In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created the National Park Service to help protect natural and historic lands and phenomenons for future generations. The U.S. national parks showcase our country’s natural beauty and cultural heritage for visitors from around the globe. There are now 63 national parks that hold endangered plants and animals, archaeological sites, and miles upon miles of trails.

Our beloved Great Smoky Mountains National Park became official in 1926. The New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia became the most recently christened national park in late 2020. These and quite a few other parks are within a day’s drive of Knoxville. The National Park Service has an excellent website at full of everything you ever wanted or needed to know about visiting one of the park locations.

1. Mammoth Cave

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky – A little more than 3 hours from Knoxville

Our closest state park – aside from the Great Smoky Mountains NP “right down the road” – is Mammoth Cave National Park. In addition to the amazing cave tours, there are night sky viewing programs, hiking trails (many at less than half mile!), and at least 4 accessible historic cemeteries.

2. New River Gorge

West Virginia near Glen Jean – A little more than 4 hours from Knoxville

An easy boardwalk trail leads to the New River Gorge Bridge vista with many more hiking trails available. Lovely scenic drives, along with outdoor activities, assures that there is something to please everyone! Because this fairly new park covers more than 50 miles of the river with 3 separate visitor centers, the NPS recommends using the coordinates on their website for directions as opposed to following standard GPS.

3. Congaree

Hopkins, South Carolina – 4.5ish hours from Knoxville

With astonishing biodiversity and the largest expanse of old growth bottomland forest remaining in the southeastern United States, this swampy ecosystem can be seen by a fairly flat boardwalk loop trail. Or get up close and personal in a canoe or kayak! Twenty-five miles of trails will delight birdwatchers and fisherfolk.

4. Shenandoah

Luray, Virginia – A little under 6 hours from Knoxville

The beautiful Skyline Drive runs 105 miles north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains inside the park. From Big Meadows to Old Rag Mountain, hiking trails and picnic areas abound. The park’s Ranger programs and historic exhibits are available both in person and virtually for those who can’t make the trip.

5. The Gateway Arch

St. Louis, Missouri – A little under 7 hours from Knoxville

Believe it or not, the arch became a national park in 2018 – the smallest of parks with less than 200 acres. The park is a memorial to Thomas Jefferson’s role in opening the west, the pioneers who shaped our history, and Dred Scott, who sued for his freedom in the Old Courthouse located on the grounds. While it is not your typical park, the arch’s (“Willie Wonka”ish) interior tram ride to the top are worth the trip. Virtual tours are available online for those less brave!

6. Cuyahoga Valley

Northern Ohio between Cleveland and Akron – 7.5 hours from Knoxville

The smooth Towpath Trail, the landmark route first traveled by mules and Ohio & Erie Canal workers, has connections to many of the parks natural and historic sites – great for strolling or biking. In addition to birding, fishing, and paddling, try a scenic train ride or a Canalway Quest to collect unique stamps.

7. Indiana Dunes

Indiana’s Lake Michigan coast just southeast of Chicago – A little less than 8 hours from Knoxville

This is another fairly recent newcomer as a national park. Added in early 2019, it sports more than 50 miles of trails that lead through shifting sand dunes, quiet woodlands, sunny prairies, and lush wetland – all in one park! The lure of cooler temperatures and self-guided excursions are awfully tempting! Swim, paddle, or just enjoy the beachy sunsets.

8. Hot Springs

Hot Springs, Arkansas – About 8.5 hours from Knoxville

This is the only national park that protects a unique combination of lithology, geologic structure, and water sources that produce the only non-volcanic geothermal springs of such high quality (temperature, taste, color, odorless) in the U.S. The ancient thermal springs, mountain views, incredible geology, forested hikes, and abundant creeks – all in the middle of town – make Hot Springs National Park a unique and beautiful destination.

There are so many more designated historic sites, scenic trails, rivers & recreational areas, battlefields, and monuments in most U.S. states, so be sure to check the National Parks website before you travel. Their website also has helpful facts that include parking pass info, current weather conditions, recreation options, and park history – all conveniently accessed by state location or park name. There is even an app for that!