Quite possibly the crown jewel of Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness, Ijams Nature Center is a popular destination among local outdoor enthusiasts looking to hit the hiking trails, bike paths, or swimming hole without even leaving the city.
Nestled just three miles from downtown in South Knoxville, the 300-acre wooded oasis offers a diverse smattering of walking and bike paths, a zip-line adventure course, educational installments, and two quarries—one a picturesque spot for summer watersports during summer months.
Originally founded as a bird sanctuary by Harry and Alice Yoe Ijams, the Ijams Nature Center traces its roots back more than a century, officially becoming a public nature park in the 1960s with the help of several local organizations. Over the years, it’s grown to incorporate more land and enough attractions to entertain a family for an entire weekend, or adventurous wandering for days on end. Whether you’re looking for a casual stroll or to test your footwork deep into this inner-city jungle, Ijams brings the outdoors to Knoxville’s doorstep.
Start any trip to Ijams at the visitor center, where you’ll find a small museum with exhibits about the area’s history and local animals. The original Ijams homesite sits on the western flank of the property, accessible from the Serendipity Trail, but the most picturesque views lie along one of the park’s easiest and most accessible footpaths: the Riverwalk trail.
Aim to the right of the visitor’s center and stop off at Jo’s Grove, a child-oriented play area with unique structures and lots of places for kids to explore, before hooking down towards the river along the short North Cove Trail. This 0.2-mile connector route is lined with wildflowers and meanders down to the water’s edge along the Tennessee River, where it meets the River Trail. Here the wide, mostly dirt path turns to boardwalk, hugging rock outcrops along the river. Take a right to go to the River Boardwalk and look for shorebirds and other wildlife.
At barely a mile long and with only small gains, this path makes an easy, yet rewarding option for families and trail runners alike. Be sure to grab a map from the visitor’s center before setting out, as there are several side trails worth exploring along the way.
Another trail worth exploring is the one-mile Imerys Trail, ranked among the best hikes in Knoxville, and located on the other side of the road by Mead’s Quarry Lake.
Imerys starts with a gradual climb, leading deep into this urban woodland, bisected by a series of offshoots and loop trails, for more than 12 miles in footpaths in all and connecting with the 50+ miles of Urban Wilderness trails on the south end via Turnbuckle Trail. Be sure to have your map handy to make the most of it.
Swimming and Paddling
Taking the Riverwalk Trail in full will put you out at a junction for Mead’s Quarry, an old marble quarry now filled with turquoise waters ripe for swimming, paddleboarding, or kayaking during the warmer months. Watercraft and mountain bike rentals are available spring through fall from Riversports Outfitter near the shore, as well as refreshments for purchase.
Stick around and paddle out in the tranquil waters to search for tiny freshwater jellyfish and enjoy the views of the towering bluffs to the quarry’s north side. Or take a splash from the dock and cool off after a little hike on a hot day.
The 9+ miles of trails in the Mead’s Quarry and the Ross Marble Natural Area are open both hikers and mountain bikers. The Ross Marble Quarry Loop, a quarter-mile circular trail that goes through a keyhole rock tunnel into this historic rock quarry, is a favorite among local mountain bikers. The dense foliage and moss-laden scenery feels far removed from many of the other park’s paths and the city. Large, slick-cut slabs of rock line the gully, drill marks still visible from past excavation work. Taken clockwise, you’ll get a view of the entire quarry about one-third of the way in, just before a turn off for the Ross Marble Trail.
Mountain bikers may choose to take the trail counterclockwise, riding a gradual climb up to the overlook before starting a meandering downhill descent. One of the steepest drops in the park is near the end of this trail before connecting again with Imerys trail.
Loop around the quarry in full, or for a longer and slightly more strenuous route, take a left onto the Ross Marble Trail and trod even deeper into the natural area. It will dead end into the farthest reaches of Imerys trail. Take another left and you’re on your way home, or connect to the Urban Wilderness trails on the south end via Turnbuckle Trail.
Ijams has the only outdoor crag in the city of Knoxville, with about a dozen sport routes on solid rock. There are both easy and moderate options, making it a great place to improve your climbing skills. When this article was published, climbing at the crag was limited to supervised climbing and classes due to insurance issues, but the plan is to open it back up for open climbing as soon as possible.
Just three miles southeast of downtown Knoxville, Ijams is easy to get to from just about any part of town, and close enough for evening jaunts after work or school. From downtown or Interstate 40, take the James White Parkway south over the Tennessee River, hanging a right at the first exit onto Anita Drive. Follow this road until it dead ends, taking a right onto Island Home Drive. The entrance and main parking area for Ijams is about 1.5 miles down on the left. Additional parking is available just after at Mead’s Quarry.
Due to its close proximity, biking here is also an option, but beware that South Knoxville roads are often narrow and windy, and you shouldn’t take the freeway. Instead, head across the bridge from downtown on South Gay Street, hooking an immediate left onto Sevier Avenue. A short way down Island Home Drive will fork to the left.
Originally written for BCBS of Tennessee.