The Most Beautiful Places to Visit in Tennessee
From magnificent mountains to gorgeous lakes, these are natural wonders of Tennessee.
Tennessee is blessed with four distinct seasons (although if you’ve tried to drive after an ice storm, you might not love the winters here). Regardless, from verdant springs to vibrant autumns, the natural areas of the Volunteer State put on a show throughout the year. You’ll have to get off your couch and get outside to experience the best of the state though, so hit the road and catch up on your binge-watching later.
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, but visitors can travel to 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.
Bordering the mighty Mississippi River, Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park is home to a myriad of old-growth trees of many species, including three massive specimens recognized as “National Champion Trees.” Hiking and biking trails wind throughout the more than 12,000 acres of wilderness, so it’s easy to get away from it all and get back to nature. Lakeside cabins are available for overnight stays, whether you’re in a tricked-out RV or roughing it in a tent.
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.
The gorgeous cataract is the tallest free-fall waterfall east of the Mississippi. Beautiful from above, the 256-foot tall falls is 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
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.
This cave complex outside the small town of Pelham just off of Interstate 24 is a dual threat. Not only does it host daily cave tours featuring a single room that’s longer than three football fields, giving the attraction its former name of Big Room Cave, but it’s also a premier performance venue. The Caverns hosts big-name music acts for memorable concerts that take advantage of the cavern’s unique acoustics, as well as concerts in an above-ground amphitheater where music fans can purchase socially- istanced pods of seats overlooking the sweeping vistas of Payne’s Cove below.
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.
Once hidden away on private land, the Walls of Jericho is still rarely visited since it’s a pretty grueling hike in and out of the 8,900-acre wilderness area. Those that make the trek are rewarded with multiple waterfalls and rippling creeks along the way to their final destination, a dramatic natural amphitheater with 200-foot sheer rock walls that seep water from the Turkey Creek to create a dramatic water feature.
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.
Tennessee’s only major natural lake (you can thank the TVA for all those great reservoirs), Reelfoot Lake was formed when a series of earthquakes along the New Madrid fault in 1811-12 actually caused the Mississippi River to run backwards and fill in the land in northwestern Tennessee that had subsided due to the tremors. Known for gorgeous bald cypress trees, Reelfoot is known as a sportsman’s paradise for fishermen and duck hunters. Bird watchers can also spy numerous nesting pairs of bald eagles. The small hunting and fishing town of Samburg was crushed by multiple tornadoes in late 2021, so they could certainly use your tourism dollars.
Tucked in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, The Lost Sea is the nation’s largest underground lake at almost 5 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. Wild cave tours are also available for more intrepid spelunkers who want to go even deeper into the cavern.
Known as “The Peaceful Side of the Smoky Mountains,” Townsend is the least-crowded entrance into the national park. Even if you don’t ever actually cross into the park, the views from Townsend where the Cumberland Plateau meets the Tennessee Valley and the Smokies is breathtaking.
Rock Island was created when the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Caney Fork River in the early 20th century to help provide hydroelectric power to Nashville. The resulting reservoir has steep wooded banks leading down to the lake with lots of generations-old vacation homes taking full advantage of floating boat docks and water activities. Twin Falls is a striking cascade near the powerhouse where water flows out of an underground cave before falling 80ft into a pool below.
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.
Located where the Tellico River emerges from the Appalachian Mountains, Tellico Plains is a prototypical sleepy little mountain town with picturesque landscapes of rolling fields, ancient barns down below, and spectacular mountain views looming from above. With easy access to the Cherohala Skyway and the Cherokee National Forest nearby, Tellico Plains is a lovely home base for a weekend of outdoor adventures.
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…)