Ray Smith has been telling Oak Ridge’s stories and sharing its history for decades, serving currently as the city’s proud historian.
It’s impossible to visit Oak Ridge and not see Smith’s work on display.
He preserves the Secret City’s heritage by educating current and future generations about the city’s ongoing activities, helped create the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, plans key exhibits in our museums, and attends countless meetings with stakeholders while championing Oak Ridge everywhere he goes.
That’s just some of what he does.
Smith is one of Oak Ridge’s biggest fans and he knows our city like the back of his hand, but when he isn’t sharing the Secret City’s history, you’ll likely find him outside enjoying Oak Ridge’s natural beauty.
We sat down with Smith to get his perspective on some of the best trails and greenways to explore, while of course learning some history along the way!
In your opinion, what makes Oak Ridge unique when it comes to hiking?
In the city of Oak Ridge, there are dozens of trails including those that are more in the forest. When you get on some of these trails, it’s just like being in the mountains of East Tennessee anywhere.
Within five minutes while still inside the city, you could be just as isolated in the woods as you would be if you drove to the Smoky Mountains. While the elevation is not as steep, there’s still some great hiking trails in Oak Ridge, and they are all excellent for families.
What should I bring with me when I go out on an Oak Ridge hike?
You’ll need sturdy footwear for the trails, and you’ll need to take some water with you especially during the hot part of the summer.
I would also encourage anyone who enjoys photography to bring a camera on the hikes. I am never without mine and usually taking wildflower photos, often close up shots to appreciate the delicate beauty of nature.
If you haven’t already, check out our greenway maps of all the trails, too.
What are some of your favorite hiking trails in Oak Ridge and why?
There are four main areas in Oak Ridge that I hike routinely.
Haw Ridge has excellent hiking up on the top of the ridge and also down around the lake. You can go all the way around the Haw Ridge area right on the lake shore, or you can choose to go up the ridge at a number of points along the lake trails.
There’s also a large silo out there that’s a historical spot. The silo came from the Manhattan Project, as there was a large cattle farm that raised beef to help feed Manhattan Project workers.
The North Ridge Trail is a little over seven miles, and it has beautiful wildflowers along it. There are scenic spots where you can see the Cumberland Mountains. This trail is just like hiking in the mountains. It’s isolated, quiet and yet you’re only five minutes away from Oak Ridge streets. Outer Drive and West Outer Drive can always serve to loop you back to your vehicle if preferred.
This trail spearheaded the formation of the Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning group created by the late Dr. Liane Russell and her husband Dr. Bill Russell. Originally, power lines were going to run through this trail and disturb the natural beauty. This sparked an effort to protect not only this wilderness but also preserve the Obed Wild and Scenic River and the Big South Fork. They were able to defeat that powerline project, and the organization is still active today.
The North Boundary trail is on the west end of Oak Ridge out at the West Gatehouse on the Oak Ridge Turnpike. It has some hiking along a patrol road, and there’s a long loop that you can take that keeps you on the gravel road all the way around or other trails through the woods that make shorter loops.
One trail goes by an old rock quarry that has a beautiful setting there with the deep water, and in the Fall it’s very picturesque with stunning, gorgeous Fall color leaves. It is a great place to just stop and relax while enjoying the beauty around you.
Every Sunday afternoon I also spend time in the UT Arboretum. It’s located on the South side of Oak Ridge that has over five miles of walking trails. You’ll find a large variety of wildflowers, trees, and just beautiful, quiet hiking in the UT Arboretum. It is my “quiet place!”
What about some of your top places to grab a bite to eat in between all these adventures?
Big Ed’s has got the best New York-style pizza that you’re going to find anywhere hands down.
The Soup Kitchen has a snow crab soup that they serve on Wednesdays and good clam chowder on Fridays. They also serve chili every day, and they make it with pork and beans.
At Dean’s Restaurant & Bakery you’ll find great country style vegetables, and I’d recommend their salmon.
Calhoun’s is famous for their barbecue and their spinach marinara is an excellent additional side.
The first three are close to the Cedar Hill Greenway located nearby Jackson Square and the last is located on the Melton Lake Greenway, so hiking and lunch or dinner can be easily combined.