If you prefer the quiet beauty of a small-town over the noise and chaos of a big city, and would choose hiking through a state park over navigating a bustling street, then you’ll absolutely fall in love with East Tennessee.
The region’s mountains and rocky bluffs, dense timberland, lakes, rivers and waterfalls provide the perfect backdrop for outdoor recreation. And there’s also plenty of history, music and local culture to explore.
Let’s take a closer look at the appeal of this part of the state, from the southeast around Niota to more northern East Tennessee cities such as Jamestown, and places in-between.
Established in 1823, Jamestown, and Fentress – the county in which it sits – were both named after local politician James Fentress. The city would see steady growth from that point on, and is today a hot spot for manufacturing, healthcare and agriculture. Even today though, Jamestown remains a close community of fewer than 2,000 residents (as of 2022).
Niota was originally settled in the 1850s as “Mouse Creek” before taking on its current name based on a fictional Native American chief. The city is home to the oldest standing railroad depot, which now serves as Niota City Hall. Even smaller than Jamestown, Niota has at least as much heart … as well as (and likewise) fantastic places to enjoy the great outdoors.
In both Jamestown and Niota, and really throughout much of East Tennessee, there’s kind of an amazing thing that happens. You can be in an extremely rural area feeling like you are way off the grid in seclusion. But then you realize you’re often less than an hour – sometimes only 15 minutes – away from all the city amenities you could need. It’s the best of both worlds, so to speak.
Here on and around East Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, there’s ample opportunity for outdoor adventures. The crown jewel of the area is Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. It boasts 125,000 acres of waterways, forests and bluffs, with 200 plus miles of horse trails (After all, Big South is known as the “Trail Riding Capital of the Southeast”). Located in Oneida, the park also offers courses, guided outings and events.
Around 35 minutes from Niota, Watts Bar Lake is the top spot to enjoy every kind of watersport imaginable. And an hour north of Jamestown, Dale Hollow Lake is one of the cleanest lakes in the country, also surrounded by great trails. But be sure to visit some of the region’s state and national parks to truly embrace nature.
A short drive from Niota, Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park offers whitewater rafting in every class level and camping at Gee Creek. And an hour south of Fentress County, Cumberland Mountain State Park features swimming and fishing at Byrd Lake, and one of the Bear Trace golf courses designed by legendary pro Jack Nicklaus. There’s another Bear Trace course at Harrison Bay State Park, along with 40 miles of Chickamauga Lake shoreline, wooded picnic areas and a full marina.
Over in Wartburg, Frozen Head State Park has an extensive trail system for hikers, mountain views and campsites within some 24,000 acres. From here, drive 12 minutes southwest to reach the Obed Wild and Scenic River where you can paddle the rapids (Some waves rise 10 feet!), rock climb the surrounding cliffs or just stick to short, easy trails. Lastly, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is popular for wildlife viewing while biking through Cades Cove, marveling at endless wildflowers, and fishing streams packed with trout and bass.
Once you’ve had your fill of outdoor adventures in the region, including exploring why Crossville is the “Golf Capital of Tennessee,” you may want to check out the area’s other attractions. You can dive into music, local culture and even gain some deeper insight into the history of communities in Southeast & East Tennessee.
With influences from Nashville and Memphis, the music scene in the Upper Cumberland Plateau is incredible and growing. The Historic Palace Theatre in Crossville is a fully-restored community auditorium that hosts country, blues, jazz and other music concerts. But larger and more mainstream music venues are also in the area, especially over in Knoxville. That city alone is home to the classic and elegant Tennessee Theater, the massive Knoxville Civic Auditorium and Coliseum, and the 100-plus-year-old Bijou Theatre.
Speaking of historic sites, there are several East Tennessee state parks that focus more on education and history than recreation. For a deep dive into the mid-1700s, head to Fort Loudoun State Historic Park in Vonore. Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park features programs and presentations on Civil War-era battles. And opened in 2015, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park has facilities, equipment and artifacts from the namesake program that developed atomic weapons during World War II.
Finally, no one does festivals quite like we do in the south. East Tennessee highlights in the spring include April’s Dogwood Arts Festival in Knoxville, with live music, food and art vendors; and the Southern Skies Music Festival in the same city in May.
One of fall’s standouts is Vonore’s Annual Monroe Life Balloon Festival with hot air balloon rides, games, food and more. Also in September, the Fried Green Tomato Festival in Niota and the Fried Green Tomato Festival in Athens both celebrate these beloved, classic southern staples.
Sources: SoutheastTennessee.com; JamestownTn.gov; TnStateParks.com; Nps.gov; BestThingsTn.com; NationalParks.org; En.Wikipedia.org; OutdoorChattanooga.com; TennesseeRiverValleyGeotourism.org; MyGolfVacation.com