Where to Ride: Finding Gravel riding & other adventures in Knoxville, Tennessee
This trip to Knoxville was a bit spur of the moment. We were passing through anyway, with gravel bikes, so we thought why not see if there’s any gravel riding in Knoxville, Tennessee?
After all, we found plenty of amazing mountain bike trails there. And the city has a greenway running all along their riverfront, a free and public swimming reservoir, and a generally outdoorsy vibe with tons of amazing food and breweries. If we could find gravel roads here, too, this would definitely be the gem of Eastern Tennessee.
So, what did we find?
Knoxville’s gravel cycling scene is, um, hard to see
If you find cyclists gathering outside a taco joint or brewery, they’re likely mountain bikers. It’s not that this college town doesn’t have gravel cyclists and roadies, it’s just that the in-town riding is basically all mountain biking. World-class, endless miles of mountain biking, to be exact. Seriously, check it out.
After calling four different shops and getting a very similar answers, the general consensus is this:
Ooooh, man, we don’t really have a “gravel scene” here, but there’s some amazing gravel riding all around us.
Which is true. And, according to several more locals, it really is quite amazing. And hard. And you have to be willing to drive about 30-50 minutes from downtown Knoxville to find it. But, judging from our ride, and photos and intel from local gravelist extraordinaire Chris Joice, it’s worth the effort. Here’s what we’re looking at:
The three areas most mentioned by local bike shops were North Boundary, Tellico, and the Heinous Loop. The latter weaves in and out of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and is a crusher of a ride. More on that in a minute.
The white circle on the map is a 20-mile radius from the center of downtown Knoxville, just for reference. Further down we’ll include links and GPX files for some of the more popular routes.
The North Boundary Greenway is one of the easiest to get to, and logistically easiest to ride since it’s a closed loop. I met Echelon Bicycles & Taproom owner Kelly Hamm for a ride.
He shared that the area was home to the Manhattan Project’s development in the 40s. Nowadays, Oakridge, TN, is home to the National Laboratory, which continues to do advanced product development for both government and private entities.
You may hear this area referred to a Black Oak Ridge, which includes some of the singletrack in the area. NorBo’s surface is great, and there are three solid climbs in there, helping make this ~8 mile loop a perfect spot to do training laps…
…or just kick it with friends without worrying about traffic. As a bonus, there’s some awesome singletrack wiggling off into the woods that seemed purpose built for aggressive gravel riding. So swoopy and so fast, it capped off our ride perfectly. Well, actually…
…grabbing a cold beverage back at Echelon was the perfect end. The shop is technically located in Farugut, TN, basically the edge of Knoxville and (mostly) on the way back into town. Worth a stop to check out his setup, and these carbon steerer tubes repurposed as bar taps!
The drive back into downtown reveals the reason to stay in downtown…it’s virtually all sprawl and malls along I-40 west of town. The greater downtown Knoxville area, however, is a hub of delicious restaurants, local beer, art, river access, the Mead Quarry, Ijams ropes course and nature park, and those glorious Urban Wilderness mountain bike trails.
That said, stay on Hwy70 heading back into town and you’ll pass by Taqueria La Herradura food truck, which really and truly is the perfect finish to a great ride. The food was so good, and affordable, and just what I needed before grabbing a siesta back at the hotel.
OK, we’ll get back to the riding, but since we’re on food…
Food, Drink & Fun in Knoxville, Tennessee
Last trip, we hit the Navitat high ropes course, so this time we wanted to try actual climbing. Of which there is some real outdoor crag climbing at the Ijams nature preserve, as long as you have your own gear…for now. Local outfitter Knoxville Adventure Collective is planning on offering guided climbing soon.
In the meantime, check out the indoor climbing wall at River Sports Outfitters, which has a mix of top rope, auto-belay and bouldering. Plus gear for literally any outdoor and water sport you can possibly think of inside their oversized (and very cool) shop.
When evening arrives, you’ll have worked up an appetite. Take a stroll and enjoy the hazy vistas (they’re called the Blue Ridge and Smoky mountains for a reason).
There’s also plenty of art on buildings, in alleys, and all over town. Lots to see as you head toward food!
We filled the first night with takeout from Good Golly Tamale (a bit expensive, but surprisingly filling tamales for takeout) and walked to Crafty Bastard Brewing (above) to enjoy the food and the crisp early fall air.
Our next day started with an assortment of donuts from Status Dough. For dinner…
…we lucked into finding the Elkmont Exchange Brewery & Eating House, which had both excellent beer and scrumptious food. It’s a big spot, just off the beaten path, so look it up. After sharing a few items to whet our appetite, we walked around the corner to…
…Knox Food Park. This permanent urban picnic area has a rotating selection of food trucks (the schedule is on their website), fire pits, and a bar serving up local beers by the can.
One truck was selling make-your-own s’mores kits, including sticks, so we put those fire pits to good use! Definitely worth a visit if your party can’t agree on a single restaurant. And if the Ramen truck is there, OMG.
Other spots worth trying include Pretentious Beer Co. (cozy secret garden seating out back, and all beers are served in glass that’s blown next door), and Kopita Falafel & Hummus Bar (super friendly, vegan, and delicious!).
Check out the restaurants from our mountain bike trip here, too, for a LOT more great options and breweries across the river.
If you’re really into beer, check out Knox Brew Hub, which is like a visitor’s center for local beer, where they’ll guide you through tastings…until Zack’s Knox Brew Tours business is up and running again after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Where to stay in Knoxville & local Bike Shops
We stayed at the Embassy Suites Downtown on this trip, and would also recommend Hyatt Place Downtown. Both are right in the heart of it, and the Embassy Suites has a legit breakfast bar with made-to-order omelette station (because these things matter)…and their rooms are plenty big enough to put bikes in them without tripping over them. That’s good, because both valet and self-parking are offsite, about 2-3 blocks away.
There’s also a ton of bike shops, here’s the quick list:
All shop links provided by Visit Knoxville, which has a visitor’s center located right downtown with maps and more info to get you oriented.
It’s worth mentioning that Knoxville has 85+ miles of greenway running through parks, neighborhoods, and community centers. Which is awesome for locals, but it’s a scattered assortment of short stretches, each mostly under 2 miles long.
Which means for proper “gravel cycling” you’ll need to look outside of town. So, let’s get back to it…
Eastern Tennessee gravel cycling details & GPX routes
Considering some of the riding we heard about and found online stretched into Western North Carolina and North Georgia, looking for “Eastern Tennessee” gravel riding might yield better results.
THE HEINOUS: If you’re looking for a BIG day, plan on the Heinous. Depending on how you string it together, it’s anywhere from 60 to 100 miles of mixed surface riding that leans heavily on forest roads in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Joice says the preferred way to ride the route (GPX file) is clockwise, however this will put you on Rich Mountain Road headed against traffic and might earn you a ticket…unless the road is closed for the winter, then it’s open for cycling in either direction. If you ride it counter-clockwise, Joice says it’s harder, and you’ll need to make a modification across Cades Cove using Hyatt Lane.
TELLICO / CITICO: If you’re headed to the Tellico area, search for routes using the word “Citico”. There’s a reason why local brand Nox Composites named their gravel/CX carbon rim the Citico…apparently it’s that good.
NORTH BOUNDARY / BLACK OAK RIDGE: Joice made us two routes to share. The NB/BOR Basic (GPX file) is a sampler with a little single-track and the major loops. The NB/BOR Delux (GPX file) uses the “good” trail in Black Oak Ridge (which is un-signed) and the great, newer trail in North Boundary, along with some solid climbs, good flow, and even a great spot were you can see the hidden quarry.
More resources for Tennessee gravel riding
Here are some other great resources we found online:
COVID Safety and precautions on this trip
All of our dining and drinking was done at places with outdoor seating. There’s enough, if you’re willing to walk a bit. Or maybe even drive.
Knoxville’s Old Town has a few options, but walk another six blocks and you get to Crafty Bastard, Elkmont Exchange, the food truck park, Schulz Brau biergarten and more.
That said, Knoxville is home to the University of Tennessee. It’s a very large college, and it’s located just off of downtown’s southwest side. So, on football game weekends, and especially on home game weekends, downtown is packed with students and their families and alumni.
Which is to say, not our scene anymore, but maybe it’s yours. College kids do dumb college kid things, like pack themselves into bars in the midst of a pandemic.
Otherwise, most establishments seemed to have some limits on indoor seating, offered takeout or at least required masks be worn inside. Knoxville posts their city-wide rules and recommendations online, and virtually every establishment had one or more signs on their doors.
Ultimately, visiting anywhere during a pandemic requires you to make good judgements based on your own risk tolerance, and know in advance that you may not get to try everything you wanted. Which is a pretty good reason, along with the riding, for a return trip in the future.
The takeaway? Knoxville is worth the visit
Whether you’re looking for a killer mountain bike road trip, or a food-and-brewery packed urban hub for epic gravel adventures, Knoxville’s hard to beat. We’ve ridden here several times now, and still haven’t come close to riding it all.
Its downtown is easily accessible off Interstate 40, offers a lot to do off the bike, and it’s near tons of other family-friendly attractions in the Smoky Mountains. Knox, we’ll be back.
Disclosure: Visit Knoxville covered some of our travel and production costs to create this story, however we created our own schedule and chose our own activities, and chose which items to include and recommend in this post based on our own personal experience. Hotel links are affiliate links that, if you click and book, we may earn a very small commission to help support the work we do here at Bikerumor.com.
GPX file disclosure: The linked GPX files were provided to us and we have NOT vetted them. Download and use them at your own risk, and follow all local traffic laws.