Exploring, Eating and Grooving through Knoxville’s Urban Outdoors

We’d been to North Georgia State Parks and we’d seen Chattanooga, Tenn. So, this time we’d drive a little farther on I-75 to check off another Southern city on the map. Hello, Knoxville!

That was the plan as my gal pals and Ioaded up the car at sunrise one Saturday morning. By 10 a.m., we had arrived at Ijams Nature Center, circling to find a spot to park in the already crowded lot.

Popular for its 300 acres of protected wildlife habitat and natural areas on the banks of the Tennessee River, with 10 miles of trails, rock formations, ponds, lakes and stunning overlooks, it’s easy to forget Ijams is just 3 miles outside the heart of Knoxville.

Park Manager Ed Yost met my crew at the Visitor’s Center for a guided, breezy hike on the Ross Marble Quarry Loop. Along the way, Yost –who has been working at Ijams for more than 20 years –filled us in on the history dating back to 1881. Originally a quarry for Tennessee marble before the Great Depression, the local garden clubs and community volunteers (not just the orange-clad type) joined forces in the 1960s to restore its natural beauty and create the lively, public park. We passed countless happy campers, mountain bikers, runners and paws on the trail near Mead’s Quarry Lake, where River Sports Outfittersrents kayaks, canoes and paddleboards from mid-April through Memorial Day.

Another plus for outdoorsy folks: Ijams is part of Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness 12.5- mile South Loop, connecting recreational, cultural and historical preserves through an initiative by Legacy Parks Foundation. Overall, the city boasts more than 40 miles of multi-use trails, 10 parks and four Civil War sites for an outdoor experience like no other. We paused on a rock bridge with panoramic views of the former quarry site, now very still and covered in greenery, wildflowers and peace sign graffiti, before discovering what’s under the bridge. The picturesque “keyhole” below moss-covered boulders provides passage to the lower quarry. When Yost sized us up doubtfully and cautioned about mud, we adventured on a little further.

“I always thought it would be cool to have a bluegrass concert in here,” Yost said. Silence fell on us as we imagine what the acoustics must sound like against the rock. We joked he must invite us back if – when – it happens. After all, Southern rock sound is just as ingrained in the land as the limestone.

In fact, one of my favorite bands, The Dirty Guv’nahs also calls Knoxville home. As we make our way through the downtown district, I recognize names of streets from songs and pass Preservation Pub, where the band often played in their early days.

“It’s one of my favorite places to unwind and see a band play in a loud, small environment,” singer/songwriter James Trimble wrote on the band’s blog of the place. “There’s a magic about Market Square that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the Southeast. It’s a communal feeling that is hard to explain, and sometimes late at night I catch that magic when I’m watching a brand new band at the pub.”

With their lyrics stuck in my head, we checked out our suite on the 11th floor of the Holiday Inn at World’s Fair Park, changed out of muddy clothes and spotted the city’s iconic Sunsphere from our window before heading down again to curb our accrued appetites. Since the hotel is just blocks from all the fun, we quickly went from lobby with suitcases to lunch with handmade sodas in hand.

Aptly addressed at 1 Market Square, we were glad we made reservations at the bustling Tupelo Honey Café. Although the “New South Kitchen” first debuted in Asheville, N.C., a table at the Knoxville counterpart, located jointly to the Oliver Hotel, is prime real estate.

No doubt the complimentary biscuits and blueberry preserves have something to do with that. As explained further in the restaurant’s cookbook by food writer Elizabeth Sims and Chef Brian Sonokus, they believe in the transcendent power of gathering around the table. “Everyone dives in, passing dishes around the table sharing with one another. Barriers are lifted. Transgressions at least momentarily forgotten.”

Looking around the sunny yellow dining room designed as if on a back porch, I don’t see any transgressions. Lucky for us, there’s plans to open an Atlanta location this fall. In the meantime, we toted back a cookbook to recreate the tasty carrot and kale slaw with avocado lime vinaigrette and “Shoo Mercy!” (translation: darn good) dishes, and of course, practice our own biscuit-making abilities.

The latter is taken, or should I say enjoyed, seriously around here, especially since the start of the annual International Biscuit Festival in 2009. Just held again May 14 and 15 this year, with The Bitter Southern’s Chuck Reese presiding as a judge, the festival celebrates the heritage of home cooking with vendors, music, a bake-off, Miss and Mr. Biscuit contest and a schedule of stellar speakers who come together in an intimate setting to share their passion for Southern food.

After catching Sunsphere cameos in local art shops like Coldstream Market and Nothing Too Fancy, we decided to see the 360-degree view from above for ourselves. Constructed for the 1982 World’s Fair, the observation deck is open to the public from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. during the summer months. Watching above the crossroads of I-40 and I-75 as the sun trades turns with the lights of the city’s nightlife felt worlds away from the day’s earlier views, but maintains its own unique draw. Wherever we walked in Knoxville, the structure’s 24-karat gold panes of glass guided us back to the hotel.

Although for dinner, we didn’t have to navigate far. After a day on our feet, dinner at Windows on the Park, located on the first floor of the Holiday Inn, was an easy choice. The dishes on the menu are marked by flags of the country that inspired each, but the sense of global influence to World’s Fair Park was just as apparent by fellow patrons visiting for a concert at the Tennessee Theater or the Southern Graphics Print Council International Conference. Located across Henley Street from the Knoxville Conference Center, the hotel is a convenient choice for out-of-towners.

The following morning, we strolled down South Gay Street toward the Old City to sample the fare at Knox Mason, where – you guessed it – there are more biscuits on the menu. University of Tennessee and Blackberry Farm alumnus Chef Matt Gallaher creatively reigns the kitchen with seasonally focused and hyper-local menus that incorporate the finest Southern products available. As I washed down the incredible Heritage Farms pork belly and pimento cheese sandwich with a Shiner White Wing Beermosa, I formed a simple conclusion why Knoxville’s pedestrian and cycling friendly community works so well here: it’s a necessary means to balance out a love of carbs.

On the walk back from brunch, we crossed paths with Holiday Inn at World’s Fair Park’s General Manager Marc Bauer on his return “commute” home – just a walk across the street. Retracing my own steps in mind, I realized perhaps the greatest part of this getaway was that once we parked the car at the hotel, we didn’t get in it again until the three-hour drive back to Atlanta.

It was a pleasure to meet you, Knoxville.


[a version of this story was originally printed in Points North Atlanta | photos courtesy of Colleen Ann McNally; Knoxville CVB; Tupelo Honey Cafe; Knox Mason]

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