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Urban Wilderness Drawing National Acclaim - and Tourists 
Knoxville is home to one of the country’s most expansive and centrally located outdoor adventure areas, full of hiking, biking, walking and paddling trails and paths.

The 1,000-acre (and growing) Urban Wilderness, just south of the Tennessee River, is just a few minutes by vehicle or bicycle from the heart of Downtown.

Mountain bikers can't resist the Urban Wilderness' challenging downhill trails.
Photo courtesy of AMBC

Our Urban Wilderness boasts more than 50 miles of trails and greenways that provide convenient recreational amenities and promote healthy lifestyles and physical activity. But the expanse of trails and destinations - the result of community buy-in and partnerships - also generate tourism and greatly boost Knoxville’s economic potential. 

Urban Wilderness trails were used in 2021 by a total of 303,680 visitors. One in every five of these trail users was a first-time out-of-town guest.

A 2015 analysis done by an economics research team for the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy concluded that an Urban Wilderness as a regional destination would contribute an annual local economic impact of $14.6 million.

That was before the Baker Creek Bike Park or the Urban Wilderness Gateway Park were built.

As a national destination, the Urban Wilderness' economic impact would likely reach $29 million a year.

Talking with local trail enthusiasts and tourism experts, it appears that we're on our way.

Lots of choices: Find a quality experience that best fits you

Versatility, and offering a wide range of quality experiences, is what makes the Urban Wilderness so special, said Matthew Kellogg, Executive Director of the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club, whose members lovingly contribute thousands of hours of labor each year building and maintaining trails.

“It’s important to us that we offer quality experiences that fill people’s buckets," Kellogg said. "We want to offer experiences for all types of people and tailor experiences toward the variety of user groups in the area.” 

The Urban Wilderness is rapidly growing in popularity, with approximately 303,680 trail users recorded in 2021. The area offers locals and visitors an opportunity to get active in whatever way best suits them. Depending on the person's interest, they may explore mountain biking trails, hiking trails, or more moderate walking trails. 

Kellogg made it clear that the Urban Wilderness is not just for mountain bikers. In fact, AMBC has helped add 8 trails to the Urban Wilderness in the past year, most of which are oriented toward hikers and walkers and were created with extensive input from local residents and groups.

AMBC members donate thousands of hours of labor each year, building and maintaining trails
Photo courtesy of AMBC

Kellogg has worked with Eugene Fitzhugh, Associate Professor of Physical Activity Epidemiology at UT, to gather important Urban Wilderness trail data in order to learn how to best grow the area.

A recent study showed that only 4 percent of the trails in the Urban Wilderness are bike-only trails, and 40.1 percent of trail users choose to walk the trails.

“Every minute that people spend on the trails, biking, walking or doing other activities, offers tremendous health-enhancing benefits," Fitzhugh said.

But the Urban Wilderness provides much more than a recreational opportunity for the people of Knoxville. It's becoming something of an economic driver.

National acclaim, growing tourism dollars

The Urban Wilderness has become a central hub for mountain bikers across the country.

Specifically, the Baker Creek Bike Park represents a quality amenity that is not otherwise available in the region. This park is an all-weather place to build and hone mountain-biking skills. Opened in 2020, it features two asphalt pump tracks and five jump and skill lines of varying difficulty levels.

One of the Baker Creek Bike Park jump lines
Photo courtesy of AMBC

The bike park has received the attention of three national cycling publications and regularly hosts out-of-state visitors.

Knoxville can expect to see an increase in tourism this weekend, in fact, as AMBC hosts its annual Fall Festival (Nov. 4-6 at Baker Creek Preserve in the heart of Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness).

In 2021, the Fall Festival drew in visitors from 25 different states, and 2022 promises to be even bigger.

Mountain bikers from dozens of states attend AMBC's Fall Festivals.
Photo courtesy of AMBC

Mountain biking visitors bring in tourism dollars not only during this Fall Festival season, but year round. Bikers, hikers and walkers come and spend on hotel and Airbnb accommodations, food, activities, and just about everything that Knoxville has to offer.

Fitzhugh and his team have discovered that approximately 20 percent of trail visitors are first-time users from out of town.

Charles Sims, Director of the Energy and Environment Program at the Baker Center, is currently working on updating his studies on the economic impacts of the Urban Wilderness and its potential as a regional tourism destination.

“The Urban Wilderness has definitely had an impact on state and local sales tax revenues and will continue to do so as it grows and reaches more out-of-state visitors,” he said.

Sims expects to have updated quantitative data on the recent economic growth impacts of the Urban Wilderness sometime in 2023.   

Kellogg believes the data will support his belief that the Urban Wilderness is steadily becoming economically more important to Knoxville. He says it is already an integral part of Knoxville's identity - and he credits the hard work of residents and community groups, as well as the support of City government.

“We are incredibly fortunate to have many amazing partnerships that have helped us to create a community-built system that will have lasting impacts on the City of Knoxville,” Kellogg said.

- Written by Baker Center Fellow Betsy Germann, a University of Tennessee student who is interning this semester in the City Communications Department 

Posted by evreeland On 03 November, 2022 at 3:37 PM