While the Western United States is home to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone, East Tennessee showcases the most visited National Park in the country along with many others definitely worthy of a visit.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Covering more than 500-thousand acres, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the nation's most visited with more than 10-million people coming to visit each year. The park which sits along the North Carolina/Tennessee State Line provides countless opportunities to enjoy sweeping mountain vistas, waterfalls, wildlife and lessons from the past.
Whether it's a drive (and small hike) up to Tennessee's highest peak, Clingman's Dome, or a drive around the loop at Cades Cove, much of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is easily accessible, but there are plenty of places within the park's boundaries where you might go hours without seeing a soul. Knoxville, TN and Asheville, NC are both about an hour drive.
Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area
Straddling the Tennessee & Kentucky state line this park is relatively new. It was created in 1974 with the late U.S. Senator Howard Baker, Jr. being one of the primary proponents of the park.
The gorge created by the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River is the main draw, but the park is filled with natural arches, waterfalls, opportunities for whitewater kayaking, and a great deal of history including a look at life in a coal mining camp, and an English Utopian settlement just outside the park. While Big South Fork isn't much further from Knoxville than GSMNP, the crowds don't seem to gravitate toward it, making it easy to really get away from it all.
Obed Wild and Scenic River
Not far from Big South Fork, the Obed Wild and Scenic River offers spectacular views of a truly wild river and abundant opportunities for rock climbing. The park is a little off the beaten path, so consider starting your journey at the Visitor Center in Wartburg, located about 30 minutes north of I-40 at exit 347. While there check out the overlook, the large rocks along the riverbed and visit the Nemo Bridge. You might also look into free rock climbing lessons offered monthly by park rangers.
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
The original gateway to the west is actually located where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia all come together. Now, that location is home to Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. Whether it's walking out to the Pinnacle Overlook, hiking to the Tri-State peak, going deep inside the mountain in the Gap Cave, or just learning more about Daniel Boone's travels, this park should be a must see on anyone's list.
Chattanooga/Chickamauga National Military Park
Gettysburg is probably the most famous Civil War Battlefield, but in East Tennessee (and North Georgia) the Chattanooga/Chickamauga National Military Park provides valuable lessons about the War Between the States and unforgettable views. From the top of Lookout Mountain you get unparalleled views of the city and the many bends in the Tennessee River. You also get an idea of what soldiers in the Civil War went through as they camped out on the mountain. Just a few miles away, on the other side of Lookout Mountain is the Chickamauga Battlefield, a solemn reminder of the many sacrifices soldiers made during that time.
Manhattan Project National Historic Park
The story of World War II's biggest secret is told at one of the newest National Parks. You'll find part of that park in the "Secret City" of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The park is still being developed, but at places like the American Museum of Science and Energy and special tours of Manhattan Project sites, you can learn more about the ways workers here helped usher in the nuclear age without ever knowing what they were doing
Andrew Johnson National Historic Site
The man who assumed the Presidency after Lincoln's assassination called East Tennessee Home. He moved to Greeneville as a child, became a tailor and local politician before heading to Washington, DC. Today, visitors can tour two of his homes, see his tailor shop and visit his grave inside a National Cemetery bearing his name.