Uniting Urbanity with the Wilderness


Intricate parks system bonds South Knox communities with nature

by Jordan Achs

It seems as though the people of Knoxville always have had an affinity for nature – hardly surprising considering the wealth of outdoor recreation opportunities the Smokies have to offer, from hiking and biking to rafting and fishing. But even closer to home, nestled between cliffs and bluffs in the hollers of South Knoxville lie a treasure trove of trails, quarries and lush meadows.

Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness is becoming a hotspot for nature lovers and active sport enthusiasts to get a taste of the great outdoors without leaving downtown. Within the system of parks are Civil War trenches, marble ruins and even a giant field of sunflowers that bloom en masse each summer.

With more than 1,000 forested acres – which encompass 50 miles of trail for hiking and biking – and three quarries for swimming or kayaking, the possibilities for pursuing a healthy lifestyle are endless. Legacy Parks Foundation, a nonprofit in Knoxville that started this initiative in 2008, wants to connect these areas together in a special way.

“Typically, you have a park, and you put trails within a park,” Carol Evans, executive director of Legacy Parks, says. “[But] what we did is take parks and connect them with trails. All those trails are a system on land that’s both public and private. It’s a very different kind of a system, but when you’re on it you don’t notice the difference. That’s what’s so perfect about it.”

The Urban Wilderness features 10 different city parks and wildlife areas, including Ijams Nature Center, Baker Creek Preserve, Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area and the Battlefield Loop. Evans says that once they acquired an initial 70 acres, they noticed all the parks, historic areas and green spaces that lied in an around the area, but not much that connected them to one another. Thus the Urban Wilderness and Historic Corridor was born and later shortened to the fitting title of Urban Wilderness.

“Our goal has always been to make the connection from Alcoa highway to the head of the Tennessee [River],” Evans says. “So that’s kind of the swath we’ve defined as the Urban Wilderness area.”

Although the Urban Wilderness has been a Legacy Parks initiative for almost 10 years, many locals splashed in the quarries and took bikes off road onto makeshift trails long before that. Then a particular group of pioneers associated with the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club (AMBC) developed a system of mountain bike trails at Baker Creek and Ijams. A chapter of the Southeast regional division of the International Mountain Bike Association, AMBC’s stated goal is to support the conservation of open spaces and trails, and it instructs other bikers about how to ride responsibly in order to protect the environment. When the Urban Wilderness project was in early development, Evans consulted with AMBC to learn what they had been doing in the area, and the group became an integral part to the continued development of and the strategy for the Urban Wilderness.

Photo by Josh Sawyer

“There was a lot of biking going on down there.” Evans says. “We ended up rolling out maps and we saw … they were missing gaps to really connect some of the existing parks over there. They had the intelligence of knowing the land and what would work, and we undertook the task of both doing a little bit of fundraising and making the acquisitions or asking for donations.”

Before, these trails were maintained by volunteers and built using different grants and donations. A more recent grant, the Bell Built Grant provided by Bell Helmets, was awarded to AMBC for a proposed gravity trail. The group won a national voting campaign, racking up more than 26,000 online ballots and beating out competitors from California and Minnesota. The $100,000 in prize money was used to construct the Devil’s Racetrack, a double black diamond flow line that is attracting accomplished riders from around the globe. The club still maintains a major role in the upkeep of all of the biking trails within the park system, putting in plenty of work throughout the year to keep the trails in top condition.

Legacy Parks want to do more than just develop the area; they want to connect all the outdoor retreats in South Knox in order to make them more accessible and versatile for the community. With areas for families, sports enthusiasts and dog-friendly trails, anyone can enjoy these spaces and breathe in the fresh East Tennessee air. Ijams and Legacy Parks regularly host events that help support the community, including fundraising 5k runs, kayaking excursions (including some open to your favorite four-legged friend) and craft nights in which you can make items from natural elements found in the parks.

Looking forward, Legacy Parks and the City of Knoxville aim to further develop Fort Dickerson Quarry, something Evans says the city has been striving to do for quite some time. Plans include a kayak/canoe rental stand, a refreshment stand and a dock, all of which will allow for wider use of the quarry and easier access to the water. Evans says that this aspect of the drawings is important to the city because it is a swimming hole the public can access, something that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Also, plans to begin developing the Battlefield Loop around Fort Dickerson are being drafted. The site, which comprises three Civil War forts and an actual battlefield, would be designated for hikers only, Evans says, since the battlefield still has intact trenches from the war.

“That’s really where the fighting occurred, so we have been in the position that things need to be a little more reverent and a little more passive.” Evans says. “We would have a biking trail that goes through on the lower portions so you can make that connection to Alcoa Highway, but the upper trails would remain more pedestrian. There’s going to be a lot of people hiking and walking around wanting to experience the story.”

This accessibility to nature and history will connect schools, homes and businesses to each other and the community in new and exciting ways, and the public already has begun to reap the rewards. The Howard Baker Center for Public Policy, part of the University of Tennessee, released a 2015 study showing the economic impact of the Urban Wilderness on real estate prices, small businesses and pedestrian traffic. The study reported $14 million in current economic benefit from the Urban Wilderness, with $6 million in recent real estate transactions attributed directly to homeowners wanting to live near it. But the impact has been regional, too, with other counties and areas eager to get involved.

“We do know there’s regional interest in river access, river recreation and trails,” Evans says. “We all have this wonderful topography and a lot of water running through our region. And if we have similar recreational destinations in our surrounding counties, that means that people are going to be traveling to our part of the state from other states and spend a few more days here.”

Legacy Parks also runs the website www.outdoorknoxville.com, where they feature different trails, activities and events, all of which are within an hour’s drive from downtown. One event coming soon is the Knox Wilderness Challenge, an all-ages fundraiser for Legacy Parks that Evans describes as a “mud run without the mud.” You can visit the Legacy Parks website at legacyparks.org for more information about the parks, upcoming events that they are sponsoring and how to get involved.

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