15 Best National Park Sites to Explore in Tennessee

How many National Parks are in Tennessee? 

Technically, you will only find one “National Park” designation in Tennessee, which belongs to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Volunteer State has many other National Park Service units, which isn't surprising as it is known for its breathtaking natural beauty and rich historical heritage. 

The diverse range of National Parks and NPS units in Tennessee offers something for everyone, from the majestic mountains to the scenic rivers and historic battlefields.

Let's dive into the National Parks, Battlefields, Historic Sites, Trails, and more that make Tennessee a remarkable destination for your next adventure!

I wouldn't recommend trying to do all the stops in one trip; instead, visit them more based on region.

My top 3 NPS sites in Tennessee are: Smoky Mountains, Natchez Trace Parkway and the Cumberland Gap!

National Parks in Tennessee

Tennessee is home to some of the most incredible national parks in the country. These protected areas showcase the state's natural beauty and provide outdoor exploration and recreation opportunities.

Let's take a closer look at the most popular national parks in the United States:

A serene stream flows over rocks in a sun-dappled forest, with light filtering through the leaves creating a tranquil natural scene.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the United States, is in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a true paradise for nature lovers.

It boasts an incredible diversity of plant life and a rich array of animal life, including the iconic black bears that roam its forests.

With its lush forests, cascading waterfalls, and diverse wildlife, it's easy to see why this national park draws millions of visitors annually.

Straddling the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, the park offers the chance to experience the beauty of both states.

Whether you're a hiker, photographer, or nature enthusiast, the park's 800 miles of trails cater to all experience levels. From strolls alongside streams to challenging hikes up to majestic peaks, there's a trail for every adventure seeker.

Expansive view of the rolling hills of the Appalachian Mountains, with varying shades of green foliage under a soft blue sky with wispy clouds.

One of the park's most iconic landmarks is Clingman Dome, the highest point in Tennessee. At 6,643 feet, this vantage point offers breathtaking panoramic views of the mountain range, especially during sunrise and sunset.

Aside from its natural wonders, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is also renowned for the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture.

This includes historical buildings, grist mills, and other structures that offer a glimpse into the past. The park preserves and shares the stories of early settlers, mountain communities, and pioneers who once called this area home.

Plan your visit to include the park's historic gems: Elkmont Historic District, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and Cades Cove. Discover preserved cabins, churches, and more.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park's mix of natural wonders and history is a must-see for anyone wanting to connect with nature and the past.

A rustic wooden fence borders a lush meadow leading towards a dirt road, with a backdrop of densely forested mountains under a clear sky.

National Battlefields and Military Parks

Tennessee is a state full of history, and its national battlefields and military parks serve as reminders of the nation's rich past.

These sites offer a unique opportunity to step back in time and learn about the struggles, sacrifices, and triumphs that shaped our nation.

Let's explore some of the notable national battlefields and military parks in Tennessee:

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park is a living testament to the Civil War era located on the border of Tennessee and Georgia.

This park preserves the battlefields of the Battle of Chickamauga and the Siege of Chattanooga. These two pivotal conflicts played a significant role in shaping the outcome of the war.

Walking through the fields and forests, you can almost hear the echoes of the soldiers' footsteps as they fought for control of key strategic locations.

The park offers a variety of interpretive programs, guided tours, and self-guided driving tours that bring the stories of the soldiers and the battles to life.

A stone gateway with twin turrets evocative of medieval castle architecture stands at the entrance of a park, under the shade of green trees on a sunny day.

Shiloh National Military Park

Shiloh National Military Park commemorates the Battle of Shiloh, one of the Civil War's bloodiest battles. This park provides a solemn reflection on the sacrifices made and the lives lost during this intense conflict.

When visiting the Shiloh National Military Park, you can explore the battlefield, historic structures, and cemetery that serves as the final resting place for thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers.

The park offers a range of educational programs and exhibits that delve into the soldiers' stories and the battle's impact.

Overlooking a wide river from a vantage point hidden among autumnal branches, with distant rolling hills on the horizon under an overcast sky.

Stones River National Battlefield

Stones River National Battlefield preserves the memory of the Battle of Stones River, a significant engagement during the Civil War.

This park allows you to walk in the footsteps of soldiers and gain a deeper understanding of the challenges they faced.

The park features well-preserved earthworks, monuments, and a visitor center that provides insight into the battle and its aftermath.

Guided tours and interpretive programs offer valuable context and bring the events of the past to life.

An old black cannon with wooden wheels is overturned on a rocky forest floor, surrounded by green foliage, suggesting a historical battlefield setting.

Fort Donelson National Battlefield

Situated along the banks of the Cumberland River, Fort Donelson National Battlefield serves as a reminder of the Union's efforts to control the crucial waterways during the Civil War.

The Battle of Fort Donelson marked a turning point in the conflict, securing a key victory for the Union.

The park preserves the remains of the fortifications, including the Confederate river batteries and the surrender site, where General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded “unconditional and immediate surrender.”

Exploring the park's hiking trails and attending ranger-led programs gives you a deeper understanding of the events that unfolded on these hallowed grounds.

Cannons positioned on a historic river fortification with sandbagged emplacements overlook a peaceful river bend, under a clear blue sky.

Visiting these national battlefield sites and military parks in Tennessee offers a unique opportunity to honor the bravery and sacrifices of those who fought in our nation's history.

These sites serve as reminders of the enduring spirit of the United States and the importance of preserving our shared heritage.

National Historical Parks and Sites

Tennessee's national historical parks and sites offer a fascinating glimpse into the past, allowing visitors to explore significant moments in our nation's history.

From groundbreaking scientific achievements to the homes of influential figures, these sites provide a unique opportunity to connect with the stories that shaped our nation.

Let's uncover some of the notable national historical parks and sites in Tennessee:

Manhattan Project National Historical Park

Located in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park tells the story of one of history's most significant scientific endeavors.

During World War II, the Manhattan Project brought together brilliant minds to develop the atomic bomb.

The park encompasses several sites, including Oak RidgeHanford, Washington, and Los Alamos, New Mexico.

In Oak Ridge, you can explore the Secret City, where scientists and workers conducted top-secret research and production of enriched uranium for the project.

The park offers a deep dive into the project's complex scientific and ethical implications through exhibits, guided tours, and interactive displays.

You will also gain a greater understanding of the impact of the Manhattan Project on the course of history.

Signage for the 'Manhattan Project National Historical Park' under the direction of the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, and U.S. Department of Energy, on a rainy day with parked cars in the background.

Andrew Johnson National Historic Site

Step into the life of the 17th President of the United States at the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. This site preserves the homestead and final resting place of Andrew Johnson, located in Greeneville, Tennessee.

At this site, you can explore the beautifully restored house where Johnson lived during his presidency. You will also learn about the challenges he faced as he took office following the assassination of President Lincoln.

The park includes a museum showcasing artifacts related to Johnson's life and significant moments in American history.

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park encompasses a natural gateway that played a vital role in America's westward expansion.

This park preserves the rugged landscapes and historic trails that ventured through the Cumberland Gap, a mountain pass in the Appalachian Mountains.

You can follow in the footsteps of early pioneers and explorers as you explore the park's trails, such as the historic Wilderness Road.

The park also offers insights into the lives of early settlers, with reconstructed log cabins and the chance to explore the historic Hensley Settlement.

Immersing yourself in the history and natural beauty of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park allows you to appreciate the resilience and adventurous spirit of those who braved the frontier.

Take a guided tour of the Gap Cave; it's a great cave to explore. When we took part in this tour, we were able to use lanterns to light the cave! Once you explore a cave that way, you will dislike the ones that light it up for you!

Dramatic stalactites and stalagmites inside a dimly lit cave, showcasing geological formations with the appearance of flowing stone.

By visiting these national historical parks and sites in Tennessee, you can better understand the events, ideas, and individuals that have shaped our nation.

These sites bring history to life, encouraging us to reflect on our past and inspire future generations.

National Trails, Parkways, & Rivers

Tennessee is a scenic wonderland with abundant national trails, parkways, and rivers, offering endless outdoor adventure and exploration opportunities.

These protected areas showcase the state's natural beauty, immersing visitors in the great outdoors.

Let's discover some of the noteworthy national trails, parkways, and rivers in Tennessee:

Appalachian National Scenic Trail

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail is a legendary hiking trail that stretches over 2,000 miles through the Appalachian Mountain range. The trail passes through fourteen states, including Tennessee.

Hikers worldwide flock to this iconic trail to challenge themselves and experience the beauty of the Eastern United States.

In Tennessee, like all states, you can embark on different sections of the trail, venturing through forests, crossing rivers, and ascending to breathtaking viewpoints. We've walked bits of the trail in most states.

Whether conquering a short segment or committing to a thru-hike, the Appalachian Trail offers a truly unforgettable adventure.

A weathered wooden signpost on the Appalachian Trail with directions and distances to Sweat Heifer Creek Trail, Icewater Spring Shelter, Charlies Bunion, and Mount LeConte.

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area

The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is an oasis of rugged charm for those seeking outdoor recreation and scenic beauty.

This expansive area straddles the Cumberland Plateau and offers a wide range of activities, including hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and boating.

The park's diverse landscape boasts towering sandstone bluffs, flowing rivers, and lush forests.

Exploring the park's trails will lead you to hidden waterfalls, ancient rock formations, and stunning vistas. With miles of trails, the Big South Fork is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts.

A sweeping view from a high vantage point showing a river winding through a lush, densely forested valley during early twilight.

Natchez Trace Parkway

The Natchez Trace Parkway is a historic roadway that stretches over 440 miles through Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama.

This scenic parkway follows the path of the historic Natchez Trace. Native Americans, European settlers, and traders throughout history used this trail.

Driving along the parkway allows you to soak up the beauty of the surrounding landscape. You will pass through rolling hills, dense forests, and serene river valleys.

Along the way, you'll find numerous points of interest, including historic sites, waterfalls, stunning overlooks, and hiking trails that invite you to explore further.

If you take a hike (like to a waterfall seen in photo), keep your eyes on the trees – we were able to spot an owl!

A small, cascading waterfall flows over stratified rock ledges amidst a forested area, with fallen logs and autumn leaves scattered around the wet stones.

Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail

The Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail is a multi-use trail that parallels the Natchez Trace Parkway. The trail offers hikers, cyclists, and equestrians a chance to immerse themselves in nature and history.

This trail allows users to experience the beauty and solitude of the landscapes while retracing the footsteps of those who traveled the historic Natchez Trace.

Obed Wild and Scenic River

Flowing through a dramatic gorge, the Obed Wild and Scenic River offers outdoor enthusiasts an exhilarating experience.

The site, known for its challenging whitewater rapids, towering sandstone cliffs, and diverse wildlife, this river is a hidden gem for adventure seekers.

Climbers flock to the area to tackle the vertical cliffs that offer thrilling routes of all difficulty levels. Hikers can explore the park's trails, which wind through forests and lead to stunning overlooks.

Whether you're kayaking through the rapids, rock climbing, or simply enjoying a peaceful hike along the riverbank, wilderness, and recreation converge in the Obed Wild and Scenic Rivers.

A dynamic creek with clear water flows briskly over rocks and boulders, flanked by verdant trees in a natural woodland setting.

Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail

The Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail commemorates the journey of the Overmountain Men during the Revolutionary War.

This trail retraces the steps of these brave soldiers who traveled from the mountains of North Carolina, through Tennessee, and into South Carolina to secure a crucial victory at the Battle of Kings Mountain.

Sections of the trail in Tennessee offer hikers the chance to walk in the footsteps of history, passing through picturesque landscapes and rural communities.

Along the way, interpretive signs share stories of the soldiers and the impact of their efforts during the war for independence.

Trail of Tears National Historic Trail

The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail commemorates a tragic time in U.S. history—the forced removal of Cherokee and other tribes from their lands. It honors their story and marks a dark chapter of displacement.

Following the trail allows you to reflect on the hardships endured by the tribes as they were forcibly relocated to unfamiliar territories.

Along the way, interpretive centers and outdoor exhibits provide valuable historical context and share the stories of resilience and survival.

Historical marker detailing the 'Trail of Tears' in front of a modern building with glass facade, commemorating the forced relocation of Cherokee Indians in 1838 under the command of Gen. Winfield Scott.

Exploring these national trails, parkways, and rivers in Tennessee opens the door to unforgettable outdoor adventures and moments of reflection.

Whether chasing breathtaking views, diving into history, or seeking thrilling experiences, Tennessee's natural wonders have you covered.

Final Thoughts: National Parks in Tennessee

Tennessee's national parks, from the majestic Great Smoky Mountains to historic sites like the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, showcase the state's rich history and stunning natural landscapes.

Whether drawn to outdoor adventures, historical exploration, or the beauty of nature, these parks offer unforgettable experiences. 

Trails and rivers invite you to immerse yourself in the scenery, while battlefields and historic sites provide deep insights into America's past.

Tennessee's blend of natural wonders and historical depth makes it a must-visit for anyone looking to connect with the country's heritage and the great outdoors. 

Discover the beauty and history of Tennessee's national parks and let them inspire your next adventure.

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