Where can places of stillness be found? That’s a question about the area around my hometown that I carried into my sabbatical. Finding solitude has been an essential priority for these twelve weeks, but with two children under the age of 6, solitude isn’t happening very often in my own home. And that has meant exploring new-to-me places across Knoxville and east Tennessee conducive to prayer and stillness. It’s much more difficult to find public places of quiet in the city. Public libraries are no longer places of quiet. Traffic and noise are seemingly everywhere. It takes more curiosity and effort to find places of stillness that inspire prayer and contemplation.
Because I had the space to follow that curiosity and find quiet places, I want to share my favorite places of stillness around the greater Knoxville area and the Cumberland Plateau. You won’t find any places in the Great Smoky Mountains in my list. I love the Smokies, but many places of quiet in the Smokies are well known. I wanted to explore new-to-me places, some of which were an hour or more away. But I also needed quiet places that are located only 15–20 minutes from west Knoxville. Finding those local places has been essential to enter into solitude and help with the daily schedules of my children during sabbatical.
As I mentioned in my last post, finding places of stillness is an act of becoming native to one’s place. There’s a Benedictine aspect of finding stillness around your home, too. To cherish a quiet forest, to listen attentively to a mountain stream, to encounter the presence of God in creation, this is what it means to be rooted in prayer in the place where you live.
So here are my favorite places of stillness that I’ve discovered during sabbatical. It’s certainly been my conviction that enjoying these places shouldn’t be for me alone. In praying that my sabbatical could also be a gift for others, I hope you might explore these places of prayer, too.
Haw Ridge Park
While Haw Ridge is frequented more by mountain bikers than anyone else, the park’s trails are multi-use and make for a peaceful hike, especially on weekdays. The trails aren’t marked well, so it’s best to choose one trail and stick to it. I recommend beginning at the West Entrance and following the West Shore Trail. This trail connects with Lake Road and the serene Red Shore Trail. It was there I found a perfect picnic table to sit in stillness by Melton Hill Lake. The table is far enough removed from mountain bikers to avoid a crash! You could spend hours in that spot, enjoying the stillness of the place.
While I eventually found other places I prefer more, I will always have a fondness for Haw Ridge because it was the first place I discovered on my sabbatical. Listening and praying by Melton Hill Lake was a marker of sorts for me, a beginning for sabbatical, a call to enter into solitude with God.
Oak Ridge Arboretum
How many times have I passed the Oak Ridge Arboretum through the years? I don’t know, but I know I paid it no attention every time I went to Oak Ridge. But turning right off of TN–62 is the University of Tennessee’s Forestry Lab, a wonderful local secret that welcomes visitors from dawn to dusk.
It’s difficult to express how important this place has been for me in these sabbatical weeks. Not a few occasions did I visit the Arboretum before and after the school drop-off/pick-up routine for my daughter. There were some days I visited it more than once, leaving and returning after the school commute. Because the Arboretum is located fifteen minutes from my home, I could easily enjoy the numerous quiet places in the park.
I love the walking trails here because they are perfect for someone seeking stillness. Trails are well-marked and benches are located throughout the natural area. Sitting on these benches, I could watch the progression of autumn from one day to the next, one week to the next. It does take a little effort to find a bench removed from the sound of traffic, but none of the trails are strenuous.
My favorite place for prayer is along the wooded North Forest Loop trail. It’s a main artery through the trail system and there are several benches to sit and enjoy the stillness of the place. Bring a Bible, your favorite devotional or prayer book, and enjoy the beauty of God in this place. Go pray the Phos Hilaron just before dusk and I think you’ll agree this place is a gift to our region.
Frozen Head Natural Area and State Park
Almost exactly an hour’s drive from west Knoxville is Frozen Head Natural Area and State Park. Don’t be creeped out by the State Correctional Facility that you’ll pass on the way. The rest of the drive there is gorgeous, passing beyond Oak Ridge into Oliver Springs and taking peaceful back roads to the park.
I visited Frozen Head after a morning school run and returned by late afternoon. This would make a great Saturday outing and it’s especially conducive for families, too. But I went on a Monday and there was hardly a soul there, except for the one hiker who decided that the Chimney Top Trailhead needed the Stone Temple Pilots blaring in the parking lot. I love 90s Alternative Rock just like every other Gen-Xer, but I came here to listen to Jesus, not Scott Weiland.
Breaking away from STP hiker, I chose the Interpretive Trail Loop, figuring he had higher aspirations than this gentle pathway along the Flat Fork Creek. I was rewarded by one of the calmest, loveliest places in the Cumberlands. Taking a simple lunch, I listened to the mountain stream, remembering the final sermon on Psalm 1 I gave before my sabbatical. It was the perfect reminder of why I took this sabbatical–to become more deeply rooted in Christ. It’s my hope that others might enjoy that same bench, hearing the still, small voice of God that is so lovely in that place.
Big South Fork and Historic Rugby
This might be anathema to east Tennesseeans, but I’ve fallen in love with Big South Fork more than the Smoky Mountains. And the reason is that it’s much easier to find places of stillness in Big South Fork. The drive from west Knoxville to the Cumberlands is gorgeous and you fight much less traffic in the area.
I took my first visit to Big South Fork on a day trip, hiking a portion of the John Muir Trail, setting off from the Leatherwood Ford Trail. The trail parallels the Cumberland River and there are several places along the path to find a boulder and enjoy the stillness of that place. As a man who has long loved A River Runs Through It, I didn’t know that we have a comparable, though humbler, river landscape to Norman MacLean’s Blackfoot River. The mountains aren’t as majestic as Montana, but they’re ours. And the gentle path along the Leatherwood Ford Trail is a wonderful place for prayer. Don’t know if the fishing is good, but I know you can meet God there.
The Cumberland Mountains also remind me of one of my favorite places in the world: Yorkshire. The Cumberland Plateau is probably the closest resemblance to Yorkshire that one can find in America, and that resemblance is most evident in Rugby, a restored Victorian village just outside of Elgin, TN.
Given our family schedule, I was only able to take one retreat during sabbatical, but I found a perfect place (and a very affordable rate) for that retreat at Percy Cottage in Rugby. Located an hour and half from west Knoxville, Rugby is a restored Victorian village that draws tourists on the weekends. But there are good walking trails to break away from the shops in Rugby just off from the Visitor Center. Take the Massengale Homestead Trail and enjoy some of the benches by a mountain stream. Note to introverts: visit Rugby on Mondays, Tuesdays, or Wednesdays and you’ll be in heaven.
With the benefit of two and half days in Big South Fork, I discovered a few other places beyond Rugby and Leatherwood Ford. Honey Creek Overlook, Zenith Trailhead, and Mt. Helen Trailhead all offer remote places of stillness. These are not long hikes and they aren’t a great distance from Rugby. That’s been my criteria for finding places of stillness. When I’m seeking exercise, I choose strenuous trails. When I’m seeking prayer, I’m looking for good benches, streams, rivers, and a gentle pathway.
A Morning, An Evening, A Weekend
Several years back, I remember thinking that it was important to have 3 places in mind for prayer, at varying intervals. It’s helpful to have a place 15 minutes, 30 minutes, and an hour away, given the possibilities or limitations your schedule allows. The truth of daily life is that we need places of stillness, not only for seasonal retreats, but for weekly encounters with Christ in his creation. That’s why I hope you’ll consider these opportunities for stillness that you could visit for a morning, a half-day, an evening after work, or a Saturday. Sabbatical has been a discovery of these places not only for myself, not only for twelve weeks, but for becoming native to these places with my community over many years.