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Secret City in Tennessee is a Road Trip You’ll Remember

Secret City in Tennessee is a Road Trip You’ll Remember

If you want to find Tennessee’s secret city on a map, look west of Knoxville. There was a time when it was completely under wraps even though thousands of people lived and worked there.

Once the veil lifted, neighbors discovered that an undercover operation to build the atomic bomb had happened in their own backyard.

Let’s take a look at this secret hiding in plain sight.

What Is the Secret City? 

This undercover community became a literal boomtown almost overnight. Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is fairly well known these days, but it was clouded in obscurity when the federal government created it in 1943. Tennessee’s secret city is home to a Department of Energy science and research laboratory that helped create the atomic bomb.

At first, this community made up of government employees and their families had no name. After the population exploded in a few short years, they chose Oak Ridge in a contest. It reflected the area’s natural features but didn’t stand out too much from other Tennessee town names. 

The project was so hush-hush that many employees didn’t know exactly what they were working on. They found out like the rest of the world did when U.S. forces dropped two bombs on Japan in 1945.

Welcome to the city of Oak Ridge sign.
Oak Ridge was home to a secret government site during WW2.

Where Is the Secret City in Tennessee? 

Oak Ridge lies in eastern Tennessee and is part of the Knoxville metro area. Back when it was built, however, the two communities stood a good 25 miles apart. With steady suburban sprawl, it’s harder to tell where one city starts and the other ends. 

Originally, government officials liked the location because it was somewhat remote. However, it wasn’t exactly in the middle of nowhere and still sat near rail lines and highways. They had other considerations, too.

They needed lots of electricity and lots of water for cooling purposes. Thanks to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), this area could supply that.

Woman with finger to lips to show a secret.
Oak Ridge was so secretive in their development of the atomic bombs that many employees did not know what they were helping with until after the bombs were dropped.

Is the Secret City Radioactive? 

The secret city’s secret mission involved extremely dangerous materials that went into the bomb. They used uranium and plutonium, both of which are radioactive. Specifically, the number-one job here was to enrich uranium, making it more effective as nuclear fuel.

It’s certainly natural to wonder if it’s safe to visit Oak Ridge or whether you’re putting yourself at risk. The truth is that some areas are contaminated with radiation, but they’re closed off to the public.

Can You Visit the Secret City? 

Word about Oak Ridge has been out a long time. The property reverted to civilian control a couple of years after the war. It’s now a booming tourist area as more and more people discover its hidden charms.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory is almost always the main topic of conversation for visitors. You can go on tours there, too, when the facility offers them.

Pro Tip: Turn your adventure to Oak Ridge, Tennessee into a road trip and seek out these 7 Amazing Waterfalls in Tennessee.

aerial image of Manhattan Project Park.
Explore the Manhattan Project National Historical Park while exploring Oak Ridge.

Things to Do When Visiting the Secret City in Tennessee

Today, this welcoming community plays up its heritage with a Top Secret Trail with nearly 200 stops. Some of them are directly related to what put the place on the map. The Tennessee River runs through these scenic ridges and valleys, offering great outdoor recreation.

Check Out the Manhattan Project National Historical Park

The Oak Ridge facility is still a working government science lab, but some historic areas are preserved as they were. Oak Ridge is one of three units of the National Park Service’s Manhattan Project National Historical Park. (The other two units are in the sites in New Mexico and Washington state.) 

Here in Oak Ridge, the NPS visitor center and ranger station are inside a building that was one of the secret city’s first schools. This is where you can get on board for the official bus tour. The structure, built in 1944, is also home to the Oak Ridge Children’s Museum.

It has lots of family-friendly exhibits and activities. A giant dollhouse is one of the most popular attractions here. The Bird Room is another — it’s filled with the sounds of Tennessee songbirds.

Enjoy Art, Theater, and History 

The American Museum of Science and Energy is the place to get a full picture of the secret city’s nuclear role. It will open your eyes to other scientific advances made since then. You can even enjoy some hands-on work with microscopes here. The Oak Ridge History Museum, also housed in a 1940s building, does a great job of personalizing the “secret” period.

The Oak Ridge Playhouse is where the city’s community theater group hits the stage. With just 13 rows of seats, it guarantees an intimate experience for kids or adults. Or try the Oak Ridge Art Center to see fine art on display.

Shop at Jackson Historic Square 

Many “historic” downtown areas are much older than this one, but you can’t deny it has an interesting origin. Jackson Historic Square sprang up virtually overnight to serve as the social center of a secret city. In wartime, workers toiled around the clock, so the square stayed open constantly.

With shops and restaurants, you can enjoy a modern shopping experience while retracing the steps of those secret citizens. Take time to peruse the old photographs from the glory days of the 1940s.

Play in the Great Outdoors 

Oak Ridge lies in a gorgeous valley surrounded by a series of mountain ridges. You can feel the influence of the nearby Smoky Mountains here. In fact, the city maintains 13 different greenways for walking, running, and biking. Don’t be surprised if you encounter young local families enjoying them, too. 

Oak Ridge also offers lots of opportunities to get on or next to the water. Melton Hill Lake borders Oak Ridge on two sides. With 173 miles of shoreline, Melton Lake offers lots of opportunities for fishing, boating, water skiing, and more.

Just downstream, Norris Dam Reservoir is even bigger. If disc golf is your bag, head straight to Groves Park. A challenging 27-hole course occupies the site of what used to be the city’s golf course.  

Pro Tip: If you go explore the Smoky Mountains after your adventure in Old Ridge, make sure to keep an eye out for The Most Dangerous Creatures in the Smoky Mountains.

Norris Dam Reservoir.
There are many wonderful outdoor spaces in Oak Ridge, like Norris Dam Reservoir.

Campgrounds Near the Secret City in Tennessee

The TVA was a federal project to provide electricity to the region, building dams to generate hydroelectric power. It’s a big reason there are so many great ways to enjoy the outdoors.

The TVA manages some of the campgrounds along the waterways in the region, while others have private owners. Here are two options for staying in Oak Ridge.

Melton Hill Dam Campground 

This well-kept TVA facility is 16 miles from downtown Oak Ridge and convenient to Interstate 40. There are 55 campsites for RVs and tents, more than half of them with partial hookups. Five have full hookups. All sites have a picnic table, fire pit, and grill, and there’s a bathhouse.

The gravel lots are spacious, and the ones toward the front are the most level. There’s a swimming area and picnic tables along the water, and hiking trails lead past an old cemetery.

Soaring Eagle Campground 

Also on Melton Hill Lake, this family-owned campground has an interesting history. It was built in 1982 to accommodate people coming to Knoxville for the World’s Fair. There are full amenities, a bathhouse and laundry, and a general store with basic items, propane, firewood, and ice.

Many of the sites are on the lake, and there’s also a swimming pool. On the downside, some of the sites are tight, and you may hear some highway noise.

The Secret City: A Tennessee Road Trip to Remember 

Once concealed, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is out in the open now but has strong ties to its secret past. Thousands come here each year to delve into this fascinating chapter in our nation’s history.

Your visit will uncover a friendly and scenic city with cool, inviting rivers and lakes and magical mountain views. Have you ever wondered about the secret city?

Do you think you’d visit it?

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  1. jim mims says:

    I grew up in Chattanooga, & I learned they released toxic dust in to the air, just to see how many people would get sick, just like they did up in Washington State !!