Exploring Oak Ridge: The Town that Produced the Atomic Bomb

Oak Ridge, TN
Oak Ridge, TN Oleg
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I’ve lived in Knoxville for a few years now, and it’s still hard to believe that the headquarters of the Manhattan Project, the top secret program that produced the nuclear bomb, is just thirty minutes down the road at Oak Ridge. Admittedly, a lot has changed in this hidden little town since World War II. Even as I type, the Y-25 Uranium Enrichment Plant at Oak Ridge is in the process of being decommissioned and decontaminated. The X-10 graphite reactor site is now the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, home of the fastest supercomputer in the world and one of the leaders in clean energy development.

Shift change at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, TN
Shift change at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, TN Wikipedia Commons

But, tucked away amongst high ridges and expanses of green space, Oak Ridge still feels like a place that needs some exploring. Spend the day with us in a few outdoor spots you might not have known existed in the secret city. Pack a small lunch and be ready for a big dinner.

Haw Ridge Park

Exploring Haw Ridge Park
Exploring Haw Ridge Park Matt Guenther

Driving along Highway 170 from Knoxville, one of the first things you’ll notice as you near Oak Ridge is a giant factory chimney pouring out plumes of smoke at TVA’s Bull Run fossil plant. Except the smoke’s not smoke at all. In 2006, this coal-fired energy plant was named one of America's worst environmental offenders, emitting nearly 28,000 tons of sulfur dioxide per year.  Since then, “ scrubbers ” have been installed at the plant that reduce emissions by 95%. So those plumes you see rising up from the plant are actually composed almost entirely of harmless water vapor, a sign that the new scrubbers are working.

Continue past the plant over the Clinch River, and you’ll see a sign for Haw Ridge Park. The steep ridges here that concealed the top secret location of Oak Ridge now provide miles of steep, thrilling mountain bike track encircled by easier, gentle trails along the beautiful shores of the Clinch. The park is accessible from downtown Oak Ridge via the Melton Lake and Emory Valley Greenways.

Riding along the shore of the Clinch River
Riding along the shore of the Clinch River Matt Guenther

If you’re looking for a less extreme way to explore the hills of Oak Ridge and the meanders of the Clinch River, check out nearby Melton Hill Park for some pristine hiking and easy water access. This is also a great place to stop for lunch, especially since picnicking isn’t allowed at our next stop.

University of Tennessee Arboretum 

I was pretty cruddy at earth science in high school, can’t identify flowers (“they’re all just ‘wildflowers,’ right?”), and only showed up for cub scouts on the day we were making popcorn necklaces. So I was pretty stoked when walking down the Oak Hickory Trail at the Arboretum and realizing that all the trees were labeled!

The Arboretum provides a great opportunity to discover and learn about the more than 2,500 native plants that live hidden away in our Appalachian ridges. The Arboretum is open year-round to visitors and is a beautiful spot for an afternoon hike, especially in spring and summer when the magnolias are in bloom. The Arboretum is very popular amongst professional photographers and is frequently used for wildlife demonstration and research, but one of its more unexpected uses is as an outdoor classroom for the National Forensic Academy. As far as I know, it’s one of the only parks in the area where one might see bodies falling from the sky.

Our final stop is really no secret at all—at least not to locals. This award-winning deli in downtown Oak Ridge is a self-proclaimed “dive,” sporting a huge chalk menu of burgers, sandwiches, and sides that offers something for everyone. After a day of hiking, biking, and exploring the area, you should be able to afford a few (thousand) extra calories at a local eatery. High praise and high stacks of bread, meat, and cheese at this hole-in-the-wall favorite make it a necessity after a day of exploring in Oak Ridge.

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