Norris Area Trail System
Norris Lake’s spellbinding expanses of clean water and verdant shoreline have long served as sun-drenched summertime sanctuary for weekend fun-seekers and weekday work-shunners who don’t believe in letting the call of wild watersports go unanswered.
But the deep forests and scenic, history-steeped Cumberland Mountains and Appalachian foothills enveloping the oldest New Deal-era reservoir in the Tennessee River Valley are fast developing into a premier recreation attraction in their own right -- and not just in the warm-weather months.
Owing to the region’s well-drained soils and gloriously, infamously uneven terrain, the counties, towns and resource management agencies that offer access and entry points to Norris Lake have come to realize they’re naturally positioned to capitalize on popular alternatives to seasonally limited aquatic-based recreation.
Rain or Shine, NATS is Fine
Swathed in a sandy, cherty soil that is relatively unique to the Cumberland Plateau and adjacent areas, the Norris Lake area boasts a labyrinth of first-class hiking, biking and horseback riding paths --- some of the best in the Southeastern United States in fact. And unlike with a lot of outback trail-oriented recreation destinations, wintertime waves of inclement weather don’t tend to translate into debilitatingly sloppy trail conditions.
“Especially from the biking perspective, a lot of places just kind of get shut down during the winter,” said Clay Guerry, a natural resources specialist for the Tennessee Valley Authority who works to improve, enhance and expand recreation opportunities on agency-managed lands and water bodies. “So, a lot of people now flock to the Norris Lake area in the winter.”
The banks, backwater ravines and backcountry ridges of Norris Lake are home to several distinct recreation tracts that together contain thousands of acres of protected public lands.
Two state parks, a county park, a city park and a TVA recreation area combine to offer wildland lovers an array of escape avenues when they want to put city skylines and workplace worries behind them for a spell.
These picturesque play spots are evolving into an interconnected hub of year-round trail-focused adventure tourism. The burgeoning Norris Area Trail System, as it is collectively known, contains close to 90 miles of trails -- much of it directly linked and all the areas within 15 miles of each other by blacktop roadways.
- Norris Dam State Park: Created during the height of the Great Depression by TVA and the Civilian Conservation Corps, this 4,000-acre state-run lakeside frolicking enclave along the impounded confluence of Cove Creek and the Clinch River is a mecca of multi-use trails and regional history preservation. It boasts more than 21 miles of onsite trails, with another 30 miles directly accessible in the neighboring Norris Watershed system. The park contains a museum and refurbished grist mill, as well as numerous campsites and RV hookups and a full service marina and boat launch. “What is unique about Norris Dam State Park is that there’s something here for everyone,” said park manager Veronica Greear.
- Norris Municipal Watershed: A 2,300-acre tract of land located in Anderson County, this trail-veined outdoor adventure venue lies adjacent to the City of Norris and borders Norris Dam State Park. Its 30 diverse miles of trails are managed and maintained for a variety of recreational uses, including footpaths, bike tracks and vehicle traffic. “The Norris Watershed Trails are a favorite of hikers, runners, mountain bikers and equestrians,” advertises the Visit Knoxville website in neighboring Knox County. “From moderate to strenuous, the trails snake up and over the hills and wind along the eastern shore of Norris Lake, offering spectacular views of the lake and its surrounding hills and valleys.” For history buffs and those mindful of or curious about the region’s heritage, remnants of old homesteads and cemeteries are prevalent throughout the area.
- Big Ridge State Park: Like its downriver counterpart at Norris Dam, Big Ridge was one of Tennessee’s initial state parks. It, too, was built by the laboring hands of Civilian Conservation Corps members during the New Deal. It is a prime and living example of the sort of recreation-oriented reclamation work the CCC did during the Depression Era. While not nearly as developed with trails as other Norris Area Trail System properties -- 35 miles of untouched lake shoreline are included in its 3,642 total acres -- Big Ridge is nevertheless already a popular hiking attraction and offers vast potential for trail development in the future. "On some lakes it is difficult to find any land along the shore that isn’t developed, but at Norris that certainly is not the case,” said Keith Montgomery park manager at Big Ridge.
- Loyston Point: While most trails in the NATS allow multiple users, very few were intentionally designed specifically to support and encourage mountain biking. Loyston Point is the exception. Its trails were laid out with mountain bikers in mind and offers more than a dozen miles of some of the raddest all-weather bikeaholic binge-enabling in the Southeastern United States. Everyone from beginner pedal pumpers to superstar shredders can find a trail that suits their talents, abilities and endurance level at Loyston. It offers “some of the most friendly trails one could ask for,” advertises the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club. “What’s attractive about Loyston is that the quality of the trail-building is very high, and it is pretty new-school kind of trail construction,” said Scott Smith, who owns Tennessee Valley Bicycles in Knoxville. “The trails are well built so that they are fun for people of all skill levels.”
Connecting Trials, Creating Jobs
In 2020 a group of public land managers, recreation planners and community stakeholders surrounding Norris Lake collaborated on a strategic roadmap for improving connectivity between the properties.
The Norris Area Trail Sustainability and Connectivity Study released in July recommends a host of efforts and endeavors that will help the region up its game and attract more trail-users to the area.
The comprehensive blueprint for improving conceptual cohesion and transportation networking calls for increasing mobility options as well as improving trail access to key community destinations, like schools, employment, retail or commercial areas, parks or recreational areas and residential neighborhoods.
The overarching objective is to leverage existing NATS recreational assets in order to increase tourism visits and lengthen recreation-seekers’ stays.
Chuck Morris, a local biking enthusiast who often volunteers to help build and maintain area trails, is excited about the NATS plan. He believes that if improved and energetically promoted, NATS could flourish into a robust counterpart to Norris Lake’s vigorous summertime water-oriented economy -- and one that would sustain visitation throughout the year.
“We want to connect it all together so that it can be marketed and branded to people from out of town,” Morris said. “It’s hard to get somebody to come here for a single trail system, but if you can market it as multiple trail systems that are interconnected, then when you have people come stay on a houseboat for a week they will want to bring their bikes out to ride, too. Then you will have more people coming in the summer and riding, but also coming back in the winter and bringing business to your hotels, your cabins, your marinas and restaurants.”
In an area that’s long suffered from tepid economic vitality, enhancing visitors’ experiences and expanding their adventure options could serve as a catalyst to raising the region’s recreation profile and in turn boost local businesses, stimulate entrepreneurship and expand demand for workers -- not to mention adding health-benefiting opportunities for people who already live in the area.
“The bigger picture of the Norris Area Trail System is not only to get more people to enjoy our parks, but to come discover our area and draw more attention to it,” said Norris Lake State Park manager Veronica Grear. “All of us want to bring more people to our parks -- and have them spend their money locally. The whole vision of the NATS plan is to better market our parks and connect more people to the parks so that we can have future generations of park supporters and advocates who’re going to protect the land and enjoy it after we’re not here anymore.”
- Big Ridge State Park: Camping, cabins and event spaces in a rustic setting. Park has 50 campsites on or near Norris Lake. RVs, trailers and tent campers welcome. Overnight sites provide water, 50-amp electrical hookups and a picnic table with a grill. A group-site campground accommodates up to 120 people with 18 screened-in bunkhouses. The “uniqueness of the lake and the beautiful terrain” is what makes Big Ridge special, says park manager Keith Montgomery. Camping available year round.
- Norris Dam State Park: Just 30 minutes from downtown Knoxville along the scenic shores of Norris Lake, this is one of Tennessee's oldest state parks. Visitors can enjoy recreational boating, skiing, and fishing. A fully equipped marina provides boat launching and rentals. Year-round cabin rentals and camping is available. Nearby cultural attractions include the Museum of Appalachia and the Lenoir Museum. "Overall, the variety of activities and amenities offered make Norris Dam State Park cabins a great vacation spot for all ages," promises the park's website.
- Loyston Point Campground: Tennessee Valley Authority recreational area offers an array of lake- and land-based outdoor-activity options. Waterfront and woodsy campsites with electrical and water hookups are available throughout, along with more primitive sites for tent and overland camping. A boat launch, designated swimming area, camp store and miles of hiking encourage visitors to get comfortable and stay a while at Loyston Point. (Note: Loyston Point campground is open March 15-November 15.)