Often called Tennessee’s Grand Canyon, the Tennessee River Gorge is the fourth largest river canyon east of the Mississippi River. The canyon was carved by the Tennessee River as it winds 26 miles through the southern Cumberland Mountains.
Mary Clor, of Rising Fawn, Ga., is very familiar with the gorge. It’s among the must-see stops for out-of-town visitors, who enjoy the sights onboard a high-speed catamaran operated by the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga.
“Within 15 minutes of leaving the dock, you find yourself looking up at cliffs that have to be a thousand feet tall,” Clor says.
Onboard naturalists explain the passing landscape’s biodiversity and identify Civil War sites as they pass landmarks such as Moccasin Bend, Signal Mountain and Williams Island.
“A pair of bald eagles is frequently seen near Williams Island,” says John Dever, the aquarium’s naturalist. “Our younger passengers always have fun identifying and calling out great blue herons and kingfishers. It’s fun to see them getting excited about wildlife.”
“We always see deer and turkeys, and sometimes river otters, falcons, ospreys and eagles,” says Clor, who also enjoys kayaking on the Tennessee River with her husband, Jerry.
After the two-hour tour, the boat stops at one of the world’s largest freshwater aquariums, where passengers can follow a drop of rain from the Appalachian Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico in the River Journey building, or pet a stingray and watch a blue whale as big as a school bus in the Ocean Journey building.
“Kids grow quite fond of our lake sturgeons after getting to pet one,” says aquarium spokesman Thom Benson. An ancient species, sturgeon can grow up to 9 feet long and live up to 150 years.
Rollin’ on the river
In western Tennessee, the mighty—and muddy—Mississippi River provides a natural playground for outdoor pursuits and is likely why “Forbes” magazine in 2012 named Memphis one of the Top 10 best places for a weekend getaway.
You can get acquainted with Old Man River aboard an old-fashioned riverboat. Options range from a one-hour tour to an overnight cruise on the American Queen steamboat. Whatever your choice, begin your river excursion at Beale Street Landing where, if you time it right, you can enjoy an outdoor concert or a festival.
Memphis also boasts many parks, including 11 along the banks of the Mississippi, where visitors can watch river barges pass by or enjoy activities such as fishing, canoeing, kayaking, picnicking and sailing.
Learn more about the mighty Mississippi on Mud Island. The attraction isn’t actually on an island but on a peninsula that can be accessed by car, ferry or rail. It’s home to the Mississippi River Museum, which explores 10,000 years of the great waterway’s history. Why’s it called Mud Island? Perhaps because every gallon of Mississippi water contains a teaspoon of mud, says city spokesman Jonathan Lyons.
Hikers and bicyclists who enjoy riverbank outings might want to visit Nashville. While known as a music mecca, the city also has created nearly 50 miles of trails, including the 9-mile, multiple-use Stones River Greenway, which follows the river from the Percy Priest Dam to the Cumberland River.
Get a workout exploring the hilly trail while taking in the scenic views or doing a bit of bird watching. The path connects to a skate park, a soccer complex, a shopping center, restaurants and the Two Rivers Golf Course.
Much of the Stones River Greenway owes its existence to the Two Rivers Mansion, which was occupied by three generations of the McGavock family before the city purchased the antebellum home and its surrounding 475 acres.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 1859 mansion boasts a scenic setting between the Cumberland and Stones rivers and can be rented for parties.