Urban Biking Trails Along The Tennessee River

We've been peddling for few miles along the banks of the Tennessee River when Ed McAlister, owner of River Sports Outfitters, stops along the Knoxville Greenway Trail to point out something through an opening in the thick band of trees lining the river bank. "You see that point there near the bridge?" he asks. "That's where the Tennessee River begins." We are looking at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad rivers, the headwaters of the mighty Tennessee.

Along the way we stop at the 275-acre Ijams Nature Center, a forested retreat and wildlife sanctuary next to the river that includes two enormous marble quarries being reclaimed by nature, one now with a glistening lake surrounded by rock cliffs and trees, the other deep and dry with a small stone passageway known as "the Keyhole" providing access to the quarry floor. Entering the dry quarry, you feel as if you're stepping onto Skull Island from the movie "King Kong." All this seemingly remote natural beauty is within a few miles of bustling downtown Knoxville.

Downriver in Chattanooga, the Tennessee Riverwalk offers similarly bucolic terrain between downtown and the Chickamauga Dam ten miles upstream. My group begins in Coolidge Park across the river from downtown in Chattanooga's eclectic North Shore neighborhood, on bikes rented from Outdoor Chattanooga in the park. Crossing the Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge -- said to be one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world -- we get a great view of the Tennessee Aquarium, the Bluff View Art District and Lookout Mountain in the distance. Then comes a trek through the Bluff View Art District, a tiny neighborhood on a high river bluff with the look and feel of a hilltop European village. After a long coast downhill we are in a big grove of trees next to the river, continuing on this way for a few miles admiring the river views.

But the most spectacular place to see fall color near Chattanooga is in the Tennessee River Gorge. Known as "the Grand Canyon of Tennessee," the gorge is accessible aboard the Tennessee Aquarium's River Gorge Explorer, which docks along the Riverwalk next to the aquarium. Plan enough time to lock up the bikes and hop on board for this worthwhile two-hour journey down the tree-lined gorge and be back in Coolidge Park in time to ride the old-fashioned merry-go-round, catch the sunset and stroll the streets of North Shore. If you see people moving in an awkward way along the streets, they are likely mimicking the dance steps embedded in North Shore's sidewalks, a fixture in this hip and historic neighborhood.

Photo by Blake Guthrie