10 Best Climbing Trips Within Three Hours of Knoxville

Climbing in Kentucky's Red River Gorge.
Climbing in Kentucky's Red River Gorge. Alli Day
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The Southeast United States is a haven for rock climbers and boulderers—people come from around the world to jump on the routes and boulders found in the Appalachian Region. Tennessee in particular has a high concentration of quality sandstone that is hard to find anywhere else, and the variety of climbs here means there is literally something for every level and every style of climber.

For the lucky people that call the city of Knoxville home, the thousands of UT Knoxville students, and the record-breaking number of tourists that visit Tennessee every year, climbing is a year-round possibility. The best temperatures are in the spring and fall, but if you’re good at chasing the shade, there are some accessible routes in the summer.

There is a long list of climbing areas near Knoxville, but we narrowed it down to 10 of the best climbing spots within three hours of state’s third largest city.

Local Areas

Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, TN

Known largely for its hiking trails, Ijams Nature Center has just as much to show for itself when it comes to climbing. Located 10 minutes from downtown Knoxville, Ijams recently opened the Ijam Crag, making it the only outdoor sport climbing option in the city. Designed to be interesting and challenging for both beginners and advanced climbers, there are more than 30 routes at Ijams, ranging from 5.6 to 5.13. This full guide lays out everything you want to know about the crag, including routes and safety precautions.

Devil’s Race Track in Caryville, TN (About a half hour via I-75N)

Just a short jaunt from the city is Devil’s Race Track, two solid slabs of rock that protrude out of the side of a mountain that are ideal for climbing. With trad routes ranging from 5.3-5.9, and sport routes ranging from 5.8-5.11, Devil’s Race Track is a great place for beginner to intermediate climbers, especially since you don’t have to go very far to get there. Besides a bit of moss and vegetation to keep an eye out for, the rock is solid, and the view from the top is a beautiful one. Climbers with a penchant for photography will really love this spot.

Look Rock in Maryville, TN (50 minutes via US-129S)

A sandstone beauty that towers up to 40 feet in some places, Look Rock is a spot that boulderers and newbie climbers alike will love. While there are somewhat established routes ranging from 5.7 to 5.10, it’s a surprisingly under-trafficked locale that leaves plenty of room for you to carve your own way. There are even a couple of caves in close proximity that are a fun pre- or post-climb excursion while you’re there.

Short Day Trips

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The Obed near Wartburg, TN (1 hour via TN-62W)

Not just popular in Tennessee, Obed is a climbing mecca, drawing in climbers from around the United States and the word. It’s got waterfalls, flowing rivers, sweeping views, and more than 1,000 climbing routes. The routes have jugs, slopers, and roofs, ranging from the easy or moderate range all the way up to mega challenging, high grade climbs. Obed is mostly trad and sport climbing, but there are some decent boulder problems here, too. Most of the problems are in the V2-V5 range, but there are a few that are easier and more difficult. If you decide to turn your day trip into an overnight, pitch a tent at Del and Marte’s Lilly Pad Campground—a climber haven and just $7/night.

\ _Black Mountain, TN _ (A little over an hour via I-40W)

One of the highest points in the Cumberland Plateau, Black Mountain has made quite the reputation for itself when it comes to boulders, sandstone cliffs, and stunning views. Obed has taken some of Black Mountain’s climbing popularity away, but that means that instead of fighting the crowds that used to characterize the place, you’re now in for a more solitary treat. Expect shorter routes (under 40 feet) and a lot of top rope and bouldering problems. It can be kind of tricky to find your way around, so try to make friends with a local who can show you around.

Stone Fort (Little Rock City) near Soddy-Daisy, TN(2 hours via I-75)

Stone Fort has some of the best boulders in the country, which means that boulderers will love it. Because it’s so amazing, it can get really crowded during spring break, but it’s definitely worth it. The area is privately owned, so you will have to fill out a waiver and pay a fee to the MontLake Golf Club before you can enter. You will also need to follow a few more rules than you might be used to while climbing (no yelling, no dogs, etc), but once you’re in, you’ll have the time of your life.

Rumbling Bald near Chimney Rock, NC (About 2.5 hours via I-40E)

Home to over 800 established bouldering problems and room for putting up new problems, Rumbling Bald is, again, some of the best bouldering in the U.S. The approach is fairly short (about 10 minutes from the parking lot), and you’ll find plenty of beginner-friendly options, as well as some tough stuff for more advanced climbers. There’s a ton of route climbing as well, so for those mixed groups with varying interests, this is the spot that everyone will enjoy.

Looking Glass near Brevard, NC (2.5 hours via I-40E)

If you’re into multi-pitch trad climbing, Looking Glass is for you. Friends and partners of climbers who don’t climb, but who do hike, will also be happy here—the area is also home to trails and gorgeous views. As far as climbing goes, it’s essentially a massive granite dome with plenty of routes of various lengths. The Nose, a 5.8 route, is the most popular, while the "eyebrows" of the Sun Wall are a top destination for trad climbers.

Full Day Trips

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Linville Gorge Wilderness near Marion, NC (3 hours via I-81N)

Climbers, along with their trail running friends and family, will all fall for Linville Gorge Wilderness. The majority of the Linville Gorge is dedicated to low-angle, multi-pitch trad and sport climbs. The Table Rock and Amphitheatre areas have more of the easier and moderate routes, while Hawksbill and Shortoff have some of the hardest climbs in the gorge. Linville Gorge is a must-visit in the summer—while the rest of the state heats up, this spot is near a river and is also at a higher elevation so it stays significantly cooler. Want to make it a weekend trip? Stay at the climber-friendly Harmony Hostel in Banner Elk, NC.

Red River Gorge near Campton, KY (3 hours via I-75N)

Well, folks, this is the stuff that climbing dreams are made of. Red River Gorge has been the premier spot for climbing in the good ol’ US of A since at least the 70s, and it’s just three short hours outside of Knoxville. It’s best known for sport climbing, but has some sweet trad routes, too, for more than 1,500 routes total. The Red is a place that will have you coming back for more, extending your trip each time. Luckily, camping options abound, so bring your tent and stay for awhile.

Originally written for BCBS of Tennessee.

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