rock structures such as the Keyhole – one of East Tennessee’s most unique and memorable man-made structures, are an evocative relic of the bygone Tennessee Marble era that informs our cultural history.

If you and your family are more recreationally-minded, River Sports Outfitters opens an outpost mid-April at the Ijams Quarry. You can rent a mountain bike, canoe or something new – a stand up paddle board – or SUP for short. Mead’s Quarry Lake’s flat water is the perfect place if you’re just getting started. Plus, you might spot a freshwater jellyfish in the lake during the hot summer months. But worry not, they are the size of a quarter, don’t sting and testify to the cleanliness of the water.

If you’re looking for structured programs, Ijams has plenty to offer, ranging from summer camps, birding classes, Wagging Walks and Fairy House Building Competitions to adult movie nights, cocktail themed events and even Haunted Lantern Tours of the quarries close to Halloween. Check www.ijams.org regularly for all the details.

Knoxville really is an incredible place to be active. So, the next time you lay awake in the middle of the night thinking about things to do this weekend, place Ijams and the Urban Wilderness on the top of your list. I promise, you won’t run into any wolves but you might just encounter something else entirely, perhaps even that solitary eagle.


PaulJamesPaul James is Executive Director if Ijams Nature Center. He is Past Chair of Knox County Parks & Recreation Advisory Board; Past Chair of Dow Chemical Company (formerly Rohm & Haas) Community Advisory Board; and a Board Member of the Legacy Parks Foundation. Paul is a frequent writer for the Tennessee Conservationist Magazine and authored Ijams Nature Center, a visual history of the Ijams Family and the development of the nature center, published in 2010.

One comment on “Exploring Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness

  1. Ruth James (mum) says:

    I think you are the greatest.

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