From the top of Pappy’s Point, you can just see downtown Knoxville’s skyline peeking above the lush green waves of rolling hills to the northwest. It’s an odd sight for a place that feels so removed, but it’s a quick reminder that—even here, surrounded by towering pines and the incessant chirping of songbirds in the heart of the city’s Baker Creek Preserve—you’re just a stone’s throw away from the hustle and bustle.
About a half-dozen mountain bikes line the ridge, but they didn’t come for the views. The riders are here to press their luck and test their skills on the Devil’s Racetrack, an ominous yet apt title given to the most challenging trail in the park—a mile-long, double black diamond downhill gravity trail packed with jumps, rollers, banks, and an intimidating rock garden. Three bikers pedal off the starting hill, one behind the other, hitting the first obstacle with the grace that comes with experience. They each launch off the 50-foot-long wall ride jutting from the hillside, kicking a tire to the side, and sending small tufts of dust swirling into the air above the skyscrapers in the distance.
This is the crown jewel of Baker Creek Preserve, a newly developed natural area in South Knoxville with seven miles of hiking and biking trails, tying into 42 miles of trails that make up the Urban Wilderness crisscrossing the south city. The Devil’s Racetrack is quite possibly the most technically difficult, developed gravity trail in East Tennessee, and also one of the most accessible. Located just three miles outside of downtown Knoxville, you don’t even have to leave the city limits to ride it (not to be confused with Devil’s Race Track in Caryville, a popular climbing destination).
Fortunately, for those who don’t fancy themselves as pro-level bikers, Baker Creek also has a plethora of less death-defying offerings packed into its 100-acre campus, including hiking, walking, and biking trails for all skill levels.
Bring the Whole Family
Although designed primarily with mountain bikers in mind, Baker Creek Preserve has offerings for just about everyone, from toddlers to adrenaline junkies, on bike or on foot. Dad wants to get some bugs in his teeth? Send him hurtling down the Barn Burner. Little Jimmy hates the woods? Let him kick it on the "adventure playground" or relax in the shade near the trailhead. Lisa’s training for her next cross-country bout? She can run circles around the 100-acre preserve, or make a short 10-mile loop through the Urban Wilderness connection. To add icing to the offerings, getting to Baker Creek is super convenient thanks to its close proximity to downtown, meaning more ambitious outdoorsy folks don’t even need a car to access it.
Maps at the trailhead layout the flow of things, and it’s worth taking a look before you set out into the this intown wilderness. Three trails are designated specifically for mountain bikers, and you don’t want to find yourself hoofing it up the wrong direction along one of those high-speed, downhill lines. The three downhill runs have been developed with different skill levels in mind: beginner (Cruz Valley Run), intermediate (Barn Burner), and expert (Devil’s Racetrack). The idea is to give easy access to a variety of obstacles and scenarios that will help build a rider’s confidence and skill, a setup local boosters hope will help more people catch the biking bug and add to the growing local scene.
"It’s rare to find the variety, diversity, and quality of trail in the heart of a city that we have here in Knoxville," Matthew Kellogg, president of the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club, said in a statement announcing the new trails. “To have a virtually flat, beginner trail alongside a downhill trail that features a nearly vertical 50’ wall ride, tables, gaps, and challenging rock line is such a unique destination. It makes it incredibly easy for riders to progress from beginner ride to extreme rides right on the same property.”
Five other trails welcome hikers and bikers alike. They range in length from about half a mile (Pappy’s Way) to 1.6 miles (Red Bud Crest). Don’t let the short distances fool you—there’s always an option to take the bridge over Red Bud Road and continue onto the Urban Wilderness trails exploring South Knoxville, or loop back along other footpaths within the preserve. Take on the vertical challenge of Pappy’s Way, a wide gravel climb to the summit of Pappy’s Point and the start of the Devil’s Racetrack. The trek up offers glimpses at different portions of the Racetrack, even passing under a wooden table-top jump and following along the rock garden for a short ways. At the top, the views of the city and brazenose of the bikers make it worth the effort.
When A Community Comes Together
Baker Creek Preserve likely would never have happened without donations and support from the Knoxville community. The city rallied to earn a grant for the construction of the Devil’s Racetrack, and even managed to crash a corporate computer server in the process.
Construction of the Devil’s Racetrack was funded by a $100,000 grant from Bell Helmet. Knoxville’s submission for the money won by popular vote, receiving more than 26,000 votes online, which overloaded Bell’s website and servers, taking it offline for several hours. It beat out other prominent outdoor destinations such as Asheville, NC and San Francisco to earn the prize money—no small feat for a scruffy East Tennessee town!
"We never saw anything like it," Bell Helmet rep Jessica Klodnick said at the trail’s ribbon cutting. “We lost e-commerce for a day [when the website crashed], but it was great.”
The rest of the preserve’s development has been spearheaded by Legacy Parks, the masterminds behind the Urban Wilderness, and funded with a $200,000 grant from the Tennessee Department of Conservation. To top it off, even the 100 acres of park land was donated, a gift from the Wood family who wanted to see it turned into a recreation hub for the community.
Mission accomplished, now go ride.