7 of the Best National Parks in Tennessee

There are 15 National Park Services in the state of Tennessee, including one National Park. The remaining national park services are comprised of two National Historic Trails and two National Scenic Trails. There are also two National Historical Parks, two National Battlefields, two National Military Parks and a National Historic Site. But wait, there’s more. There’s also a Wild and Scenic River, a National River and Recreation Area and a Parkway. Ready to explore all the Volunteer State has to offer? Here are some of the best National Parks in Tennessee to visit.

7 of the best National Parks in Tennessee

1. Great Smoky Mountains, National Park

On the 2nd of September 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains as a National Park. Today, it is the most visited National Park in America. This forest-clad range straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee and is a subrange of the Appalachian Mountains. The Smokies get their name from the blue mist that seems to always linger around the peaks and valleys. The Cherokee word for the Great Smokey Mountains is shaconage, which means “land of the blue smoke”. That blue haze that slightly blurs the long ridges and rounded peaks is in fact an “optical result of a natural photochemical process“.

2. Appalachian, National Scenic Trail

Stretching between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine, the Appalachian Trail is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world. The first section of the trail opened in 1923 and construction finished in 1937. Due to rerouting and modifying, the trail’s length varies from time to time but it is roughly 2,200-miles (3,500km). The scenic trail crosses “wooded, pastoral, wild, and culturally resonant lands of the Appalachian Mountains.” Approximately three million people visit the Appalachian Trail every year, with some 3,000 of those attempting a thru-hike. Those who manage to complete the entire Appalachian Trail in one go become 2,000-milers. Only about one in four manage this feat.

3. Overmountain Victory, National Historic Trail

The Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail is 330 miles (531km) long and passes through portions of North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. The Historic Trail traces the route used by patriot militia during the pivotal Kings Mountain campaign of 1780, which was during the Southern Campaign of the American Revolutionary War. The term ‘overmountain’ describes the men who came from west of, or “over”, the Appalachians and crossed the Unaka Mountains to fight in the war. On the trail, you’ll discover the natural and cultural heritage unique to this beautiful part of America, for instance, you’ll pass through scenic pathways, a Commemorative Motor Route, affiliated historic sites and museums, and wayside exhibits. You’ll also pass through four National Park Service areas, two National Forests, an Army Corps of Engineers Dam & Reservoir, plus several state and county parks.

4. Manhattan Project – National Historical Park

The Manhattan Project ushered in the nuclear age with the development of the world’s first atomic bombs. The building of atomic weapons began in 1942 in three secret cities across America. These cities were Oak Ridge in Tennesse, Hanford/Richland in Washington state, and Los Alamos in New Mexico. The Oak Ridge Manhattan Project location was the first and largest of the three sites. Today, at the Manhattan Project National Historical Park in Oak Ridge, you’ll find plenty of historic and cultural resources to explore to learn more about its fascinating part of American history.

5. Big South Fork – National River & Recreation Area

The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area protect the free-flowing Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and its tributaries. Covering 125,000 acres of the Cumberland Plateau, the National River and Recreation Area is rich in historic and natural features, for instance, scenic gorges and sandstone bluffs. The Big South Fork region also has one of the highest concentrations of natural bridges in the eastern United States. Visitors to this site can enjoy lots of outdoor recreational activities such as whitewater paddling, rock climbing, hiking, and horseback riding.

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6. Cumberland Gap – National Historical Park

The Cumberland Gap is a natural V-shape passage in the Cumberland Mountains within the Appalachian Mountains. The pass has an elevation of 1,631 ft (497 metres) and lies within the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, which is close to the tri-state marker with Kentucky and Virginia. Herds of buffalo originally forged this gap and then Native People’s travelled this route long before the Europeans arrived. Today, the park features many miles of trails and breathtaking, colourful scenery that changes with all four seasons.

7. Fort Donelson – National Battlefield

In early 1862, the Confederacy constructed Fort Donelson – this was during the American Civil War. The Confederacy did so to control the Cumberland River, which led to Tennessee. During the Battle of Fort Donelson – 11th to 16th of February 1862 – the Union captured the Confederate fort. Today, the National Battlefield has ten historic sites marking events during the battle. For instance, there is the fort itself, log huts, river batteries, a national cemetery, and a confederate monument. You’ll also find the Dover Hotel, where the surrender took place.

best national parks tennessee

Melanie May

Melanie is an intrepid solo traveller, endlessly curious about people, places and food. She is a fan of slow travel and loves exploring the world by mouth, discovering a culture through its food. Having backpacked her way around the world she turned her wanderlust into a career and is now a full-time travel writer.

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