The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

A guide to outdoor adventuring in Tennessee

Visit any one of these recreation areas within three hours of campus to get a taste of nature this school year.
Isabella Bautista
The Great Smoky Mountains on a clear fall day, as photographed on Oct. 21, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Isabella Bautista)

If you’ve been meaning to get off campus for a day trip, this article is your sign. Tennessee actually has 57 state parks (and one national park), many of which are relatively close to Nashville, but these are by far the most impressive ones. There are hiking opportunities at every location, and many also have waterfalls. The distance of each location reflects the distance from campus. Here are eight outdoor oases where you can get in touch with your granola side. Get in your car, maybe invite a couple friends, grab your water bottle, strap on a hiking boot or sandal of your choice and get outside!

Radnor Lake State Park (10 minutes)

This lake, just five miles from campus, is probably the most peaceful park you’ll find close to downtown. The 1,368-acre park is a protected nature preserve with a wide variety of plant and animal species, including bald eagles. The park can get quite crowded, so be sure to visit at sunrise or sunset when it’s easy to take a solitary stroll around the lake and enjoy the quiet. 

Burgess Falls State Park (1 hour and 20 minutes)

This park doesn’t have a lot to it. It’s small and only has a couple of trails, but it’s good for a day trip away from campus. As its name suggests, Burgess Falls is all about its waterfalls. There are four large waterfalls, all varying in height. The most popular trail from which you can see the falls is a steep 1.6-mile loop trail that takes you by the smaller cascades before ascending to the grand finale — a 130-foot waterfall plunging straight into a gorge. 

Rock Island State Park (1 hour and 30 minutes)

This state park, located in central Tennessee, is also known for its magnificent waterfalls. Great Falls — a 30-foot horseshoe cascading waterfall — is particularly astounding and part of the park’s gorge. The gorge is the area between the Great Falls Dam and the Tennessee Valley Authority Powerhouse, which encompasses Great Falls, Cold Hole and Warm Hole. The gorge can be accessed by two of the park’s most popular trails, the Old Mill Gorge Trail and Upstream Trail.

Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail and State Park (1 hour and 45 minutes)

The Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail consists of five sections of hiking trail that run parallel to the Natchez Trace Parkway. The hiking trails total more than 60 miles and offer opportunities to explore wetlands, swamps, forests and the history of the area. The trails run through the state park, which is home to three lakes, a horse camp, an inn, cabins, campsites, a restaurant and more. 

Cumberland Mountain State Park (2 hours)

This 1,720-acre park on the Cumberland Plateau has 14 miles of hiking trails, four miles of biking trails and the 55-acre Byrd Lake, where you can participate in lots of water activities, like swimming, kayaking and fishing. 

Fall Creek Falls State Park (2 hours)

This extremely popular state park spans almost 30,000 acres across the eastern part of the Cumberland Plateau. The main attraction of the park is the breathtaking gorge and accompanying waterfall for which the park is named. The impressive waterfall is surrounded by lush forests and drops 256 feet into a deep pool below, making it the highest free-fall waterfall east of the Mississippi River.

Big South Fork (3 hours)

Encompassing 125,000 acres of the Cumberland Plateau, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area protects the free-flowing Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and its tributaries. The area boasts miles of scenic gorges and sandstone bluffs, natural and historic features and a wide range of outdoor recreational activities. This park has areas for camping, fishing, hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, paddling and swimming. There is a robust selection of day hikes available in the park. 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (3 hours)

The striking ridges and valleys that create Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddle the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. The biodiversity of the park coupled with the ancient mountains and Appalachian culture make the Smoky Mountains a different world, and America’s most visited national park. The National Park Service reported that almost 13 million people visited the park in 2022 — which makes it the second busiest year in the park’s history. If you’ve never been, it’s about time to plan a trip to Gatlinburg and take in as much of the park’s 522,000-plus acres as you can. However, beware of bears as they’re commonly spotted getting curious near visitors. 

Honorable Mentions

Cumberland Gap

Four hours from Nashville, you’ll find what is described as the “first great gateway to the west.” There are 85 miles of trails to explore and 14,000 acres of wilderness. You can also stand in three states at once, if that’s on your bucket list, or see what Darius Rucker was talking about in “Wagon Wheel.” 

Roan Mountain State Park 

Located on the Tennessee-North Carolina border five hours from Nashville, you’ll find stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains at this highly elevated park. Miles of trails wind through dense hardwood forests, passing by several gurgling creeks. There is an abundance of wildflowers during the spring and summer and beautiful trees in the fall. This region probably has the most awe-inspiring views of all the Tennessee state parks. 

Tennessee is teeming with biodiversity, a multitude of landscapes and outdoor activities for all. Be sure to do some adventuring during the four years spent at Vanderbilt! Nashville has a lot to offer, but try to get out of the urban bubble every once in a while. 

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About the Contributors
Jacqueline Welsh
Jacqueline Welsh, Staff Writer
Jacqueline Welsh (‘26) is from Washington, D.C., and is majoring in communication studies and minoring in creative writing in the College of Arts and Science. She is part of VOCE A Cappella, Studio V, WilSkills and Tap That! She loves going on hikes and reading. You can reach her at [email protected].
Isabella Bautista
Isabella Bautista, Deputy Life Editor
Isabella Bautista (‘26) is double majoring in mathematics and psychology and minoring in biological sciences on the pre-medical track in the College of Arts and Science. She is from Easton, Pa. When not writing for The Hustler, she can be found spending hours alone in a piano practice room, photographing Vanderbilt squirrels with her Canon camera or poring over research papers in the lab she works in. She can be reached at [email protected]  
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