Discovering Knoxville's Urban Wilderness

Laura Jones
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You may know that there are mountain biking trails in South Knoxville, and you may know how to get to the walking paths at Ijams Nature Center, but did you know that these are part of a 1,000-acre area conserved specifically for recreation and natural environment? Did you know that within it are 42 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and trail running? Did you know that these trails link public parks, scenic overlooks, and historic sites? And finally, did you know that they are all open to the public free of charge, and are easily accessible by bicycle or car from downtown Knoxville?

If you didn’t know, then you're in for a pleasant surprise at Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness. Even if you have spent plenty of time here, there are probably lots of trails and secret spots left to explore. Everyone in Knoxville should know what the Urban Wilderness has to offer, and how to experience it to its full potential.

The 42 miles of trails may sound initially overwhelming, but they are laid out in a system of closed loops that interconnect at only a few points, and are all structured around the central artery of South Loop, marked by the distinctive tire-tread leaf logo. This makes navigation easy, and trail maps are posted at major intersections. The trailheads with parking areas are located at Ijams Nature Center, Mead’s Quarry, William Hastie Natural Area, Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area, and Anderson School.

Jake Wheeler

With 42 miles of possibilities at your fingertips, where should you go to accommodate your skill and endurance level? Here is quick rundown of possible progressions, per recommendations from experienced local riders.

If you are just getting into mountain biking, start out on the greenways and gravel roads around the Nature Center and Mead’s Quarry. Many other trails connect with these roads, and are labeled with name and difficulty—easy (green circle), intermediate (blue square), or expert (black diamond). Any of these trails are great for hikers and runners as well.

Jake Wheeler

To step it up a notch, take the greenway to Forks of the River and ride the steeper, slightly rockier roads of the South Loop through the wildlife management area. This will build your technique of picking out lines over rocks and roots, while remaining in the comfort of double-track width.

More gravel double track is available in William Hastie Natural Area, accessible by trail or road from anywhere else in the Urban Wilderness. After you’ve conquered all this intro-level riding, dive off into the trees for some more technical single track. A good place to start is the Hickory or Amber Loop at Mead’s Quarry, offering gently rolling terrain on relatively smooth surface. Forks of the River also has beginner-friendly single track that winds around the base of hills. Most trails are marked at intersections, so pay attention to the difficulty you are about to take on.

To get a real workout and build your skills even further, try the non-technical, but big climbs on the Burnett Ridge Trail, in the Ross Marble Area behind Mead’s Quarry. Then embark on the section of South Loop between Hastie and Forks of the River, with Anderson School in between. Continue on the Bluff Trail in Forks of the River to round out your workout, and you’ll finish the whole 12.5-mile loop before you know it.


Once the sections of the main loop feel like a warm up, try some of the thrilling single track that branches off. In Mead’s Quarry, ride Flow trail from Gravel Rd back to the parking area for some windy downhill action. In the private land easement, accessible from Lost Chromosome, try the ups and downs and technical elements of AC/DC. You should also revisit the downhill section of Marie Myers Park and see how tight you can take the turns, then see how fast you can climb back up. After spending some time exploring all the intermediate trails, you will be ready to advance even further.

A good trail to break into the realm of ‘expert’ riding is Turnbuckle in Ross Marble Quarry. Along with this, you should try some of the trails in Forks of the River marked with a black diamond. Once you get all these dialed and are feeling like a real pro, take on the highly technical trails of Hastie and build some true skill.

This is a rough guide to long-term progression. Definitely don’t try to complete all these trails within the same week if you are just learning how to mountain bike. Also important to realize is that you can build technique even on the easiest trails. Once you’ve mastered the basics, focus on improving speed and coordination on all the same trails you’ve been practicing on. There is no need to ramp up the difficulty and risk getting hurt.

Laura Jones

You can practice often and get good quickly because access to the Urban Wilderness is so easy. From the university campus, North Knoxville, or South Knoxville, it is a short drive away. If you live within a reasonable distance, you can extend your ride by biking to the trailhead instead of driving. From downtown, take either the Henley Street or Gay Street Bridge, then follow the straight shot down Sevier Ave, to Island Home Ave, to Spence Pl, and connect with the Will Skelton Greenway at Island Home Park. The greenway will take you first to Ijams Nature Center, then to the Mead’s Quarry trailhead, or to Forks of the River trailhead further on. If coming from somewhere in South Knoxville, look for the numerous green signs that mark bicycle routes to Ijams.

And did you know that the Urban Wilderness is expanding? Nonprofit management organization Legacy Parks Foundation has plans to extend trails and greenways to a total of 10 public parks in South Knoxville. This will bring Fort Dickerson’s primo swimming hole into the trail system, as well as a fantastic view of Knoxville from atop River Bluff on Cherokee Trail. Rock climbing is a soon-to-be option in Ijams, as well. Imagine a combo day of stand-up paddle boarding for an hour or two, then hiking to the crag, climbing for a while, then hopping on the mountain bike and riding over to the quarry for a swim—Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness has it all!

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