Tennessee is home to 56 State Parks, as well as 12 National Parks and many other natural areas that all offer hiking. There are over 1,000 miles of trails to hike in the State Parks alone! In this article we will list all of the great state parks in Tennessee that are good for hiking. We will also discuss some basics about the topography and climate of the state, as well as notable overnight hiking parks and national parks.
Tennessee’s Topography and Climate
The state of Tennessee is broken down into 6 topographical regions. These regions are: the Unaka Mountains, the Great Valley of East Tennessee, the Cumberland Plateau, the Highland Rim, the Central Basin, and the Gulf Coastal Plain.
However, Tennessee is divided into 3 grand divisions and each has pretty a diverse landscape and terrain. Western, middle and eastern Tennessee are all three unique to each other. However, in all three regions you will find areas for backpacking, hiking, and camping.
The 3 Regions of Tennessee
You can take a look at this topographical map of TN to get an idea of the landscape and terrain of the 3 regions of Tennessee.
- To the west you have the Gulf Coastal Plain that includes Memphis and the Mississippi River. This region is low lying and mostly flat, and contains the Mississippi River Delta in the southwestern corner (near Memphis). The more you head east from Memphis, the more you will encounter hills, plateaus, highlands, and eventually mountain ranges.
- Middle Tennessee is home to Nashville, Clarksville, Cookeville, and many other small to mid-sized, but quickly growing cities. The border to the western division of Tennessee is the Tennessee River. The eastern portion of middle Tennessee is where you will find elevated regions on the Cumberland Plateau and the Highland Rim.
- In eastern Tennessee is home to Knoxville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Throughout this mountainous region of the state there are State Parks, National Parks and natural areas that offer hiking, backpacking and camping.
The climate in Tennessee is generally hot and humid in the summer, and mild to cold in the winter. On a hot summer day it is not unheard of to get over 100 degrees. In general, we have a temperate climate in Tennessee. It may be slightly warmer in the Memphis region to the west and slightly cooler to the east around the Mountains in the higher elevations. However Tennessee weather is relatively similar throughout the state. Check out this page if you want to know more about the climate in Tennessee.
State Parks in Tennessee with Hiking
Tennessee has a naturally mixed terrain with mountains to the east, plateaus and highlands in the middle, and the Mississippi River and lowlands bordering the state to the west. In the list below we have broken up the parks into eastern, western and middle Tennessee, with links to the state’s official information page.
West Tennessee: 14 State Parks
- Reelfoot Lake State Park
- Fort Pillow State Park
- Meemam-Shelby Forest State Park
- T.O. Fuller State Park
- Big Cypress Tree State Park
- Paris Landing State Park
- Nathan Bedford Forest State Park
- Johnsonville State Historic Park
- Natchez Trace State Park
- Mousetail Landing State Park
- Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park
- Chickasaw State Park
- Big Hill Pond State Park
- Pickwick State Park
Middle Tennessee: 26 State Parks
- Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park
- Montgomery Bell State Park
- Dunbar Cave State Park
- Port Royal State Park
- Harpeth River State Park
- Paris Landing State Park
- Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park
- Radnor Lake State Park
- Henry Horton State Park
- Long Hunter State Park
- Cedars of Lebanon State Park
- Bledsoe Creek State Park
- Tims Ford State Park
- Old Stone Fort State Park
- South Cumberland State Park
- Fall Creek Falls State Park
- Rock Island State Park
- Cumberland Mountain State Park
- Edgar Evins Tree State Park
- Burgess Falls State Park
- Cummins Falls State Park
- Standing Stone State Park
- Cordell Hull Birthplace State Park
- Sgt. Alvin C. York State Park
- Pickett CCC Memorial State Park
- Frozen Head State Park
East Tennessee: 16 State Parks
- Harrison Bay State Park
- Booker T. Washington State Park
- Red Clay State Park
- Hiwassee/Ocoee State Park
- Fort Loudoun State Park
- Seven Islands State Park
- Panther Creek State Park
- Big Ridge State Park
- Norris Dam State Park
- Cove Lake State Park
- Indian Mountain State Park
- Warriors’ Path State Park
- David Crockett State Park
- Rocky Fork State Park
- Roan Mountain State Park
- Sycamore Shoals State Park
You can find a list of all state park trail maps here.
Easy, moderate, and strenuous – what do they mean?
While researching what trails to try out you will likely come across the terms easy, moderate or strenuous to describe trails. Let’s look at what these terms actually mean.
- Easy: Pretty much speaks for itself. This level of hiking is suitable for all members of your family. A hike rated easy is less than 3 miles and has an elevation change of less than 800 feet. Many times these will even be partially paved with little to no rough terrain. You can take your children with you on a hike rated easy.
- Moderate: A moderate hike is for an intermediate hiker, and generally 3-5 miles. You should be in pretty good shape here and should maybe think twice about taking small children without a carrier. If you are interested in a child carrier backpack for hiking, then you should check out my post on the best carrier backpacks by age group for kids. Be sure to take snacks, plenty of water, and other provisions.
- Strenuous: It goes without saying, strenuous hikes are the most difficult of the 3 levels. If you are out of shape, or in bad health you should not consider a strenuous hike. These types of hikes often include steep inclines or rough terrain . You may need to build up your endurance before you attempt anything rated strenuous.
Tennessee National Parks for Hiking
Tennessee has a population of approximately (as of 2017) 6.7 million people and receives over 100 million yearly visitors. Many of these visitors are visiting the Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. GSMNP the number one most visited national park in the entire country, beating out even the Grand Canyon and Zion. Ten percent of our yearly tourists, over 10 million people a year, are visiting the Smoky Mountains.
A 94 mile section of one of the longest trails in the world, the Appalachian Trail, runs through Tennessee. At just under 2,200 miles long, the Appalachian Trail runs all the way from Georgia to Maine and crosses 16 U.S. states.
There are 12 National Parks in the state of Tennessee but I only feel there are 2 worth mentioning in terms of hiking and backpacking. That is Big South Fork in middle Tennessee, and of course Great Smoky Mountains National Park in east Tennessee. The Appalachian Trail is also listed as a separate National Park, which I talk about below under the section for thru hiking.
Tennessee thru hiking – The Appalachian Trail
A thru hike is a very long distance hike that is completed in one hiking season. Some examples of thru hikes are the Appalachian Trial, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail.
The Appalachian Trail is one of the longest thru or through hikes in the world. It begins in Georgia and runs all the way up to Maine and is 2,181 miles long.
The Appalachian Trail is too much for me at this point in my life but I hope one day, when I retire and have the time, I can say that I tackled this beast. For any of you that are interested in learning more about thru hiking or the Appalachian Trail in general you should check out appalachiantrail.org.
Tennessee parks with overnight hikes
If you are interested in spending more than just one day on the trail, you can find some overnight hikes at these parks.
- Big South Fork
- Appalachian Trail
- Smoky Mountains – several different overnight trails
Tennessee is a big state with lots of beautiful, wild habitat for hiking. There is plenty for you to explore and put on your “to-hike” list with 56 state parks stretched across the state. In addition Great Smoky Mountain National Park and a long section of the Appalachian Trail offer some of the best hiking opportunities in this part of the country.