Aerial view of Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

10 Best Small Towns in Tennessee for Outdoor Enthusiasts

Tennessee is an outdoor enthusiast's dream. This southeastern landlocked state is graced by the Great Smoky Mountains – a subrange of the Appalachian Mountains- an International Biosphere Reserve (thanks to its massive coverage of old-growth forest) and America's favorite national park. The Volunteer State has a lifetime's worth of hiking trails, incredible swaths of greenery, a healthy dose of lakes/reservoirs, and a slew of high-octane activities under the big blue sky. Whether you enjoy pensive strolls to waterfalls hidden deep within the woods, haze-draped, awe-inspiring overlooks, or white-knuckle rides down whitewater rapids, these ten towns are sure to satisfy. 


The view of the spectacular Great Smoky Mountains from Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
The view of the spectacular Great Smoky Mountains from Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Gatlinburg is the go-to base camp for the most-visited national park in the United States: the Great Smoky Mountains. As such, this Sevier County resort town not only has a wealth of attractions throughout its walkable streets but also a 520,000-acre backyard (that includes 800 miles of hiking trails) to explore. To complement its serene, natural side, Gatlinburg enhances the nearby mountaintops with accommodating (and, in some cases, thrilling) infrastructure – thereby welcoming all interests and abilities. The "Chondola" whisks folks to the top of Anakeesta Mountain, the Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway chugs up Ober Mountain to its ski area and amusement park, and the Yellow Chairlift takes those who are unphased by heights to the SkyBridge (i.e., the longest pedestrian cable bridge on the continent). 

Johnson City

Founders Park in Johnson City, Tennessee.
Founders Park in Johnson City, Tennessee. Editorial credit: Nolichuckyjake /

Johnson City sits in the far East of Tennessee, next to Boone Lake, surrounded by many great parks, trails, and other wild spaces. The fresh-water reservoir winds its way along the North side of town, offering swimming, paddling, boating, and fishing opportunities. An all-season, everyday outlet for fresh air and exercise is the Tweetsie Trail – a 9.5 paved path (including seven wooden bridges) that follows the old railway line to Elizabethton (the neighboring town to the East). For a more intensive adventure in the deep woods, the 725-acre Buffalo Mountain Park awaits you to the south with its trails and scenic lookouts. There is also Jacob's Nature Park and the Tannery Knobs Mountain Bike Park in the town center (depending on your passion). 


State Street in downtown Bristol, Tennessee
State Street in downtown Bristol, Tennessee. Image credit: Appalachian Centrist via Wikimedia Commons.

Bristol, a Sullivan County town just 25 miles North of Johnson City on the Virginia border, may be known for its country music contributions, but it is also a place that embraces outdoor enthusiasts. It also enjoys proximity to Boone Lake (to the Southwest) and the large, fishing/pet/hiking-friendly South Holston Lake (to the East). Closest of all is the 2,200-acre Steele Creek Park, which also has a small lake at its core. And those who enjoy exploring the unusual formations within the subterranean realm will love the lighted walkways of the Appalachian Caverns (to the Southwest), and Bristol Caverns – complete with an underground river (and even closer to the Southeast). 


The Nolichucky River, approaching Erwin from the east, as seen from the Appalachian Trail
The Nolichucky River, approaching Erwin from the east, as seen from the Appalachian Trail. Image credit: Mark Fickett via Wikimedia Commons.

Scooting just 15 miles South of Johnson City will bring outdoorsy folks to the Unicoi County gem of Erwin. Located on the Nolichucky River, this small town is a great spot for whitewater rafting and kayaking. The USA Raft Adventure Resort (on the South side of town) and Wahoo's Adventures Nolichucky Outpost (on the east side) will hook you up with a safe and fun excursion. Erwin also boasts some solid hiking trails. The famed Appalachian Trail rolls through town on its way from Georgia to Maine, and the much more modest (4-miles, one-way, and asphalt covered) Erwin Linear Trail is a nice, bike/stroller/wheelchair-accessible way to cut through the heart of town and visit places like Kiwanis Park, multiple ponds, and other simple-pleasure attractions. Finally, the Chestoa Recreation Area and Rock Creek Recreation Area give residents and visitors other prime outdoor locations that are well-equipped for casual outings. 


Road through the Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee.
Road through the Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee.

A worthy alternative to Gatlinburg is Sevierville – a mere 15 miles to the North. Dolly Parton's hometown not only affords comparable access to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (to the South), as well as the Cherokee National Forest (to the East), but it is also adjacent to the long, snake-shaped Douglas Lake and provides lots of adrenaline-fuelled outdoor activities right within the city limits. Fly through the trees at Wahoo Ziplines, go climbing at FoxFire Adventure Park, take a helicopter tour, rent an ATV, or hit the waterpark. Families will also enjoy the Smoky Mountain Deer Farm and Exotic Petting Zoo, which offers horse and pony rides through the farm trails. Finally, Sevierville's looped network of Greenways and Trails blends views of the Smoky Mountains with the scenic spots throughout this small town. 


Sunrise in the Smoky Mountains just outside Townsend, Tennessee.
Sunrise in the Smoky Mountains just outside Townsend, Tennessee.

Townsend is another Great Smoky Mountains tourist town that yearns to promote time in the outdoors. For starters, several epic trailheads within the national park are immediately South of town. Cades Cove Scenic Loop is one of the clear favorites. Just East of Townsend, families, couples, or try-anything-once individuals can embark on an equestrian adventure at Davy Crockett Riding Stables or dive into the unknown at Tuckaleechee Caverns (to the Southeast), filled with stalactites, stalagmites, and even an underground waterfall. On sunny days, tubing down the Little River is always a good choice, as is visiting the outdoor exhibits at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center and Little River Railroad/Lumber Museum. 


The beautiful town of Hartford, Tennessee.
The beautiful town of Hartford, Tennessee. Image credit: Brian Stansberry via Wikimedia Commons.

Hartford awaits on the eastern bank of the Pigeon River, with dozens of smaller creeks passing through and sandwiched between the Cherokee National Forest and the Nashville border. This quaint, unincorporated Cocke County community has two distinct sides: tranquil and adrenaline-junky. With only 800 permanent residents, Hartford has a spacious, rural feel. At the same time, thousands of friends, family, and corporate groups flock here in the summer to indulge in the whitewater rafting experience (everything from Class I to IV). There is a whole collection of tour groups along the river, right off Interstate 40. If wet and wild outings aren't your thing, keep to the 650,000 acres and 700 miles of dryland trails, plus 30 campgrounds and additional picnic areas within the Cherokee National Forest. 


 Civil war landmarks in historic Franklin, Tennessee
Civil war landmarks in historic Franklin, Tennessee.

Williamson County's Franklin is a stone's throw from Nashville, has a vibrant social scene of its own, and has fostered a wonderful system of urban parks. Take a stroll through the 16-block historic district, window-shopping and ogling at the preserved architecture (some of which traces back to the early 19th century) along the way. Next, expand the circumference of the walk to the many parks that surround Main Street. There is the 200-acre public park that surrounds Harlinsdale Farm, the riverside Bicentennial and Pinkerton parks, Jim Warren Park (which has several sports pitches, a fishing pond, and even a skate park), and the 110-acre Civil War-era Eastern Flank Battlefield Park. Along with plenty of other parks, there are also lovely hiking trails and picnic spots peppered throughout town. Furthermore, Franklin drops multiple golf courses further on the outskirts of town and even a privately-owned owl sanctuary that is open to the public six days per week. 


Aerial view of Sewanee, Tennessee.
Aerial view of Sewanee, Tennessee, in fall.

There are a ton of outdoor hubs in East Tennessee, but the centrally-located Village of Sewanee also makes a great case. The surrounding verdant bluffs of the Cumberland Plateau afford inspiring views of the forests and farmlands. The bold white cross on the West side of town and the University of the South overlook are good targets to aim for. The next day, try hiking to Morgan Falls and Bridal Veil Falls – a nice two-for-one special within the same moderate trail system. Less than 20 minutes South of Sewanee, the Mr. & Mrs. Harry Lee Carter Natural Area and adjacent Franklin State Forest are top-rated outdoor recreation areas, as is South Cumberland State Park (with its additional forested trails and impressive waterfalls), which is just a 15-minute drive to the Northeast. 

Tellico Plains

Beautiful nature around Tellico Plains, Tennessee.
Beautiful nature around Tellico Plains, Tennessee.

Tellico Plains refers to itself (quite astutely) as "The little town with the big backyard." This Monroe County community once again basks in the generous presence of the Great Smoky Mountains (Western portion) and Cherokee National Forest, as well as the Cherohala and Nantahala National Forests. Tellico Plains is a terminus of the Cherohala Skyway – a National Scenic Byway and National Forest Scenic Byway that rides ridge after ridge of fluffy green mountains to Robbinsville, North Carolina. Throughout this 43-mile drive, there are ample overlooks, hiking trails, and waterfalls to enhance the journey. So take your time and pack some sensible sneakers. 

More than the dramatic valleys and desert-scapes of California, more than the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, more than the geysers and wildlife of Wyoming, and even more than the Grand Canyon of Arizona, people flock to Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And while 13 million people made the trip in 2022 (9 million more than the runner-up), the Smokies are only part of the story. The whitewater rivers, thriving waterfalls, fish-friendly reservoirs, and additional artificial attractions all do their part to draw nature enthusiasts. Tennessee is a big state to narrow down, but these ten small towns are ripe for outdoor recreation. 

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