Election Season 2016 was stressful. So stressful, in fact, that we forgot exactly how lucky we are to live in Tennessee. Great Smoky Mountains! Ruby Falls! The Cumberland Plateau! Yeah, we know: our state is fantastic, so much so that it's almost impossible to keep track of all the beautiful places in it. Get out this weekend and relax, while you explore all the best of Tennessee at the most beautiful places in the state that you never knew existed.
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 paradise for fishermen and duck hunters. Bird watchers can also spy numerous nesting pairs of bald eagles.
The Lost Sea
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. Wild cave tours are also available for more intrepid spelunkers who want to go even deeper into the cavern.
Although the physical address is in North Carolina, Tricorner Knob actually straddles the TN/NC border on top of a triangular ridge. The Appalachian Trail runs nearby, so many hikers take advantage of the camping shelter there to rest on their long journeys. Even day-trippers can experience the dramatic vistas of the Great Smoky Mountains and lush evergreen forests that stretch as far as the eye can see.
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. But seriously, get out of your car every now and then.
Crystal Shrine Grotto
A true oddity, Crystal Shrine Grotto is the largest man-made crystal cavern in the world. Crafted in the 1930s by artist Dionicio Rodriguez (a self-taught sculptor from Mexico), Crystal Shrine is a sort-of-kitschy/sort-of-beautiful retelling of scenes from the Bible illustrated in sculptures made using rock quartz crystal and semiprecious stones. Once you pass through the hole in a large concrete stump, you’ll be entering into a magical world.
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.
Natchez Trace Parkway
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…)
Although the latest round of health regulations forced the 140-plus-year-old mill to cease commercial operations, the waterwheel is still turning at this historic facility near Belvidere. In addition to a bed and breakfast and a museum of antique, water-powered machinery and even a dog-powered butter churn, Falls Mill is worth a visit just to sit in the placid picnic grounds along the creek to listen to the stream cascading across the wheel and into the pool below. Spring foliage is particularly dramatic in the woods surrounding the mill.
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Chris Chamberlain is a Nashville writer -- follow him on Twitter at @CeeElCee.