Oak Ridge was born as the Secret City during the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. Eventually the veil of secrecy was lifted and the literal gates to the town opened. Decades later the town has become one of the top day trip destinations in East Tennessee. Here are ten awesome things to do in Oak Ridge, TN.
1. Explore the Manhattan Project National Historical Park
Established in 2015, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park covers several historic sites and museums throughout Oak Ridge. Begin with a visit to the national park site’s Visitor Center at the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge.
Explore some of the artifacts on display at the Y-12 History Center, take a drive out to the K-25 Overlook Visitor Center, and walk around the International Friendship Bell in Bissell Park. For an in-depth look into life in the Secret City and innovation of the Manhattan Project book a private tour with local historian Ray Smith through Explore Oak Ridge.
2. Visit the American Museum of Science and Energy
The American Museum of Science and Energy has some of the best interactive science and engineering exhibits I’ve come across. The museum is divided into several areas that expound on the science behind the Manhattan Project, continuing nuclear weapons missions at the Y-12 National Security Complex, and current research at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The museum also hosts the Department of Energy’s Guided Bus Tour. The bus tour visits the Y-12 History Center, X-10 Graphite Reactor, and former site of the K-25 Building. The three-hour guided tour includes exploring inside New Bethel Church and the X-10 Graphite Reactor, my favorite historical place to visit in Oak Ridge.
3. Visit the Oak Ridge History Museum
I learned more about life in the Secret City at the Oak Ridge History Museum than anywhere else in town. The expansive museum has several rooms chocked full of information about the construction of the town, architecture of the unique homes, details of the school system and public transportation system, and shows what life was like I the Secret City.
4. Shop and Eat at Historic Jackson Square
Oak Ridge was built entirely from scratch during the Manhattan Project. The original plans for the town included several squares where the residents could find shopping, dining, and entertaining. Decades later Historic Jackson Square has become something of a “downtown” for Oak Ridge and serves the same purpose it always has.
The Historic Oak Ridge Farmers’ Market takes over the parking lot across the street each Saturday morning. Small locally-owned shops occupy the square, selling antiques, clothing, and gifts. Dean’s Restaurant and Razzleberry’s Ice Cream Lab anchor two corners of the square.
5. Enjoy an Evening at the Oak Ridge Playhouse
The Oak Ridge Playhouse began operation as a community theater in 1943 during the Manhattan Project and has continued ever since. The Playhouse offers musicals, comedies, and theatrical performances throughout the year in the massive 315-seat auditorium at Historic Jackson Square.
6. Explore the Collections at the Oak Ridge Art Center
The Oak Ridge Art Center has been around in one form or another since 1952. The core of the art center has always been to foster an environment for local artists to work and display their craft to the public.
The Art Center offers classes and workshops, just in case you happen to be spending some time in Oak Ridge, as well as studio space for artists. For weekend visitors the museum is open seven days a week with no admission fee. The exhibits change every few months so there is always a reason to stop by and see what’s new.
7. Go For a Walk on the Oak Ridge Greenways
There are 12 greenways scattered throughout and around Oak Ridge. All of these greenways are open for walking and jogging and all but one, the Black Oak Ridge Greenway, allows you to go for a walk with your pet.
The 5.7-mile Melton Lake Greenway is a beautiful place for an early morning hike along the Clinch River, locally called Melton Lake. Most of the greenway is paved and handicap accessible.
Almost thirty miles of greenway trails are located in Haw Ridge Park. The undeveloped trails are popular for mountain biking, though hiking is still permitted.
8. Play Disc Golf at The Mounds at Groves Park
I used to travel everywhere with my disc golf bag loaded with a couple of drivers and some great putters, but sadly I left that behind in Oak Ridge. The Mounds at Groves Park features an 18-hole course called The Mounds and a smaller 9-hole course called The Woods.
The Mounds has four tee lengths for each hole making it a perfect place for disc golfers of all levels. The course features 11 holes over 400’, 12 holes between 300′-400’, and 4 holes shorter than 300’.
9. Head Out on Melton Lake at the Adventure Outdoor Center
The Adventure Outdoor Center had some of the coolest looking self-propelled watercraft I have ever seen. I’m not talking about kayaks or stand-up paddleboards, but rather the interesting HydroBikes. I’ve never seen one of them in use before but basically they are single-seat bicycles strapped to a pair of pontoons. How cool is that?
Located on the shore of Melton Lake the Adventure Outdoor Center is the perfect place to rent a kayak, SUP, or HydroBike for some fun on the water. The lake is used by motor boats but not so many that it becomes unsafe or undesirable. Head upstream past Calhoun’s to a railroad bridge crossing the water and then enjoy the swift currents back to the outdoor center.
10. Sample the Local Food
Begin with breakfast at Jefferson Fountain. Located in another of those historic squares, this small restaurant has a great menu of southern cooking goodies. If you get hungry later in the day or just looking for a snack I highly recommend their root beer floats in a frozen glass mug.
For lunch or dinner head over to Big Ed’s Pizza near Jackson Square. This place is always hopping and I even had to wait forty minutes for a table because the locals love it so much. The pizzas are made fresh however you like, or you can choose one of their interesting recipes.
My favorite place to have dinner was Calhoun’s. It was equal part amazing barbeque and stunning view overlooking Melton Lake. Calhoun’s was started in Knoxville and has since grown with locations throughout East Tennessee but they always have the same great menu and quality food.
One of the most amazing evenings I’ve had in awhile was brought to me courtesy of Crafter’s Brew. This locally-owned craft brewery had some of the most eclectic décor with indoor and outdoor seating around two non-swimming pools (although they said I could get my feet wet if I wanted). With live music, great beer, and friendly bartenders this was my favorite evening in Oak Ridge.
Where to Stay in Oak Ridge
There are several great hotels in Oak Ridge that cater to a variety of travelers. TownePlace Suites is built for long-term visitors with a full kitchen in all of their rooms. Along with a sofa bed it’s the perfect place for a family to spend the weekend. Quality Inn and Comfort Inn are two more affordable options that still had high-quality rooms. My choice would be the Holiday Inn Express (I have been a fan of that chain for a long time now) with various rooms including a double bed, king bed, and two queen beds.