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Most families I know planning a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park make arrangements to stay in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. There’s nothing wrong with Gatlinburg but did you know that driving to the Smokies, especially from the Midwest, most routes take you through Knoxville, Tennessee? Situated only 45 minutes from the Smokies, you shouldn’t just breeze through Knoxville, but stop and spend some time there. In addition to its close proximity to the park, Knoxville also offers a wide range of dining options for the foodies in the family; the craft beverage scene is picking up steam (good for the saucy adults in the family); all while balancing the luxuries of the big cities along with the charms of a small town.
If you’re going to the Smokies, chances are you fall somewhere on the “outdoor enthusiast” spectrum. The good news is that Knoxville further caters to those needs with many outdoor options located just minutes from downtown. With an impressive network of parks and greenways, as well as accessible fishing holes, many of the family-friendly spots contained here are geared toward the outdoorsy, nature-loving family. But that’s not where the fun ends! So, let’s have a look… 11 fun things to do with kids in Knoxville.
“Knoxville is unique” when it comes to fishing, is what I was told by local guide Allen Gillespie, owner of 3 Rivers Angler. I’ll have to agree, seeing the diversity of fish species thriving in the waters in and around Knoxville. Anglers can choose from lakes, rivers, and streams, casting for bluegill, crappie, catfish, striped bass, musky, and paddlefish, to name but a few. Those who prefer fly fishing (that’s me) can wade or cast from a drift boat on the Clinch River, a tailwater trout fishery. The river is home to rainbow, brook, and – the main attraction on the Clinch – brown trout. Fly fishing the Clinch can be challenging so your best bet is to employ the services of a guide.
Ijams Nature Center
Described as “a place where living with the earth and caring for the earth become one and the same”, Ijams Nature Center was one of my favorite stops in Knoxville. It is part of Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness, a recreational, cultural, and historic preservation initiative, where visitors are encouraged to hike, bike, climb, discover, and simply relax. Ijams spans 300 acres and features over 12 miles of natural surface trails. My children weren’t with me in Knoxville but while I was at Ijams, I couldn’t help but think how much they’d love it there with all the open space to breathe and run and discover. I know they’d especially love Jo’s Grove, an adorable playscape designed just for children. At Jo’s Grove, kids are encouraged to imagine, explore, and find merriment while touching the earth and, simultaneously, being transformed by it.
Technically part of Ijams Nature Center, Mead’s Quarry is such a lovely spot that it deserves its own mention. Once famous for the pink marble found there, the 25-acre lake within the quarry is now its main attraction. Home to waterfowl and other aquatic wildlife including freshwater jellyfish, Mead’s Quarry is where to go for some scenic natural beauty and a cool dip (weather permitting, of course). You can also rent a canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard from on-site River Sports Outfitters. I said while I was there that if I lived in Knoxville, I’d be a regular visitor to Mead’s Quarry.
It’s not exactly a museum. Sure, there are exhibits but MUSE is more like a 4,000-square foot, indoor playground. There is plenty of space to play, discover, and create and it’s just FUN. The kids don’t even realize they’re learning in the process. MUSE is also home to Knoxville’s only public-access planetarium, with shows playing all day on its Warped Media Full Dome Projection System. An added bonus: if you have a membership to any museum in the country that’s part of the ASTC Travel Passport Program, and you’re outside a 90-mile radius of your home museum, you’re eligible for discounted or free admission to MUSE!
I should start with a disclaimer that I did not actually visit the Knoxville Zoo on my trip to Knoxville because zoos really aren’t my thing. I do realize, however, that zoos are a big draw for many families, so it would be unfair if I left it out. That being said, the most popular residents at the Knoxville Zoo are the endangered red pandas. More red pandas have been born at the Knoxville Zoo than at any other zoo in the Western Hemisphere, an important fact in conservation efforts and a source of pride for the zoo. Along with the stinkin’ cute red pandas, there are almost 900 more animals waiting to meet you at Knoxville Zoo!
Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame
The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame is worth visiting for a few reasons: 1) girl power!; 2) it’s home to the world’s largest basketball; 3) the Hall of Fame is a sub-contractor for the Center for Sport, Peace, and Society. The society’s mission is “to use sport to change lives, communities, and the world through teaching, research, and service.” As travelers, how could we not want to support such a mission?
Civil War Walking Tour
This is perfect for the history enthusiast (or nerd, as I refer to myself) in the family. Knoxville’s Civil War history is described as “complex” and this tour explains how and why East Tennessee was so divided during the war. Stop by the Knoxville Visitor’s Center (301 South Gay Street) for a brochure to begin the self-guided tour or to make an appointment for a guided tour.
Tennessee’s musical heritage is as diverse as the state’s landscape. Knoxville is a key player in the history of Tennessee music and has come to be known as the Cradle of Country Music. Take a self-guided walking tour through downtown to learn about Knoxville’s significance in the making of the “Soundtrack of America”. To enjoy live music performances, stop by the Knoxville Visitor’s Center at noon (Monday through Saturday) for the WDVX Blue Plate Special. It’s an hour-long live broadcast that showcases talent from the Knoxville area and beyond (and it’s free to attend).
Three Rivers Rambler
Kids love trains. It’s like a fact of life. So, take them for a ride on the Three Rivers Rambler steam engine. The journey begins in downtown Knoxville and treats riders to an 11-mile, 90-minute journey along the Tennessee River. Learn about the area’s early days en route to the “Three Rivers Trestle”, where the French Broad and Holston Rivers converge to create the Tennessee River.
James White’s Fort
Kids also love forts (ahem, so do some adults). James White founded Knoxville in 1783 and this reconstructed fort stands in honor of the pioneer’s journey and accomplishments. Wood cabins are assembled around a rectangular lawn and inside each building are displays which give us an idea of what day-to-day life was like on the frontier.
Knoxville Holstons vintage base ball
If the timing is right, attend a game of vintage base ball (yes, two words) and cheer on the home team, the Knoxville Holstons. The team is part of the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball, which promotes living history, cultural enrichment, honor, respectful conduct, and community pride. It’s an eye-opening experience to see the teams clad in 19th century-style uniforms, adhering to the rules and equipment standards of the day. Basically, they don’t use gloves!
Family fun in Knoxville isn’t limited to these 11 options. Plan a trip and see for yourself how Knoxville successfully weaves history, music, sports, and the outdoors into one exceptional experience.
I was a guest of Visit Knoxville but in no way was I swayed to write positively about my time there. All words and opinions, as always, are my own.