With daydreams of adventure and longing for a world much wilder than the office break room, concrete streets and manicured trees of the city landscape, Knoxville’s outdoor recreation lovers need not travel far to find where the city gives way to the country.
The city’s Urban Wilderness provides 1,000 acres of inner city green space, linked by more than 40 miles of hiking and biking trails and waterways. Beginning at the confluence of the French Broad and the Holston rivers, which forms the Tennessee River, there are opportunities to canoe, kayak and paddleboard against the backdrop of open meadows, dense forests and rocky cliffs—all located two miles from the heart of the city.
“It’s really the perfect blend of urban and wilderness,” said Carol Evans, executive director of the Legacy Parks Foundation, which has spearheaded the creation of Knoxville’s urban wilderness. “You can be in the woods all day, then you have your nice dinner downtown in a 10-minute drive.”
A 12-mile loop trail ties together the parks that comprise the wilderness. Some pass closely by neighborhoods, while other sections feel as though they are in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains, Evans said. The main trail features rolling hills and open fields dotted with sunflowers as well as mature hardwoods and rugged rock outcroppings.
But it wasn’t always this way. Not too long ago, the future wilderness was just a hodgepodge of disjointed private and public lands, city parks, a state wildlife management area and a local non-profit organization’s nature center. In 2009, Evans and the Legacy Parks Foundation were attempting to purchase a 70-acre tract of private land, one of the last holdouts of unprotected parcels across the Tennessee River from downtown. Losing it to development would have threatened the wooded view from the opposite bank.
However, Evans soon realized that purchasing the property was a lot more important than she originally thought. While flying back to Knoxville after an out-of-state conference, she was examining a map of the tract and the area surrounding it. Soaring thousands of feet in the air, Evans began connecting the dots of green on the landscape below.
“I noted just how green everything was out there, I began counting the parks and counting the green space,” she said. “I began to recognize that this truly was an urban wilderness.”
A large-scale project eventually linked 10 city parks, four civil war sites, the Ijams Nature Center, Forks of the River State Wildlife Management Area, and several private properties through a web of sidewalks, parks, greenways and trails. Evans’ organization, after announcing the launch of the urban wilderness initiative, raised $1.5 million necessary to purchase the 70-acre tract, as well as additional funds to buy up outstanding pieces of the wilderness puzzle.
The project attracted a local mountain biking group’s interest and a group of willing landowners granted easements across their properties to make trails possible. One property owner was an avid mountain biker and already had trails on his property, and another elderly couple in their 90s had hiked in the Smokies every Wednesday until well into their 80s, Evans said. Needless to say they were enthusiastic about the prospect of a wilderness corridor passing through their backyards.
Now, the wilderness initiative is continuing its expansion. Last August a property owner donated 100 acres of land, and the initiative recently was awarded a state grant to develop another six miles of hiking trails. Evans hopes to soon connect the eastern network of trails to a series of green spaces to the west that contain an old Civil War battlefield and three forts. That’s the beauty of the Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness, she said, there are no boundaries.
“Within one park you have a boundary past which you can’t expand, but with this, there is the ability to continue to make connections,” Evans said.