Tennessee

8 Unique Places in Tennessee That You Need to Visit

Certain parts of Tennessee will have you feeling like you're on the African savanna, in ancient Greece, or Middle-earth!

Tennessee is home to many natural and human-made wonders. From underground caverns, deep gorges, and a tiny recording studio that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll, to the oldest still-operating distillery and the only zorbing park in the United States, here are some of the more unique tourist destinations in the Volunteer State.

The state stretches from the Mississippi River in the west to the Smoky Mountains in the east. It touches more borders than any other Southern state, which gives you an idea of how much there is to explore. You’ll need someplace to stay when visiting these special places, so no worries: we’ve included some choice nearby accommodations for each entry on this list!

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1. Go Underground in McMinnville

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One of the more thrilling outdoor adventures in Tennessee is actually under the ground. In McMinnville, Cumberland Caverns for decades has been a popular tourist stop for its walking tour in a well-lit part of the cave with handrails and pathways. That tour only scratches the surface, though. Adventurous visitors can go deeper on true spelunking adventures through the wildest parts of the caverns.

Get ready to don a hardhat and headlamp and get dirty crawling through narrow passageways into soaring cathedral-like rooms deep under the earth. These guided tours explore the farthest reaches of the caverns and include challenging terrain where you’ll have to climb, descend, and traverse steep surfaces aided by cables and handlines. Along the way, you’ll learn about the fascinating history of Cumberland Caverns, a National Natural Landmark.

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2. See Tennesse's Own Grand Canyon in Chattanooga

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A geological wonder nicknamed “The Grand Canyon of Tennessee,” the Tennessee River Gorge cuts deep through the Cumberland Plateau only a few miles from hip downtown Chattanooga, but it feels a world away. Populated with more wildlife than people, it’s one of the more biologically diverse places in the Southeastern United States. Imagine a smaller version of the Grand Canyon but blanketed with a thick forest. The only treeless areas here are the soaring sandstone cliff walls looming over the wide and winding river.

Take excursions along the river and on rim trails to see wondrous views from below and above. Numerous trail systems are available for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. There are many public boat launches.

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3. Stay Dry While Smelling Whisky in Lynchburg

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The great irony of one of the world’s most famous brands of whiskey–Jack Daniel’s Old. No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey–is that it’s produced in a dry county. The Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg offers family-friendly tours of its facility listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The distillery dates back to the 1830s and was registered by Mr. Jack himself in 1866. A visit is like taking a step back in time as many structures from those days still exist and the distilling process has changed little.

The basic tour lasts an hour and fifteen minutes. Highlights include visiting the cave spring that serves as the water source for the distillery, the barrelhouse where the whiskey ages in oak barrels creating a divine smell, and the non-alcoholic lemonade served at the end of the tour. For an extra price, longer tours are offered with tastings of the distillery’s product.

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4. Make Your Own Record Where Rock was Born in Memphis

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Graceland gets most of the attention in Memphis but tiny, unassuming Sun Studio is the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll where Elvis Presley, and so many other future legends, made their first recordings. The birthplace tag comes from music scholars identifying “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats–recorded at the studio in 1951–as being the first rock ‘n’ roll record. A few years later, Elvis would show up, along with the likes of other rock pioneers such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison, as well as Johnny Cash.

Sun offers small group tours inside the studio where some of the most influential hits in music history were recorded. You can even make a recording yourself when Sun opens up in the evening after the day tourists have departed. It’s not cheap, but it’s Sun Studio, a still-operational recording studio with a historical marker out front.

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5. Get Lost in Nature in Knoxville

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Less than three miles from downtown Knoxville, Ijams Nature Center is part of a wilderness area inside a city, home to an environmental education center and a 315-acre nature preserve that’s part of the larger Knoxville Urban Wilderness. Twelve miles of hiking and mountain biking trails run through forest, meadows, wetlands, past quarries, and along a storybook-looking boardwalk on the banks of the Tennessee River within the preserve.

The don’t-miss spot at Ijams is Mead’s Quarry. This scenic and historic marble quarry contains a large spring-fed lake open for swimming and paddling. An outfitter is on hand during warm-weather months renting kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards. Paddling along the cliff walls of the old quarry surrounded by woodlands, it’s hard to believe you’re inside the Knoxville city limits.

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6. Escape to the Safari in Alamo

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In rural west Tennessee, it feels like you’re on the African savanna at the Tennessee Safari Park outside the small town of Alamo. The park is home to numerous exotic species of animals, including zebras, giraffes, antelopes, gazelles, camels, emus, lemurs, to name only a few. Visitors get to have up-close experiences with the animals on the drive-through and walk-through tours. There’s also a petting zoo with adorable baby goats and an aviary containing parakeets, cranes, doves, and peacock chicks.

The drive-through tour is the main attraction. You drive your own vehicle 5.5-miles through the park encountering animals along the way. You must pay in cash at the gate; credit cards aren’t accepted anywhere at the park. For the best animal experiences, you can pay a few dollars extra for the feed buckets. The animals recognize the distinctive white buckets and make a bee-line towards your car when they see them. Make sure to hold the bucket outside your car, especially for the emus. They aren’t aggressive, but they like the feed enough to stick their beak inside your vehicle and cause a mess.

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7. Defy Gravity in Pigeon Forge

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Outdoor Gravity Park in Pigeon Forge claims to be the only zorbing park in the United States. It may beg the question, what the heck is zorbing? Basically, you climb into a big cushioned hamster-ball-like sphere and careen down a hillside. But, wait, there’s more. The translucent ball has 10 gallons of water in it, so it becomes like a waterslide inside an orb, and up to three people can get inside the ball at one time. If that sounds terrifying, your kids will love it.

The park offers different zorbing experiences on its three tracks on a 1,000-foot hillside. Choose from the fast track where you go straight down the hill at higher speeds, or the different zigzag tracks, one of them considered so extreme only one rider is allowed at a time. A GoPro video option is available so you can record the smiles, laughter, or screams of terror, as the case may be, from the occupants of the splashy orb.

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8. Discover Ancient Greece in Nashville

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If you ever wondered what the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in ancient Greece looked like before it became a ruin, head to Centennial Park in Nashville. Here you’ll find a full-scale replica housing an art museum and a 42-foot tall statue of Athena, just like in the original Parthenon.

This stunning re-creation was built in the 1890s for the Centennial Exposition celebrating Tennessee’s entry into the union, making it historic itself. Locals have come to take their Pantheon for granted but visitors are amazed at the site of the Classical Greek structure when first eyeing it upon entering the park. The museum houses a permanent collection of works from American masters of the 19th and 20th centuries and space for contemporary rotating exhibits.

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