East TN's Favorite Playground
Located just north of Knoxville, Norris Dam State Park sits on the sprawling Norris Lake. Full of history and ripe for exploration, here are five ideas for your next trip to Norris Dam State Park.
1. Explore the park’s history
There’s so much history to unearth in and around Norris Dam State Park. As the name suggests, the park is located around the site of Norris Dam. While it is not the only dam in Tennessee, it does represent an important moment in history. The park started as a recreation and living area for Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers building the dam and the local community in the 1930s. The federal government gave these workers jobs during a time when many in the United States were suffering from the effects of the Great Depression. The power from the dam introduced thousands of Appalachian residents to the benefits of electricity.
After the dam was built, it didn’t take long for this secluded Southern valley to find its place in history. The dam’s power production fueled a secret government project in the 1940s that would help split the atom and lead to the development of nuclear energy during WWII. The same recreational area that housed CCC workers during the Great Depression served as barracks for workers during the Manhattan Project.
One of the best places to start a history lesson is at the Grist Mill. Not only is it picturesque, it also kicks off your exploration of Appalachian life. A short walking distance from the Grist Mill is the Lenoir Museum, which offers a collection of Appalachian artifacts and panels detailing the story of the area’s development, including images of the dam’s construction. This museum tells an important story about the impact modernization had on Appalachian folk life. The exhibits in the museum do a great job of preserving that folk life and explaining the tensions that come with progress.
After you’ve gained a sense for the overall history, it’s time to depart on more focused exploration. To gain a better understanding of the CCC you should drive through the eastern portion of the park where the historic cabins are located. You will appreciate the quaint, wooded setting and architecture. You can also take the Camp Kinchen trail down to an area where you can still see the stone ruins of different buildings from the CCC era.
For those interested in the World War II and Manhattan Project connections, we recommend setting out on the Top Secret Trail. The previously mentioned Lenoir Museum is one of the stops on this driving tour. The Top Secret Trail takes you to various sites detailing the story of energy and the development of the atomic bomb. Places like the American Museum of Science & Energy, the Oak Ridge Welcome Center, the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge, and K-25 Overlook are an easy drive from the park. The federal government recently formed a new multi-site national park dedicated to the Manhattan Project. Oak Ridge is one of the sites that make up this park. Check out their website for more information about the sites and tours available in Oak Ridge.
2. Hit the trails
The park has 15 different trails with a wide range of distance and difficulty levels. These trails traverse ridge tops, valleys, hollows, and the lakeshore. The park even allows mountain biking and horseback riding on certain trails. The trails are also the best places to take in the full glory of the changing leaves. Norris Dam even makes the list of top parks for fall colors in Tennessee.
If you want to venture outside of the park, there are more great hiking options nearby. Big Ridge is home to the Indian Rock Trail, a 2.6-mile difficult hike that passes a rocky area where a plaque commemorates the death of Peter Graves. Graves was a settler in the area who was scalped and killed while turkey hunting. His story adds another layer and dimension to the historic understanding and context of the region. Big Ridge is also home to the Sharp’s Station Trail which leads visitors to the site of one of the first two settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains in the 1780s.
3. Take a boat on the water
Norris Dam is home to a fully-equipped commercial marina that has a boat ramp and offers rentals, including pontoon and house boats. The lake itself is breathtaking; surrounded by hills and mountains, winding its way more than 100 miles throughout the region. It’s a perfect destination for paddling and boating.
4. Fish on the lake
Speaking of the lake, another great activity is fishing. Fishing at Norris Dam has two distinct experiences depending on where you’re fishing and your preference. If you cast a line on the lake side, you can expect to catch largemouth, spotted, smallmouth and striped bass. Anglers on the banks and on watercraft can have a rewarding trip up and down the 34,000-acre lake.
If fly fishing is more of your thing, the cold tail-waters of the Clinch River below the dam are a great place for trout.
5. Practice your photography
Finally, Norris Dam is a perfect park for hobby photographers. The dam provides an obvious focal point. Many photographers take to the high ground and capture the juxtaposition of the lake waters with the lower tailwaters. The fog that often forms creates depth for morning photography and has contributed to some of the best photos we have seen from Norris Dam.
Then there are all of the historic elements in the park. The Grist Mill, shown above, is a popular structure to photograph. The various CCC elements provide great textures and substance. It’s definitely a park where a photographer can put their depth of field skills and creativity to the test.
Where to Stay
Norris Dam State Park has a large quantity of camping and cabin options. The newer, standard cabins are some of the most popular in the entire park system. However, the rustic cabins are steeped in history and known for their uniqueness. They were originally constructed in the 1930s by the CCC and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While they are historic, they received a renovation in 2020 with modern finishes, kitchen appliances, showers, etc.