How the Ijams Nature Center Continues to Cater to Knoxville Adventurers

Navitat Canopy Adventures
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The 300-acre Ijams wildlife habitat has been expanding its adventure and recreational opportunities for a while now, adding a growing number of running trails and mountain bike routes as well as lake-access via boat rentals at Meads Quarry. Now Ijams is taking two even bigger steps forward with the introduction of a high ropes zip-line challenge park and a new climbing crag—both true firsts for the center as well as the city.

At its core, though, Ijams is still all about conservation and education. Paul James, Executive Director of Ijams, hopes these new additions will continue to cement Ijams as a treasured outdoor destination in Knoxville—one that needs to be protected and cherished by Ijams staff and visitors alike.

“The landscape that encompasses Ijams," says James, "is [a combination of] protected wildlife sanctuary established in the 1920s and post-industrial land reclaimed by nature and outdoor enthusiasts. The rich natural and cultural history here [...] is like no other found in East Tennessee and provides opportunities for engaging outdoor experiences through education and recreation.”

James has been especially conscientious about maintaining a balance between conservation and recreation, not wanting to over-saturate the center with activities that might cause a neglect of Ijams' preservation and education efforts. But when they started discussing the possibility of an adventure course with Navitat, it seemed like a good fit. Navitat has already established successful courses in Asheville that maintain and encourage protection of the natural environments in which they're built.

Navitat Canopy Adventures

Navitat Canopy Adventures

"We are thrilled to be coming to Knoxville and Ijams with our first challenge park,” says Abby Burt, Branding and Marketing Leader for Navitat. “We are looking forward to getting to know the community and introducing them to the same innovative design and high-quality experience that Navitat is known for.”

Something that's new even to Navitat, though, is the beautiful environmental art structures that will be part of the Knoxville course. Kelly Brown, author of the comprehensive Obed climbing guidebook, is perhaps more well known in Knoxville for the fantastical structures at Ijams’ Jo's Grove playscape and for his art installations downtown. Now, Brown is working with Navitat and Ijams to make the ropes course a "treetop wonderland," with structures inspired by birds' nests.

Concept drawing of environmental art structures that will be incorporated into the challenge park
Concept drawing of environmental art structures that will be incorporated into the challenge park Kelly Brown

This mirroring of the surrounding landscape will help spark conversation about local habitats and wildlife between participants and staff, says Benjy Darnell, who will manage the Navitat course. "They're going to come into this experience and learn something without knowing they're learning something."

Navitat Canopy Adventures

Benjy has worked in Knoxville outdoor education for over a decade and is excited about this new opportunity to mix outdoor adventure with environmental education. “The Navitat-Ijams course will host over 60 challenges in the canopy of the trees. But within these challenges will be opportunities to embrace the mission of environmental education shared by both Navitat and Ijams. Through the use of signage, educational facilitation, and local artists, we will be able to provide an experience that bridges the gap between environmental education and outdoor adventure.”

Ijams Crag

Logan Mahan

The same goals of conservation and education exist for the Ijams Crag as well. As the only outdoor rock climbing destination in the city, local climbers, who before had to make the hour-long drive to the Obed to get on real rock, will now have a solid climbing area in their backyard. They'll have a place in town to play, to call their own, and a place they will hopefully feel compelled to protect from vandalism, misuse, and neglect. Paul James hopes the same sort of protective ownership that’s come from local mountain bikers on the trail will be fostered amongst climbers and families that seek out this new activity at Ijams.

Kelly giving beta to a climber at the Ijams Crag
Kelly giving beta to a climber at the Ijams Crag Logan Mahan

“Members of [The Appalachian Mountain Bike Club ] brought a great vision for trails in parts of Ijams that previously we had not considered. Those trails have opened up some amazing natural areas for mountain bikers as well as hikers. We hope the same happens at the Crag—that visitors will explore the Crag and enjoy a part of the park that was otherwise inaccessible. Plus, through new climbing experiences, more visitors will develop a true love of this landscape and want to support us in protecting and improving it.”

Benjy Darnell belaying his son on G-Thing
Benjy Darnell belaying his son on G-Thing Benjy Darnell

Benjy, who manages the Navitat course, is also the head volunteer on the Ijams Crag, and has been putting in tireless hours to get the area ready for climbers:

“From the beginning, our vision for Ijams Crag has been to provide an [urban] climbing area with a combination of challenging routes mixed in among easier routes, which will help create an environment of climbers educating other climbers. Moreover, there is a deeper meaning and insight in the development of this area. As a long-time outdoor educator I have seen the sense of outdoor adventure and the appreciation for our natural resources begin to soften. This crag will offer the opportunity to get outside and hopefully instill a sense of value for what the outdoor world holds for us all."

Logan Mahan

The crag offers a look back into Knoxville's history, says Benjy, as well as a vision for how we can move forward in a more caring and conscientious way. "This area was once utilized to provide the beautiful and coveted pink marble [used in our] nation’s capital, but it was left scarred from this mining. Through the hands of many volunteers, we have been able to take this scarred land and develop it into something beautiful and useful once again.”

The Ijams Crag is now open to climbers and the Navitat course is projected to open later this summer.

Ijams Crag and Navitat Challenge Park at a glance:

Navitat Zipline Challenge Park

  • Consists of six tree-based "trails," each consisting of a series of 10 to 12 adventure elements, including ziplines

  • Heights ranging from 10- to 60-feet off the ground

  • Trails will be rated for difficulty, allowing participants to conquer elements ranging from easy to challenging.

  • Incorporates elements of environmental art

  • $39-$49 per person, depending on age

  • Children ages 5-7 must be accompanied by an adult

  • Waivers must be signed by a parent or legal guardian for anyone under 18

  • Staff on the ground monitor guests as they move through the park and are available to assist whenever necessary.

  • Opening later this summer.

Ijams Crag

  • 12 initial routes (Groove Wall)

  • Lead climbing

  • Can top-rope by utilizing the top anchors on each route, but please use your own gear for top-roping and only use the anchors for lowering off of route when finished

  • Free access

  • Unmonitored/climb-at-your-own-risk

  • Initial routes now open!

  • Other routes coming soon.


Ijams Nature Center

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