Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains are Full of Good Trails and Good Food

As I drive into the evening heading south on Interstate 81, the foothills of the Smoky Mountains come into view. The sun is fading, and the fog settles into the distant mountains. Lyrics from the infamous metal band Sleep repeat in my head, “Follow the smoke to the riff filled land.” It was the third time I had traveled to Tenessee in five months, and I was happy to be following the smoke (fog) again. When I arrived, I knew what awaited me was not thunderous guitar riffs but some of the best singletrack trail networks east of the Mississippi.

Josh Collins and Logan Mooney eyeing trail potential on the horizon of Johnson City

After a solid night’s sleep at the historic Carnegie Hotel in Johnson City, I  woke to the sound of a downpour. It was 6:30 am, and I planned to meet locals Josh Collins and Logan Mooney at 9. Collins dismissed my concerns about muddy trails and reassured me that Tannery Knobs drains well and the weather had been exceptionally dry as of late. Arriving at the trailhead for Tannery Knobs, Collins and Mooney looked off toward town as the fog lingered after the storm. Collins’ assessment of what the rain would do to the trails was on point, and the heavy shale soil dispersed the water quickly, leaving the trails tacky and fast.

Tannery Knobs may lack mileage, but makes up for it in well-built and fun trails. Ranging from green to black-diamond rated, there’s a little something on the Knobs for everyone. Topped with a Velosolutions pump track and located close to the center of town, it’s easy for residents and visitors alike to bust out laps before or after work, or perhaps even on a lunch break. Warm-up laps on Breakfast Club got us ready for some of the flow, and tabletop jumps, and a purpose-built climbing trail by way of Chairlift kept the party pace cordial. Posse’s Club offers a couple of technical rock moves and drops for riders looking for challenges, but Tannery Knobs is a perfect spot for the intermediate- to the expert-level rider to blow off steam.

From the parking lot of Tannery Knobs, you can see Buffalo Mountain, the latest addition to the Johnson City trail network. So as not to cause controversy, let me clarify that there are two separate Buffalo Mountains. Confusing? Well, it was, and even more so when I mentioned it to a local during a lunch stop. They were alarmed and told me mountain biking was most certainly forbidden there. To clarify, I visited my riding mate from the morning, Logan, at the local Trek shop. He nodded, said that was a common mistake, and proceeded to pull up the trail map on a computer to verify legit mountain bike trails. Unfortunately for me, the rain picked back up, ruining any chances of riding Buffalo or the trails near East State University.

Logan Mooney drops into Tannery Knobs’ Posse’s Club

I thanked Logan for the morning’s ride and hit the highway en route to Knoxville. It was Sunday, so I hoped to catch some shuttles via Knoxville Outdoor Tours over at Baker’s Creek. On Sundays, Knoxville Outdoor Tours provides shuttle services to the top of Devil’s Racetrack for a block of time. At last, it was Road Nationals weekend in Knoxville, and the whole bike community was out to spectate and enjoy streetside parties in South Knoxville. I wandered over to talk with some folks I had met last time in town to set up a ride for the following day. Shaggy is a well-known trail builder whose handiwork can now be found all over the USA, and we hoped to ride some of his latest additions to the Baker Creek and Iams Park trail networks. But once again, the weather had other ideas.

Alex Clark of Knoxville Outdoor Tours rips through Iams Park

The Appalachian Mountain Bike Club of Knoxville has done incredible and extensive work in the South Knoxville area. Baker Creek is just the tip of the iceberg, with the city boasting over 70 miles of multi-use trail. New trails continue to develop yearly, and recent land acquisitions mean adding even more track to the impressive collection. Having been on the trails of Knoxville on several occasions, I can’t express enough how well built the trail system is there. The riding community is one of the most friendly and encouraging that you’ll ever encounter. Adding the paved pump track and jump line to the entry to Baker Creek is the perfect way to loosen up before a big day out.

And after a big day of riding, there are plenty of ideal food options including SoKno Tacos, South Coast Pizza, and my absolute favorite, the Bistro at the Bijou.

A rider enjoys perfect lips on the paved jump line at Baker Creek Preserve.

With the rain spoiling the fun, I headed further south, hoping to find a dry trail. My destination was Cleveland, TN, a small industrial town that is also home to Lee University, located on the border of the Cherokee National Forest and the Ocoee River. With my eyes on the Tanasi Trails just outside of Cleveland, I received a text from Les Warnock, the head of the local SORBA chapter, letting me know that the trails at Tanasi were likely not in great shape after the two days of rain. Instead, Les suggested I head for the outskirts of Chattanooga to Raccoon mountain, assuring me the trails should be running great there.

Raccoon Mountain sits along the Tennessee River and the main loop trail circumnavigates a reservoir. If you don’t notice on the way in that the mountain also serves as a hydroelectric facility, trail names like Live Wire and High Voltage should give it away. Parking at the base of the mountain at the boat put-in, riders pick up Live Wire trail directly across the street. I rode counterclockwise around the mountain via Live Wire, which will have you second-guessing yourself on hot summer afternoons. The climb seemingly goes on for eternity, albeit with some fun little respites and technical rock climbing.

The riding at Raccoon feels like proper backcountry riding, only you’re never very far from the road. The tracks are challenging and rugged, and it was honestly a refreshing outing with so many flow trails built everywhere. There are many scenic outcrops along this ride, with the best on Eastern Rim; sure, you could drive to it, but what fun is that? The excitement meter gets dialed up heading down Laurel Point, Split Rock, and eventually finishing with High Voltage. The loop is not for the faint of heart, and I’m sure the locals run shuttles here on any given day, but I can’t say enough good things about committing to the whole loop.

Raccoon Mountain outside of Chattanooga gives riders a backcountry experience close to civilization

Back in Cleveland the following day, I met with Shannon Burke with Velo View Bike Tours and Tennessee Gravel to check out some of the backroads in Cherokee National Forest. Secluded from traffic under the beautiful forest canopy, it makes a great alternative if a summer storm saturates the singletrack. Even if you only brought your trail bike, you’ll be glad you’re on it down some of the steep and chunky gravel descents. Although small, downtown Cleveland has quite a few food and beverage hangouts. For beer enthusiasts, there’s Mash and Hops; for foodies, there is TRUE; for vegetarians, I found a nice little Indian take-out spot called Naan House.

When summer storms saturate the trails, Cherokee National Forest is home to extensive gravel riding.

Eastern Tennessee continues to deliver from the north to the south of the state. It has become one of my favorite places to visit and ride. If you are looking for somewhere new to get out on the trails, look no further.

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