Caverns, Waterfalls, National Parks: The Most Beautiful Places to Visit in Tennessee
From magnificent mountains to gorgeous lakes, these are the natural wonders of Tennessee.
With three distinct regions ranging from the flat Mississippi Delta in the west to the rolling, grassy hills of Middle Tennessee to the impressive mountains of the east, Tennessee offers a variety of topography that makes road-tripping even more interesting (if you can get your eyes off your phone for a few minutes). Roll down the windows and experience the beauty of the state as you travel to any of these lovely sites and sights. Whether you want to get out and hike in the great outdoors or experience it all through the windshield of your car, there’s something for everyone.
The mighty Mississippi River means a lot more to the state of Tennessee than just forming its western border. Through the centuries, goods and people have arrived in the state carried by riverboats, and the large city of Memphis is a prototypical river port town. Big River Crossing is the longest pedestrian bridge across the river along its entire 2300+ miles. Connecting Tennessee to Arkansas for walkers and bikers, it offers impressive views up and down the river and is lit up with 100,000 LEDs at night.
While some people think the sharp crags of the Rocky Mountains are more impressive, the rounded tops of Appalachian peaks reveal how much older they are geologically and how much history they have witnessed. Roan Mountain rises almost 6,300 feet above the Tennessee/North Carolina border, and the 2,000 acres of hardwood forest that surround it are home to crystal clear streams filled with native trout, abundant wildlife and fields of wildflowers that stretch out like a living Van Gogh painting in the spring. Particularly beautiful are the colorful rhododendrons that bloom in early summer.
Perched on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau high above the Tennessee River that carved out the valley centuries ago, Jasper Highlands is a planned mountain community that has curiously become a popular retirement destination for law enforcement officers from across the country. Visitors can travel as far as the front gates where there is a brewpub with some really fine vittles. From the Top of the Rock, you can enjoy sweeping vistas that stretch for miles while sampling a flight of their craft brews. Just don’t sample too many, because that drive back down the mountain can be a little treacherous.
Just a short drive outside of downtown Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain features multiple overlooks of the city below and all sorts of kitschy fun attractions like Ruby Falls, Rock City, and the iconic “See Seven States” viewing platform. There’s even a special viewfinder installed by the Tennessee Department of Tourism with hi-tech lenses that allow colorblind visitors to experience the vibrant colors of fall foliage. Ride the impossibly steep Incline Railway to the top to discover that getting there can be half the fun.
Perched on 70 acres above the tourist mecca of Gatlinburg, Anakeesta’s name aptly means “the place of high ground” in the Cherokee language. Ride a Ridge Rambler adventure vehicle to the top from the middle of downtown or take advantage of the 20-minute ride up on the park’s Chondola to enjoy sweeping views of the surrounding mountains. From the summit, visitors can walk among the trees on a skywalk among the canopy or get even higher atop the Anavista observation tower for 360-degree views of the Smoky Mountains. The expansive deck outside of Anakeesta’s Bar at the Top of the World is an ideal spot to enjoy a cocktail while watching sunset before the ride back down to reality.
Named for the major tributary of the Cumberland River, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area covers almost 200 square miles along the border of Tennessee and Kentucky. Boasting many natural bridge and arch formations, an extensive system of hiking trails, and five developed campgrounds, Big South Fork has something to offer for adventurers at any level of experience looking to get out into the wild.
Discovered in the early 19th century and opened to the public in 1956, Cumberland Caverns stretches more than 27 miles beneath the surface of southeast Tennessee. The portion that is open to the public for tours includes massive limestone caverns filled with beautiful rock formations and an intricate light show in the massive Hall of the Mountain King. Adventure tours take amateur spelunkers deeper in the historic areas of the cave, and overnight excursions offer the chance to sleep among the stalactites and stalagmites hundreds of feet below the surface.
The gorgeous cataract is the tallest free-fall waterfall east of the Mississippi. Beautiful from above, the 256-foot tall falls are even more impressive after taking the hike down to the pool at its base. It’s worth the hike back up to the parking lot afterward, we promise.
Billing itself as “The Peaceful Side of the Smokies,” this quaint town offers easy access to the Great Smoky Mountains without the bustle of traveling through Gatlinburg of Pigeon Forge. The hospitable Dancing Bear Lodge is an excellent home base for your visit as a launch pad for scenic drives that offer vistas of the mountains stretching to the horizon and easy hikes that take visitors to secluded waterfalls and fields of vibrant wildflowers in the spring. The Little River babbles through town and is full of wild trout to challenge anglers.
The most-visited national park in the United States draws more than 10 million tourists a year to marvel at close to a thousand square miles of dense forests and mountain ranges that exhibit remarkable biodiversity. Drive or hike through the park to one of many scenic overlooks to spy the beautiful fog-shrouded peaks that give the ancient mountains their name. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also one of the only National Parks that doesn’t charge an admission fee.
The Cherohala Skyway is a 43-mile stretch of elevated highway connecting Tennessee with North Carolina and features multiple overlooks offering views of the Unicoi Mountains and the two national forests through which it passes, the Cherokee and Nantahala forests that combine to give the skyway its name. A favorite of motorcyclists, the Cherohala is one of the greatest scenic drives in the region.
Visitors can literally look down on the state of Tennessee from this peak, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The observation tower is surrounded by a rare evergreen forest and affords a wraparound view that reaches 100 miles on a clear day. As a bonus, there aren’t many mountain tops where you can drive all the way to the apex and park your car a short walk along a paved trail to find breathtaking views like these.
Tucked in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, The Lost Sea is the nation’s largest underground lake at almost five acres. Beautiful subterranean features such as stalactites, stalagmites, and delicate crystal anthodites are visible as part of glass-bottom boat tours called the Lost Sea Adventure, a great way to get cool for an hour or so on a hot summer day. Wild cave tours are also available for more intrepid spelunkers who want to go even deeper into the cavern.
Sometimes the valley can be just as beautiful as the mountains, and Cades Coves at the foothills of the Smokies is an excellent example. An 11-mile one way loop circles the cove offering the opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty and abundant wildlife of the verdant valley without ever leaving the comfort of your car. There are also some cool historical sites along the loop, including three churches, a working grist mill and other restored centuries-old structures. Grab a self-guided tour booklet at the entrance and take a drive through history.
The Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile-long drive from Nashville to Natchez, MS. Although it’s slow going thanks to a 55 mph speed limit, it’s worth taking your time to enjoy the pastoral scenery and historical markers along the way that trace the history of the original inhabitants and settlers of the region. Particularly striking is the concrete double arch bridge across Highway 96 near Fly close to the northern terminus of the parkway. Acrophobics might want to close their eyes when crossing. (But not if you’re driving…)