Adventure in Tennessee: 5 places to play, explore

The defining sounds of Tennessee reach much further than the mournful blues, the swing of bluegrass or the heartbreak of country ballads.

They include the calls of a thousand bald eagles that descend annually on the swamp-like environs of West Tennessee, the splash of dancing bass and carp breaching the surface of Middle Tennessee’s abundant waters, and the crashing cascade of East Tennessee’s waterfalls.

The Volunteer State offers plenty for who like to play in the great outdoors. It’s not surprising, really. After all, this is the land of Davy Crockett.

Cherohala Skyway

Whether by car, bike or motorcycle, however you choose to traverse the Cherohala Skyway, which zigzags its way through the Cherokee and Nantahala National forests, you’ll find yourself on the precipice of historical lore, contemporary ingenuity and the sheer grandeur that comes from sweeping mountain views and 23 miles of densely forested back country roads.

This portion of East Tennessee boasts the Furs to Factories Heritage Trail, often considered a “museum without walls.” Travel through the scenic history lesson and you’ll find remnants of the Industrial Revolution and its effects on this slice of Southern Appalachia. Wander among the remains of the British Fort Loudoun and take in the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, which celebrates the life of the Cherokee Indian who created a reading and writing system for his people.

Once you find yourself saturated with history, it’s time to take advantage of the unlimited bounty that nature provides in East Tennessee.

State-of-the-art log cabins outfitted with hot tubs allow you to soak al fresco on autumn evenings as the mist softens mountaintops.

Abundant in forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, the area around Cherohala Skyway offers visitors a chance to conquer the great outdoors from the water, ground and air by filling their days with tubing, hiking or testing their mettle in a glider plane in nearby Benton.

You shouldn’t come to Cherohala Skyway and not take advantage of one of the premiere trout streams. The Tellico River winds for more than a dozen miles and comes loaded with brown, rainbow and brook trout.

The river draws whitewater kayakers who seek the Ledges near the tiered Bald River Falls, a short distance from the Skyway. Kayaks skim along white water, passing mossy boulders and fallen hardwoods lying tangled along the shore as they make the drop from Baby Falls into a deep rush of water off the Ledges, getting up close and personal with the term “vertical kayaking.”

Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center, 225 Cherohala Sky, Tellico Plains, Tenn. 423-253-8010, 1-800-245-5428,, @CherohalaSkyway.

Reelfoot Lake State Park

Around 1811-1812, a round of mighty earthquakes caused the Mississippi River to flow in the opposite direction for short while, forever changing the ecosystem in the northwest corner of Tennessee, creating the swamp-like Reelfoot Lake — nirvana for bird watchers.

Reelfoot Lake provides an exotic getaway with its flooded forest, which holds massive cypress trees above as well as beneath the lake’s surface. A treasure trove of aquatic plant life decorates the shallow water’s edge, but it’s the birding that draws throngs to the park each winter.

Thousands of American bald eagles flock to Reelfoot Lake State Park during January and February. And the celebration comes to a peak during the Eagle Festival in February. During the annual fall migration, bird watchers can thrill to the sight of other varieties, including white pelicans.

Springtime brings deep swamp canoe trips, while summer sees pontoon boat tours.

Activities in the park include camping in one of two campgrounds, with plenty of campsites located along the shore. If you’re considering a family reunion, Ellington Hall provides 3,700 square feet of air-conditioned space with kitchen facilities that can seat about 400. There’s a museum in the park, and new cabins are going up at the south end of the lake. These will have traditional, vintage architecture.

Off Tenn. 22, Hornbeak, Tenn. 731-253-8003,, @TennStateParks.

Worley’s Cave

Call it spelunking or potholing, the underground pastime of cave exploration gives you a view into a mysterious world seen by few. Located near the northeastern tip of the state, Worley’s Cave entices the adventurer with more than 8 miles of passageways. Of historical note, during parts of the Civil War, it was heavily mined for saltpeter, which forms gunpowder when mixed with sulfur and charcoal.

Today, you can sign up for one of USA Raft’s cave adventure trips that will have you wandering for hours among a naturally air-conditioned, damp cave filled with odd formations that might convince you that you’ve landed on another planet. You’ll wear helmets and head lamps, and you will get wet and muddy thanks to the cave’s underground stream. Take the trip up a few notches and sign on for the overnight adventures, which allow you to spend the night in the cave. It’s suggested you bring warm jammies.

Bluff City, Tenn. 1-800-872-7238,,, @myusaraft.

Ride the Tail of the Dragon

With no two curves alike, and a ride that some describe as an 11-mile roller coaster with more than 300 twists and turns, the Tail of the Dragon is not for the weak-kneed motorist. The Dragon, considered one of the supreme motorcycle and sports car touring roads, begins at Deals Gap on the North Carolina side of the state line, but the action gets going once you cross over into Tennessee.

This stretch of U.S. 129 offers drivers curve after curve, with dramatic views of rivers and mountains flying by. The Dragon comes to a stop at Tabcat Creek Bridge.

Fans are pleased that Tennessee and North Carolina recently banned 18-wheelers from the road. And, if you decide to ride the Dragon as a Sunday driver in the family van, there’s nothing wrong with that, but be considerate of the motorists who are looking for thrills, and pull over at the many pull-outs provided for slower traffic.

A year-round attraction, the Tail of the Dragon finds special fans during the winter months, when the desolate collection of curves is covered in snow or ice.

Oh, by the way, enjoy your ride, but know that the two-lane road is heavily patrolled these days, so be prepared for a stiff fine if you try to race to the Dragon’s tail.

Intersection of U.S. 129 and N.C. 28, 1 mile south of the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, 1-800-768-7129,, @tailofthedragon.

Middle Tennessee Hot Air Adventures

Hop into the basket and get ready for the ride of your life.

Middle Tennessee Hot Air Adventures, run by the Bedford clan, offers you an unmatched view from far above the treetops.

High-flying adventurers can rest assured that they’re in expert hands with the Bedford pilots. Owner Henry Bedford and his son, Logan, are commercially licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration as pilots and instructors, and both are Balloon Federation of America Competition Division members. They have flown balloons all over the globe.

Balloons launch at sunrise and sunset, and each ride lasts 60 to 90 minutes, depending on weather conditions. The balloons hold from three to nine passengers.

Meeting sites vary. 615-584-6236,, @TNBalloon.