1. Great Smoky National Park
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GSNP has more biodiversity than any region on earth outside the tropics. Key places to hit, all of which have easy access: Chimney Tops for panoramic views, Abram Falls, the Jump Off near Charlies Bunion, and the eerie abandoned logging town of Elkmont. There’s old-growth hemlock forest along the Trillium Gap Trail to the 25-foot-tall Grotto Falls.
The most unique feature of GSMNP happens for just a couple weeks each Spring when endemic species of synchronous fireflies illuminate the Appalachian forest by all glowing on and off simultaneously. There is also a rare species of firefly that glows electric blue.
2. Tennessee’s world class cave systems (+ Nickajack Lake)
Tennessee is home to more caves than any other state in the US. If you’re interested in spelunking, Lost Creek Cave near Sparta is a solid choice for your first time. It has an underground waterfall and extensive passages. If you want to stay above ground, Nickajack Lake is a cool option to bring you to the mouth of a cave system. You can paddleboard across Nickajack Lake at sunset while hundreds of thousands of endangered gray bats swoop and feast on mosquitoes, mayflies, and stoneflies bouncing along the water.
3. The Lost Sea of Craighead Caverns
Here you can float atop the world’s second largest non-subglacial underground lake in a glass bottomed boat with colorless rainbow trout goggling at your feet. 100,000 years ago this was the home of a prehistoric mega-cat. And crazy to think about: the end to the Lost Sea has yet to be discovered.
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The Ocoee River was the site of the 1996 Olympic whitewater course, and the river remains a Southeastern rafting and kayaking (especially playboating) classic. Trips run all summer. It’s a great place for intermediate boaters to step up to harder features and lines.
5. Fall Creek Falls State Park
Tennessee’s largest and most visited state park has 26,000 acres of gorges, virgin forests, and lots of waterfalls such as Piney Falls, Cane Creek Falls, Cane Creek Cascades. One of the highest waterfalls in the eastern United States, Fall Creek Falls is 256 feet tall with multiple trails to explore the surrounding terrain. .
Chattanooga keeps topping “best town” lists, and you’ll see why when you come here. The city has incredible access to outdoor adventures directly from town, from the nature center at Reflection Riding to the forested slopes of the Skyuka Trail. There’s hang gliding over treetops of the Tennessee Valley, the 92-acre urban wilderness park Stringer’s Ridge, the river views from Edward’s Point, and the swim spots at Rainbow Lake. There’s the North Chick — a classic creek run for advanced kayakers (and a place with lots of fun swimming holes when the water’s down), the the narrow tracks of Raccoon Mountain, and an endless amount of bouldering and climbing. Chattanooga is also home to the Stone Fort leg of the Triple crown, which is part of a series of bouldering competitions to raise the funding for the Southeastern Climbers’ Coalition and The Carolina Climbers’ Coalition. In addition, it hosts the RiverRocks Outdoor Festival, which is an event for amateur to elite-level outdoor adventure athletes accompanied by live music and food vendors.