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Summer Camp

Discover “America’s Secret City” 

By Wendy Bishop. Photo courtesy Oak Ridge Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

Are you always on the lookout for fun and interesting places to take your children during spring break or summertime? While some families plan long trips over several days, others choose to stay closer to home. If your family is looking for a “staycation,” Oak Ridge is a convenient and educational city that offers kid-friendly attractions and historical sites, all within a 20-minute drive of Knoxville. There are inexpensive and even free activities your family can participate in while learning about the Secret City at the same time.

School-age children and adults will find it fascinating that Oak Ridge was built as a top-secret city in 1942 by the U.S. government for the Manhattan Project during WWII. The city was enclosed behind a fence at that time and not even on a map until 1949. At the height of the project, more than 75,000 people lived and worked in Oak Ridge, not knowing what they were working on, only knowing that they were helping the war effort. Plants were built; guards were posted at all entry points into the city; and houses were built as quickly as one every half hour. It was a town that worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until one Tuesday morning in August of 1945 when the residents of Oak Ridge woke to find a newspaper headline declaring peace. It was only then that the community itself learned what they had been working to build in the Secret City.

The history of Oak Ridge lives on through the American Museum of Science and Energy (AMSE), which tells the story of Oak Ridge’s role in the Manhattan Project. It also explains the scientific and technological advances that Oak Ridge has made since the end of WWII. AMSE has an impressive history room, which includes hundreds of historic photographs taken by renowned World War II photographer, Ed Westcott. The museum also features rotating exhibits and the “Exploration Station” with self-directed activities that explore light and color, sound, problem solving, static electricity, robotics, vision and more.

“School age children and adults will find it fascinating that Oak Ridge was built as a top-secret city in 1942 by the U.S. government for the Manhattan Project during WWII.”

The Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge offers a hands-on cultural and educational center for kids of all ages, highlighting the pioneer and Manhattan Project history that Oak Ridge is known for, as well as offering entertainment in the form of hands-on exhibits such as a child-size dollhouse, a rainforest, and pioneer log homes.

The young and young at heart can spend hours viewing the model railroad setup at the museum. The Knoxville Model Railroad Club is headquartered at the museum, and they offer camps during the summer months to teach children how to build their own layouts. The museum also houses an original red caboose, which is the centerpiece of the DIY Network-installed train garden that operates once a month and during the Christmas season.

For more trains, the Secret City Scenic Excursion Train affords visitors the chance to take a 12-mile tour through the once secret K-25 Plant site and the Blair Community. Historians explain the significance of the plant and one of the pre-war communities, as they explore the beautiful countryside of Oak Ridge.

If you’re looking for outdoor family activities, the University of Tennessee Arboretum offers over 250 acres of trees, shrubs and flowering plants that offer wonderful views, scenic trails, and a relaxing atmosphere. In addition, the City of Oak Ridge has 14 parks and 11 greenways throughout the city, with hiking trails, recreational fields, playgrounds, and bike trails. Oak Ridge also boasts a Skate Park and two Disc Golf Courses for older children.

Whether its indoor museums, outdoor activities and games, hiking trails, or guided tours, the Oak Ridge has something fun and educational for everyone. For more family fun ideas and information about visiting the Secret City, contact the Oak Ridge Convention & Visitors Bureau at 865-482-7821 or visit

Wendy Bishop is the public relations manager at the Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau.  She also serves as Secretary for the Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association.  Bishop holds a BS in Communications from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.  She and her husband live in Knoxville.

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