The home of country music, whiskey and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a southern landlocked state full of flair and national park sites. Tennessee has historic sites, trails, military parks and battlefields. It’s capital letter national park, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is its natural crowning glory. A visit to the state would feel incomplete without checking out the forest-covered Smoky Mountains.
When in Tennessee, consider visiting some of these 13 national parks sites. From learning about the U.S.’s 17th president at the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site to exploring some historic battlefields, there’s plenty to see in Tennessee.
National Parks in Tennessee
Best National Park In Tennessee
1- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Most people are surprised to discover that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the USA’s most visited national park.
A whopping 14.1 million people visited the park in 2021.
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is shared between Tennessee and North Carolina and covers 522,427 acres (211,419 ha).
It’s easy to see why it attracts the crowds.
The smoky mountains are covered in forest and attract a lot of beautiful wildlife.
The park was afforded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1983 and in 1988, named an International Biosphere Reserve.
The Smoky Mountains, or Smokies as they are known, are part of the Appalachian chain of mountains.
Formed more than 200 million years ago, these are among the world’s oldest mountains.
Geologists believe they were potentially as high as the Himalayas but have been worn down by erosion over time.
If you want to disconnect from the modern world, head to the Smokies.
Get lost among waterfalls, trees and mountain streams and explore beneath the forest canopy.
There are believed to be around 50,000 plant and animal species in the park.
There are also more than 800 miles (1287 km) of trails to explore, so don’t worry about the crowds you’ll be able to escape.
Some wildlife viewing opportunities in the park include elk, white-tailed deer, and mesmerising black bears.
For the best chance of seeing wildlife, head to Cades Cove or Cataloochee.
To reach the park, you’ll want to head to Tennessee’s main entrances, Gatlinburg or Townsend.
There is no accommodation inside the park but plenty of options in the nearby towns like Cosby, Newport, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Townsend.
If you fancy camping in the park, you must obtain a permit.
Things to do:
- Sugarlands Visitor Center
- Fontana Lake
- Rainbow Falls, Laurel Falls, Abrams Falls, and Meigs Falls
- Hike along the Appalachian Trail
- Drive along Cades Cove Loop Road
There are a ton of hiking trails that take you to some of the aforementioned attractions in the park.
The Rainbow Falls Trail is a lovely moderate-level hike with a five-mile (8.2 km) out-and-back trail near Gatlinburg, taking around three hours to complete.
There are bridge and river crossings to enjoy, and the reward of Rainbow Falls at the end of the hike.
Here are some tours you may like:
National Historic Site
2- Andrew Johnson National Historic Site
This national historic site commemorates the life of the USA’s 17th president, Andrew Johnson, and is an excellent place to visit if you are interested in American political history.
Johnson became president after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.
This historic site has four places to visit, two of Johnson’s homes, his tailor shop and burial places.
Take a tour of the house, explore the rooms and see where Johnson grew up.
Start your visit at the Andrew Johnson Visitor Complex, where there’s a museum and a tailor shop.
It’s here where you can learn about the difficulties and triumphs of Johnson’s life.
Entrance to this historic site is free, so it’s perfect for visiting with the whole family.
National Scenic Trail
3- Appalachian National Scenic Trail
The famous Appalachian trail (A.T.) is the world’s longest hiking-only footpath.
This trail is 2,190 miles (3524 km) long and passes through 14 states, including Tennessee.
Tennessee’s stretch of the A.T. passes along the border with North Carolina to the state’s east and is covered in forest, with high-elevation summits and grasslands.
The trail also passes through the famous Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Tennessee’s section of the A.T. is 94 miles (151 km), with various hiking routes to venture along.
4- Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail
The Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail is one of North America’s most popular hiking trails.
This trail is 444 miles (715 km) long, stretching through Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi but only parts of the trail remain, so sections of cross-country and state roads have been added.
In Tennessee, the trail begins in Nashville and finishes in Collinwood.
You can hike different sections of the trail, pass by small towns and discover the beautiful wildlife of Tennessee.
Some popular attractions include Jackson Falls, the Buffalo Rover, Fall Hollow Waterfall and Metal Ford.
5- Overmountain Victory National Scenic Trail
Overmountain Victory National Scenic Trail follows a 330-mile (531 km) pathway that was the exact route that soldiers marched in 1780 to fight off the British during the Battle of Kings Mountain.
This trail passes through four states, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina.
History and nature lovers will love this trail for its landscapes and historical relevance.
During the American Revolutionary War, this battle became one of the most instrumental conflicts between the Loyalists and the Patriots.
The Patriots won, forcing their enemies to retreat southwards.
6- Trail Of Tears National Historic Trail
The Trail of Tears represents the harrowing history of the Native Americans during the 1830s.
The trail is 5,043 miles (8115 km) long and goes through nine states, including Tennessee, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky, Illinois, Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama.
In 1830 after the Indian Removal Act, around 46,000 American Indians had no choice but to walk to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River to give up their ancestral land to white settlers.
Between 3,000 and 4,000 Cherokee Nation people died along the route to their new Territory, now known as the Trail of Tears.
National River & Recreation Area
7- Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area
The Big South Fork is a beautiful natural area that protects the Cumberland River’s fork and tributaries.
Nature lovers that visit Big South Fork flock to the river gorge as its mightily impressive and home to natural arches and hoodoos.
If you love hiking, then you must visit this recreation area.
There are so many awesome hikes to complete that take you through some of the area’s best scenery.
The Twin Arches Hike has a short trail (1.1 miles) or a long loop (4.8 miles) passing through beautiful woodlands and right under these impressive natural arches.
Another excellent hike is the Angel Falls Rapids hike which is 4 miles beginning at Leatherwood Ford and follows the rapids.
It’s a top spot for swimming once you’ve completed your hike.
National Military Park
8- Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park
This military park commemorates two critically important events during the American Civil War.
The Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park is in the town of Lookout Mountain, and you’d be correct in thinking that Lookout Mountain gets its name from the ridge that overlooks the town.
The Battle of Chickamauga and the Siege of Chattanooga took place in Tennessee and Georgia.
This national military park has four areas: the Chickamauga Battlefield, Lookout Mountain Battlefield, Point Park, Missionary Ridge, and Moccasin Bend.
During the Civil War, the Chattanooga campaign was a series of battles fought in 1862 between the Confederacy and the Union.
The two sides were fighting for control of Chattanooga, also referred to as the Gateway to the Deep South.
After much effort, the Union won and gained control of the city.
The National Park Service managed the battlefield site in 1933.
Today you can visit the Ochs Museum, explore exhibits and learn more about the Civil War and these specific battles at the visitor centre.
9- Shiloh National Military Park
Tennessee was a key state during the Civil War, so many national parks commemorate the war.
Another site that is about the American Civil War is the Shiloh National Military Park.
In 1862 the Battle of Shiloh saw Union and Confederacy troops coming to blows in a two-day battle which the Union ultimately won.
As a result of this win, the Union was able to capture Corinth.
This short battle would pave the way for the Union to take control of the entire state.
Take a guided tour to delve deeply into the history of the battle and the area.
There is also the opportunity to walk and cycle around the park’s trails, which makes for a fun way to explore the battlefield.
National Historical Park
10- Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park was originally used as by Native tribes as a mountain getaway and a way of getting into Kentucky’s wilderness.
Established in 1940, this park is spread across Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia.
The “gap” was originally made up of three geographical landforms, the Pine Mountain Thrust Sheet, Rocky Face Fault, and Middlesboro Syncline.
Through centuries of erosion, these three landforms merged to form this impressive ridgeline.
The “gap” was named after Prince William, Duke of Cumberland.
You can hike up a pathway to see the incredible views of the “gap” and potter around the various caves.
11- Manhattan Project National Historical Park
The Manhattan Project was a top-secret government program that created the world’s first-ever atomic bomb during World War II.
The atomic bomb that was developed was later dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Manhattan Project National Historic Park comprises of three different sites.
There’s a site in Hanford, Washington, Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Los Alamos in New Mexico.
At Tennessee’s Oak Ridge site, the X-10 Graphite Reactor National Historic Landmark is a nuclear reactor responsible for producing plutonium.
There is also the area where they conducted electromagnetic separation for uranium enrichment.
Finally, there’s the building site where gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment technology was first made.
Science nerds will go crazy for this national historical park.
Visitors are required to join a bus tour to see everything.
If you are also visiting the American Museum of Science and Energy, you’ll find that admission to the Manhattan Project National Historical Park is free with your ticket.
12- Fort Donelson National Battlefield
You’ll find the Fort Donelson National Battlefield in north-central Tennessee, around 80 miles (128 km) from Nashville.
You can take a driving tour of this battlefield site which is open year-round.
During the American Civil War, Fort Donelson was the first victory site for the Union in 1862.
During this battle, 12,000 Confederate troops were taken prisoner.
After this, the Union went on to take Nashville, which later became a strategic stronghold.
13- Stones River National Battlefield
Twenty-five miles (40 km) southeast of Nashville, this is another of Tennessee’s national battlefield sites.
The Battle at Stones River lasted from December 31 to January 2 1862.
After the Union had taken Nashville, they attacked Confederate troops staying at Murfreesboro.
Around 23,500 soldiers were killed during this battle, which accounted for the highest percentage of causalities of any battle in the Civil War.
The Confederate troops ended the battle by withdrawing from Murfreesboro.
There’s a visitor centre at Stones River, where you can start your vehicle tour of the battlefield.
There are also 7 miles (11 km) of trails to explore.
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