Tennessee is home to 56 State Parks, 12 National Parks, and many other natural areas that all offer hiking. There are over 1000 miles of trails to hike in the State Parks alone.
Tennessee has a naturally mixed terrain with mountains to the east, plateaus and highlands in the middle, and west Tennessee being mostly low lying with the Mississippi River bordering the state to the west.
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.
About the region 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.
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.. to put it bluntly. 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.
Easy, moderate, and strenuous – what do they 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. You may need to build up your endurance before you attempt anything rated strenuous.
State Parks in Tennessee with Hiking
West Tennessee: 14 State Parks
- Reelfoot Lake State Park
- Fort Pillow State Park
- Meemam-Shelby State Park
- T.O. Fuller State Park
- Big Cypress Tree State Park
- Paris Landing State Park
- Nathan Bedford State Park
- Johnsonville State Park
- Natchez Trace State Park
- Mousetail Landing State Park
- Pinson Mounds State Park
- Chickasaw State Park
- Big Hill Pond Tree State Park
- Pickwick State Park
Middle Tennessee: 26 State Parks
- Davy Crockett State Park
- Montgomery Bell State Park
- Dunbar Cave State Park
- Port Royal State Park
- Harpeth River State Park
- Paris Landing State Park
- Bicentennial Mall State Park
- Radnor Lake State Park
- Henry Horton State Park
- Long Hunter State Park
- Cedars of Lebanon State Park
- Bledsoe Creek State Park
- Tim’s 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 State Park
- Sgt. Alvin C. York State Park
- Pickett 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
- Warrior’s Path State Park
- David Crockett BP 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.
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.
Some parks with overnight hikes
- Natchez Trace
- Fall Creek Falls
- Big South Fork
- Appalachian Trail
- Smoky Mountains – several different overnight trails
Tennessee thru hiking – The Appalachian Trail
A thru hike is a very long distance hike that is completed in one hiking season. The Appalachian Trial, The Pacific Crest Trail, and The Continental Divide Trail are all examples of thru hikes.
The Appalachian Trail is one of the longest thru or through hikes in the world. The Appalachian Trail starts 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.