Where the Wild things Are

Where the Wild Things Are: Exploring South Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness

Originally printed in the July/August 2013 edition of Cityview Magazine

If you live in Knoxville, you might have heard of it – that area, south of the Tennessee River with the strange assortment of neighborhoods and people, the body farm, those retro motels along along Chapman Highway sweetly paying homage to a time when South Knoxville was truly the gateway to the Smokies.

A view from Ijams across the French Broad River Photo by Joanna Henning

For years people have referred to South Knoxville as the city’s red-headed step child or South America because not only has it been separate from the rest of the city both physically and in spirit, but it has also, until recently, lacked much of an identity at all! But slowly, over the past few years, South Knoxville has begun to take shape, emerging as Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness.

And Urban Wilderness it is! Just a mile or so outside of downtown you can find so much green space that at times it seems like you’re a county or two away. Natural trails weave together most of the parks and open spaces making South Knoxville an ideal destination for hikers and mountain bike enthusiasts alike. Individual neighborhoods in the area have already embraced this new identity: The South Woodlawn Neighborhood Association was recently awarded a $30,000 Dow Chemical grant that will be used to build an outdoor classroom and “Habitat” for South Doyle Middle School.

Wilderness, however, isn’t the only focus. The Urban Wilderness Arts and Trade District Association (now renamed South Knox Alliance) works to promote South Knoxville’s flourishing arts community, its wealth of historical attractions, and its delightful assortment of unique and locally owned businesses.

It looks like the red-headed step child is growing up and quickly blossoming into an auburn-haired beauty!


Nestled along the river and tucked behind the Island Home community sits Ijams Nature Center, the largest and perhaps most well known park in the Urban Wilderness. It’s surprising to many people to find that over 300 acres of lush wilderness can be found just a mile or so south of Market Square. But there it is – a wooded and pristine sanctuary with trails that meander through open fields and forest lands, around Meade’s Quarry, and up to the hilltops where you can overlook the French Broad River flowing lazily into the Tennessee. Meade’s Quarry is an attraction unto itself, and the trails around it take you to the jade-green water’s edge and to cliff tops where you can look down to see canoes and kayaks as seemingly small as bathtub toys from that height.

You can even pick up the South Loop Greenway from Ijams and follow it along 35 miles of trails that connect five parks and natural areas, all within the confines of South Knoxville. But there’s more to Ijams than just trails and open space. It’s a place for learning. Ijams offers a range of events and programs to help kids and adults learn more about the natural world and the environment we inhabit here in Knoxville. We’re talkin’ bird watching expeditions to classes on container gardening. Some adult classes are held on the back terrace where they serve sangria on warn summer evenings. The main building houses a gift shop, a wildlife display, one very intimidating snapping turtle, and an interesting collection of bones, nests, fossils and other wildlife curiosities.


In some ways, the Left Bank in Paris or Greenwich Village have similar beginnings to what we’re now seeing in So Kno. In the 1920s, the Left Bank and the Village were both affordable and their livability attracted the throngs of artists that are now so famous today. South Knoxville, for the most part, offers some pretty cheap livin’, and because of this, it fosters a diverse and flourishing arts community.

One of the most interesting examples of the work being created here can be found at Marble City Glassworks. Hidden away a winding back road, the studio is one of several outbuildings of a small, family farm. Chickens greet you as you park, and owner Matt Salley emerges from his home on top of the hill. He and artist-in-residence, Chris Szaton not only create original glass works, they also offer glass blowing and sculpting classes.

“We hope to bring glass to the people through our classes and demonstrations and to share and educate everyone about the wonders of glass,” says Salley.

And when they’re not teaching, they’re honing their own skills as artists and craftsmen. While some pieces can be found in area galleries and at regional art shows, the brick-and-mortar version of their own gallery space is actually a regular booth at the Market Square Farmer’s Market. There, you can find delicate, crimson-colored glass poppies, fluted vases accented with dramatic swirls of color, whimsical glass blue birds, and an assortment of hand-made pendant lighting. And if none of that appeals, Salley and Szaton are happy to create a custom piece or do work on commission.

“If you can think of it in glass, we can make it in glass!”


As with most areas in East Tennessee, South Knoxville is peppered with Civil War sites. The most notable of these is Fort Dickerson, a park and greenway that is home to one of the few remaining earthen forts in the area. For years, most people overlooked the park because just finding it was a challenge – but now, with a new entryway and an overall facelift, it’s easier to locate and still as amazing as ever.

When you follow the winding road to the top of the hill, you can park and walk the short distance to the very top. From there you’ll see all of downtown Knoxville, and on a clear day, you can see past the far ridges north of Fountain City and beyond. On the bottom of the hill you’ll find a network of hiking trails that lead to what was once called Lambert Quarry, but has since been named Fort Dickerson Quarry. In the warmer months you can watch divers plunge headlong from the tops of the cliffs, howling just before they pierce the water’s surface, and completely ignoring the signs posted by the city that say NO DIVING.

Probably one of the best historic venues for families is Marble Springs, the final home of Tennessee Governor John Sevier. While there are no original structures on the 350-acre farm, you will find historically accurate representations of the buildings used by Sevier and his family in the early 1800s. In fact, I think a few of the buildings date to that time period but were moved from other locations. At any rate, Marble Springs hosts plenty of family-friendly events including demonstrations on 18th Century open-hearth cooking, bonfires, and story-telling. And whether you choose to take a guided tour or wanter the trails, your whole family will surely find something fascinating about the place.

A hundred years ago, Knoxville was called the Marble City. Sounds strange until you realize that some of the country’s finest marble was mined from quarries in Knox County. Meade’s Quarry was one such mining site. While many businesses of that time sold marble, none was as famous as Candoro Marble Works. They refined and shipped marble that was used to build places like New York’s Grand Central Station and the Capital in Washington, D.C. Today, the Candoro showroom and office can still be found and visited. It’s in Vestal and serves as both an historical landmark and a home base for the Candoro Arts and Heritage Center. Because it was originally used as a marble showroom, the building itself is a treasure! Each room has different colored marble floors, vaulted fresco ceilings, wrought-iron doors, and travertine walls. These days it’s a popular event site for weddings and family reunions and the annual Vestival shindig.

So the next time you’ve got a hankering’ for a local adventure, look South of the river. Chapman Highway might still be scruffy, but some people like it and aim to keep it that way. But if you look a little deeper, you’ll catch a glimpse of the next best thing this town has to offer. Come see where the wild things are and experience South Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness.