Epicenter: Why Knoxville is the South’s New MTB King

In a state better known for the Grand Ole Opry and Graceland, Knoxville’s riding is becoming a hit too.

Located just west of the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, Knoxville is blessed with never ending ridges and valleys–AKA really good geography for trails. Thanks to the blood, sweat, and tears of some exceedingly motivated mountain bikers, this East Tennessee city of 200,000 is laced with some seriously epic riding.

At its core is the Urban Wilderness, a 60-mile network of trails that interconnects a number parks and green spaces on the city’s south side. The town firmly planted its flag on the “best places to mountain bike” map this past spring with the opening of the Devil’s Racetrack, a high-flying, big-hit gravity trail that rivals anything in the U.S. While the trail is certainly noteworthy, it’s just the latest awesome thing Knoxville has done on its path to becoming one of the premier mountain bike destinations east of the Mississippi.

Perhaps one of the best ways to experience all the goodness Knoxville has to offer is to attend during the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club’s legendary and ridiculously fun Fall Fest. To put things in perspective, the event’s organizers are liable to roll up in a stretch limo that’s capable of carrying as many mountain bikes as humans. Get the idea?

Limo, bikes, and bouncers. | Photo: Allan Mueller - ALM Photo

Limo, bikes, and bouncers. | Photo: Allan Mueller – ALM Photo

Fall Fest is not only a testament to the area’s primo mountain biking, but it’s an excellent way to get immersed in the outstanding community of people that strive to make this outdoor destination so special. If you haven’t started making plans for a visit, you probably will when you factor in Knoxville’s mild climate, good eats, and southern hospitality to boot.

–5 Great Rides–

Devil’s Racetrack

Thanks to the votes of mountain bikers from around the country, Knoxville won last year’s $100,000 Bell-Built Grant which funded this regionally ground-breaking project. Built by IMBA Trail Solutions, Devil’s Racetrack opened in May of 2016 as part of the Baker Creek Preserve, Knoxville’s newest network of trails.

Don’t let the short distance fool you–this 0.6-mile gravity trail starts with a 40-foot-long by 10-foot-tall wall ride and never lets up. Choose your own adventure to the bottom: a succession of high-flying jumps or the world’s longest rock garden.

Pro trail builder Tyson Swasey "flow checking" one of the big doubles on Devil's Racetrack | Photo: Leslie Kehmeier

Pro trail builder Tyson Swasey “flow checking” one of the big doubles on Devil’s Racetrack | Photo: Leslie Kehmeier

Urban Wilderness South Loop

“The Urban Wilderness is a trail network nestled right into south Knoxville,” shares Bell Joyride Ambassador and long-time local Missy Petty. “The mountain biking community there–my family–has grown into an amazing and energetic group of people, and it’s all about hard work, good fun, and, at the end of the day, a great place to ride and live.”

If you’ve never ridden in Knoxville, take Missy’s word for it and start here. This loop only scratches the surface–hitting just 12 of the over 30 miles of singletrack available–but there’s plenty of opportunity to ramp up the mileage. After you’ve sampled your fair share of blazing fast singletrack and rugged rock gardens, you’ll be happy to know that you’re never more than a few miles from downtown and its bounty of food and drink options.

Sharp’s Ridge

Due to its unique topography, Sharp’s Ridge drains really well, making it a great option if it has rained recently. The eight miles of trail here are cut into the super steep side slope, which makes for some technically challenging climbs and descents. Link up Sharp Shin Trail’s narrow, challenging singletrack with a blast down Knight Fall‘s jump line for a good taste of what Sharp’s has to offer.

Big South Fork

For a solid backcountry experience, check out the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area just 90 minutes north of downtown Knoxville. There are an advertised 100 miles of bikeable trails and roads in the park but you’ll probably want to stick to one of the featured rides unless you’re looking for a gravel grind or some bikepacking seclusion.

Stunning vistas on the Grand Gap Loop | Photo: Leslie Kehmeier

Stunning vistas on the Grand Gap Loop | Photo: Leslie Kehmeier

The 33-mile IMBA Epic Ride combines two of the park’s three best rides: Grand Gap and Collier Ridge. If you only have one day to ride, this loop is well worth the effort. You’ll get the chance to revel over the park’s namesake river on the Grand Gap Loop and sample some of its fastest flowing singletrack on Collier Ridge Trail.

Concord Park

While it’s not the reason you’d come to Knoxville for mountain biking, Concord Park is a local’s favorite. It’s definitely worth checking out as a second ride of the day or a shorter option if time is a constraint. There are some built wooden features, a couple log rides and fun berms to rail along the way.

–The Best–

Where to Sleep

Unless you’ve got some local friends willing to harbor dirtbags in their yard, the tent-pitching options close to downtown are pretty limited. That said, Norris Dam State Park, only a short drive north of town, offers some historic cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. While you’re there, be sure to check out the Lakeview Trail–featuring, you guessed it, great views of the lake–because you can ride it right from your cabin.

Obviously, there are plenty of standard hotel options if you’d like to base yourself in the middle of the action but it’s worth poking around on sites like VRBO, HomeAway, and AirBnB, too. With some map savvy and a little luck, you and your riding buddies could score a house with backyard access to the Urban Wilderness.

Where to Eat

It’s not hard to find good eats and plenty to drink in Knoxville, any time of day. When the sun rises, head downtown to OliBea where you can get a hearty breakfast of homemade biscuits with just about anything on top. Need a second cup of coffee? Stop by Old City Java just a few doors down.

When you roll back into town after a solid day of riding, find an outside table at Balter Beerworks and sit down for a meal of street tacos, sliders and $4 craft beers (the special price for those who pedal there). What’s more? Balter’s caters to local cyclists and are strong supporters of the outdoor recreation scene. Their Legacy Parks “Beer of the Week” helps support the trails all around Knoxville.

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Buy a beer and support local trails at Balter Beerworks | Photo: Leslie Kehmeier

Post-ride on the south side? Trailhead Beer Market is the perfect option near the near the Urban Wilderness trails. This unique taproom features Alliance Brewery on draught and a plethora of other beers for sale in the market. If you happen to be there on Thursday night, you’ll have a chance to play trivia with the local trail nerds from AMBC. Not only are they really good at building and maintaining trails, they’re the reigning weekly trivia champions.

Where to Buy Spare Parts

Knoxville has a handful of great bike shops and you can’t go wrong with any of them. Tennessee Valley Bicycles, a full-service shop on Magnolia Avenue, is a convenient place to launch a ride to the Sharp’s Ridge trails. Even more convenient is the neighborhood watering hole located right next door for post-ride recovery.

If you liked the idea behind Balter Beerworks’ Legacy Parks Beer of the Month, you’ll feel good about stopping by REI Knoxville, too. A major AMBC supporting partner, this shop has funded and helped organize some crucial trail projects in the region, including a $10,000 grant for a pedestrian overpass that forms a key link between the Urban Wilderness South Loop and Baker Creek Preserve. And–thank the organic produce gods–there’s a Whole Foods Market right next door!

Rest Day

Assuming you visit in the warm months, Knoxville’s climate is definitely on the lush side. In fact, it’s a little jungle-like in places. For an exciting rest day activity, find your way to the Ijams Nature Center for a canopy tour with Navitat. Satisfy both your inner science nerd and thrill-seeker personality as you zip-line through the treetops. They’ve got lights and are open late, in case you want to play into the night.

Want to venture out of town? Pack your water wings and board shorts and drive north to the Big South Fork and Obed rivers. Both areas are great for swimming, especially in summer. The climbing isn’t bad either–Obed offers some of the best sport climbing in the Southeast. And let’s not forget, one of the country’s most stunning (and visited) national parks is just 90 minutes east of town. Choose from one of Great Smoky Mountains’ stunning waterfall hikes, or go for an unmatched leaf-peeping drive if you’re in town during the autumn.

Epicenter, created in partnership with PeopleForBikes, is a series highlighting communities that have invested in cycling infrastructure and grown into full-blown mountain bike destinations as a result. PeopleForBikes aims to make riding better for everyone – whether you ride trails, through the neighborhood to the store, or all the way across town.

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