The excitement on game day is palpable. Cheers come from the hordes of tailgaters lining the roadways and filling the parking lot near the University of Tennessee, yachts and houseboats of the Vols Navy line the banks of the Tennessee River, and occasionally UT cancels classes or city courtis canceled to revel in the spectacle of Volunteer football.
If you’re among the tens of thousands that gravitate towards Neyland Stadium each fall, filling the streets of downtown with a constant stream of orange and white, you know what it’s all about—the attraction, the energy. Leading up to kickoff, Fort Sanders, the neighborhood adjacent to UT, transforms into a pulsating party of team spirit, with celebrations spilling out of bars and restaurants throughout downtown.
Yet before the revelry builds as the Vols take the field, or if you’ve had your fill of concrete confines of downtown, there are plenty of greener attractions to get you outside to fill out your Vols-hollering weekend. From hidden gems within walking distance of UT to breath-taking attractions worth a short drive or Uber, here are your best bets for enjoying the outdoors on gameday weekends.
*1. World’s Fair Park *
Separating the University of Tennessee campus from downtown proper is World’s Fair Park, a spacious tangle of walkways and green space with picturesque waterfalls, a large playground, and waterworks. It’s home to Knoxville’s iconic Sunsphere, a 266-foot-tall golden orb that’s the last remaining structure from the 1982 World’s Fair. Take the elevator up to its observation deck (free of charge) for near panoramic views of UT, downtown, and the distant Smoky Mountains.
For a relaxing afternoon, bring a blanket and spread out on the festival lawn, or break out the cell phone for selfies in front of the waterfall with the Sunsphere twinkling in the background. Follow the paved path south for less than a half mile and you’ll find yourself on the banks of the Tennessee River, where the park’s footpaths connect with the Neyland Greenway.
2. Neyland Greenway
The well-paved and often traveled Neyland Greenway (also called the Downtown or Riverwalk greenway) skirts the banks of the Tennessee for several miles. Hang a left and make your way to Volunteer Landing, where the VOL Navy moors up on game days for "sailgating" festivities. Here concrete steps lead down to the river, and the nearby Calhoun’s On the River and Ruth’s Chris Steak House are a couple delicious dining options.
Go to the right and you’ll pass below the imposing Neyland Stadium and the southside of the University of Tennessee Campus, where you’ll find a well-groomed UT Garden with a winding assortment of pathways, flowers, and shaded benches. Continue on past UT and take the first paved path to the right, which connects with Tyson Park near Cumberland Avenue on the west end of Fort Sanders, completing a loop back to the heart of Vols Country.
3. Swing from a bluff overlooking Neyland Stadium
Just south of the Tennessee River is a soaring hilltop adorned with a quaint wooden swing that offers stellar views of UT, Neyland Stadium, and downtown Knoxville. The good news is you don’t even have to climb a mountain to enjoy this college hotspot, just take a short 5-10 minute drive (or Uber), and try not to miss the gravel turn off.
Head south on Alcoa Highway, taking the exit for Cherokee Trail just over the river. You will pass a hospital on your left and several student housing complexes as you climb the hill. There is a gravel road almost directly across from the giant blue water tower (you can’t miss this structure) with a small parking area, or park across the street at High Ground Park. A short hike along the gravel path and the city will come into view. This is a favorite spot for many UT students and a great locale to catch the sunset (or sunrise, if you’re one of those people).
4. Paddle or Cruise with the VOLS Navy
Rent a paddleboard, kayak, or book a tour to join the festivities with the Vols Navy, a loose contingent of boaters that assemble near Vols Landing each home game.
Next to Ruth’s Chris Steak House off the Neyland Greenway you’ll find Billy Lush Board Shop, which offers hourly or daily kayak, paddleboard, and bicycle rentals. A staff member will launch you into the river at a nearby dock. From there, head right to make your way to the Navy anchors, just a few hundred yards away, or go left for a more reclusive outing towards the tree-lined banks of Ijams Nature Center.
The Tennessee Boat Line offers 45-minute Vols Navy tours on game days. The $15-per-person outings promise an opportunity to participate in the "sailgating" phenomena amongst the die-hard UT boat backers. These populars tours launch from Vols Landing, and have a tendency to fill up fast. Reservations weeks or even months in advance are encourage. Check availability online at http://tennesseeboatline.com or call 865-312-9000.
Take I-40 east to exit 407 and hang a right. Follow the signs for Gatlinburg and the GSMNP, though it may be best to route to the park’s visitor’s center for a rundown of maps, trail conditions, and professional advice from the rangers: 107 Sugarlands Visitor Center Loop Road, Gatlinburg, 37738.
5. Let the Pooch Run Loose on a Hike at Concord Park
About 20 minutes southwest of UT is Concord Park, a popular weekend destination for family outings, hikers, bikers, and pets alike. The 500-acre park abuts a lake by the same name, with more than 10 miles of hiking trails winding through the hills and along its shoreline. It’s also home to the largest off-leash dog park in Knoxville, a fenced in four-acre spread complete with a "doggy marina" where your furry four-legged companion can get its feet wet.
Head west out of town along I-40, turning south onto I-140 (Pellissippi Parkway). Take exit 3 onto Westland Drive, turning right. The road will turn, but keeps the same name, shortly before funneling through Concord Park. For access to most trails and the dog park, find a parking spot in the lot to your right.
6. Spend a day in the Great Smoky Mountains
The nation’s most visited national park lies just an hour away from Knoxville, depending on which section of the sprawling Great Smoky Mountains National Park you set your sights on. Some of the most accessible trails from Knoxville spur off of Cades Cove, including a number of noteworthy hikes in the park and a heft of historic Appalachian homes and history. Luckily, the visitor count starts to fall off during fall and winter, so you likely won’t have to fight the crowds. Brace for cooler temperatures in the mountains, though.
One of the most popular hikes in the parks just off of Cade’s Cove to Abrams Falls. Clocking in at about 5 miles, the moderate trek is one of the easier and most accessible in the park. That usually means throngs of lookie-loos during the peak summer months, but foot traffic dies off considerable after September, making it a prime time to visit and a good family destination.
Nearby Gatlinburg, which sits just outside the park’s west entrance along Highway 441, is packed with tourist attractions, eateries, and souvenir shops. If you’re interested in Appalachia’s bootlegging past turned legal, stop off at the handful of distilleries in the area for a nip of "light lightning" moonshine and a lesson in the area’s “thunder road” legacy. Popular destinations include Sugarlands, Doc Collier, and Ole Smoky distilleries.