View of the Knoxville, Tennessee skyline at night

A rural landscape in Knoxville, Tennessee. (ThinkStock)

What to do in Knoxville

The much larger music Meccas of Memphis and Nashville often overshadow Knoxville, a town with unique charms. Knoxville, with a population of about 180,000, is small enough to be manageable but big enough to support a cultural scene that includes museums, performances, and events on the University of Tennessee campus. For families looking to combine a city tour with country adventures, Knoxville’s proximity to several national parks, forests, and recreation areas is ideal.

To sample the Tennessee River, stroll the mile-long waterfront trail Volunteer Landing, or for a more scenic tour, cruise a Mississippi-style paddle-wheeler, or ride a 1925 steam locomotive along the river.

Three facilities in town offer places to romp that especially cater to young kids. A highlight of the World’s Fair Park, site of the 1982 international exposition, is the interactive fountain. Kids cool off by dancing through the spurting jets (active mid-March to October). View river otters, gorillas, chimpanzees, and elephants at the Knoxville Zoo, and allow time for the interactive Kids Cove where children learn how to milk a cow, zip down a log slide, and climb into a giant bird’s nest. The 160-acre Ijams Nature Center, with miles of trails through woods and meadows, features environmental education events. Learn to hoot while looking for the big-eyed birds on an Owl Prowl, watch critters with bad reputations and learn about how false those reputations are at Bat Night, and discover the importance of creepy crawlies while searching the grounds for the ugliest, largest, and smallest insects on Bug Night.

Learn all about the lives of mountain folks at the Museum of Appalachia, Clinton, about 16 miles north of Knoxville. The 65-acre facility recreates a 19th-century village with 30 authentic log structures, including a schoolhouse, smokehouse, and cabins. Discover pioneers of a different kind at the American Museum of Science and Energy, Oak Ridge.Along with hands-on exhibits about wind, water, and other forms of fuel, the facility presents exhibits on nuclear energy and the Secret City in Oak Ridge where scientists worked on the Manhattan Project, the clandestine operation that lead to the U.S. development of the atomic bomb.

For scenic outdoor adventures, simply drive an hour or so beyond the city limits where you can hike and horseback ride in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Cherokee National Forest, and the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. Then, paddle your way down the Big South Fork National River and Recreational Area, or raft the Obed Wild and Scenic River.

Tip: The Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont offers low cost three- and five-day naturalist-led family camping trips.

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