My journey to spending a day in Oak Ridge, Tennessee began in the least likely of places—Target. Now, while Target isn’t that much of a stranger to starting fires—say, like a downward spiral into Debt-town or I-Really-Don’t-Needsville—this is one I surely didn’t see coming.
It all started with a trip to Target for… probably something I desperately needed like tampons or cat litter or a gold-trimmed dinosaur lamp. So naturally I walked out with a book on “the untold story of the women who helped win World War II.” I regret nothing.
Why visit Oak Ridge, Tennessee?
That book was The Girls of Atomic City and it explains, in depth, how a full-scale city was built from complete and utter Appalachian scratch and staffed by tens of thousands of women who (in a roundabout way) unknowingly built the world’s first atomic bomb—yeah, the one dropped on Hiroshima that helped end WWII. And that city was Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Who knew!? Seriously, who? Because I’ve lived in Tennessee most of my life, went to college a mere 20 minutes from Oak Ridge, and never heard of it until that fateful day at Target when I probably also walked out with a matching set of T-Rex salt and pepper shakers. I regret nothing.
So yes, Oak Ridge, Tennessee was, for the majority of World War II, a secret city. No one knew its purpose, if they even knew of its existence. None of the 75,000 resident employees knew what they were working on—only what their particular duties were. No one on the outside knew what was happening beyond the trees and the guard gates. And no one could have predicted the monumental effect this tiny, unassuming, secret town would have on the entire world and the future of humanity. nbd
7 things to do in Oak Ridge, Tennessee
There are obviously many ways to spend a day in Oak Ridge, Tennessee being that it’s surrounded by nature. You’ve got parks and arboretums, hiking and biking trails, and all that urban stuff nearby Knoxville has to offer is less than a half hour away. There are also countless water activities like paddle boarding, kayaking, and jumping out of your skin any time a fish brushes up against you.
However, if you’ll have only one day in Oak Ridge, I recommend spending your time exploring what literally made Oak Ridge, Oak Ridge–i.e., time to Manhattan Project it up!
What took place here in Oak Ridge over a span of a couple years changed our entire world forever. And still today almost no one knows this. Doesn’t that seem a little unbelievable? Like how could we know so little about one of the most monumental developments and events in world history? Especially one that hits so close to home?
If you’re like me and feel you must know more, spend a day in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and start with these seven things.
Watch this video for a little preview.
If you’re visiting Oak Ridge from Nashville, be aware that the time changes from Central to Eastern Time Zone between exits 340 and 341 on I-40. Because #4 on this list is a strictly timed event, this is a very important tidbit! Don’t show up an hour late for your tour.
1. Start with the Secret City Commemorative Walk
The Secret City Commemorative Walk is a small, circular pathway featuring ten bronze tablets that each tell a piece of Oak Ridge’s origin story and how it contributed to ending the war. These ten tablets do a great job of summing up the nuggets of information you’ll need to know for the rest of your day in Oak Ridge to make sense. (Some stuff will just never make sense—don’t feel bad about that. #science #uranium)
The Secret City Commemorative Walk is located in A.K. Bissell Park and will take you around just 15 minutes, longer if you stop to pet all the doggies—which I highly recommend. The Walk also features four “Founder Walls” honoring many of the first ever Oak Ridgers and an American flag that previously flew over the U.S. Capitol. There’s parking right beside it, next to the Oak Ridge Public Library. It’s not a big town, y’all.
2. Check out the International Friendship Bell
From the Commemorative Walk, you can walk to the other end of A.K. Bissell Park to check out the International Friendship Bell inside the brand new (currently under beautification) Peace Pavilion.
The International Friendship Bell contains images representing friendship and peace between Japan and the United States cast in 8,000 pounds of bronze. It contains the dates of the Pearl Harbor attack and VJ Day as well as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Why a bell?
Dr. Ram Uppuluri and his wife Shigeko—natives of Japan and residents of Oak Ridge—conceived the idea for the bell during a research visit to the Japan Atomic Energy Institute in 1987. It was then that they were… struck… heh… by the bonshō bell at a nearby Buddhist temple.
Renowned Japanese bell maker (because of course that’s a thing that exists) from Kyoto—Sotetsu Iwazawa—created the International Friendship Bell and officially dedicated it on May 3rd and 4th, 1996.
Go ahead, ring it.
Personally, I chickened out. Even the on-site construction workers couldn’t peer pressure me into it. Big talk from a bunch of guys already wearing hard hats. I mean, it’s eight thousand pounds. What must the shockwave coming off a bell that big be like? I’m but one small person and I hadn’t even eaten yet that day. I know what happens in those kinds of situations—I’ve seen the Road Runner and the Coyote.
But honestly, I just didn’t know proper bell etiquette. Was the bell to be rung just for special occasions? Would it be disrespectful for me to ring it? I’ve since spoken with the proper authorities who’ve assured me anyone can ring the bell.
Really though, you should ring it. Once upon a time there was a city ordinance that stated the bell could only be rung using the wooden striker three times a day between 6:00 – 6:15 pm. However, in 2001, an 8th grade girl knew what total boo-hockey that was and demanded the rule be changed. Now, the bell can be rung at any time of day, as often as desired. So lemme know what happens.
3. Explore the American Museum of Science and Energy
Less than a mile down the road from the International Friendship Bell is the American Museum of Science and Energy. The museum traces its origins back to 1949 when it was established to provide “the general public with energy information.”
The fact that Oak Ridge hadn’t been a secret anymore for four years did nothing for the people who thought uranium was the seventh planet from the sun. The people demand “energy information!” If you thought you were confused about how an atomic bomb works now, imagine how they must’ve felt when it first happened—back in the time of cocaine for kids and tapeworm diet pills.
Today, the AMSE explains national and worldwide security, nuclear science, the Manhattan Project, uranium, technological developments, and the various ways science can make our hair stand on end. (so many ways!) However, the American Museum of Science and Energy is not as niche as it sounds—it does a great job of dumbing down the history and science of nuclear energy for the broader population… the Jersey Shore-watching general public, if you will.
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If you’re traveling around middle Tennessee, also check out my post on taking a Jack Daniels distillery tour. The tours are cheap, eye-opening, fun, and include whiskey! Fun fact: every drop of Jack Daniels found all over the world was produced here at the Tennessee distillery.
The AMSE is full of interactive exhibits, easy-to-understand informational displays, and live demonstrations. It serves as home base for the programs and events presented by the National Park Service as part of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park and your Department of Energy bus tour includes admission.
Which brings me to…
4. Take the Department of Energy bus tour
Haaaaaave you met the DOE?
So, I don’t think I made things clear earlier… Oak Ridge is not merely a former, one-time energy hub. The United States Department of Energy—responsible for all things related to nuclear energy/weaponry/waste/etc.—is a federal government agency still operating out of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. With its roots in the Manhattan Project, the DOE currently conducts more scientific research than any other federal agency within its system of National Laboratories—Oak Ridge being a big one.
And in the spirit of providing the general public with “energy information,” the Department of Energy hosts guided public bus tours for super nerds interested parties. These bus tours are led by former Oak Ridge National Laboratory employees and visit some of the current DOE sites and labs as well as some of Oak Ridge’s first research facilities and many of the historic places you’ll read about in The Girls of the Atomic City so you can be like, “I’ve been there!” to exactly no one who cares.
On the Department of Energy bus tour you’ll visit:
The American Museum of Science and Energy
This is where you board the bus so… just go in and learn some stuff, mmmkay? The measly $8 price of the bus tour includes admission to the museum plus and they open it up early for bus tour-takers.
The Y-12 National Security Complex
Considered the birthplace of the atomic bomb, the Y-12 National Security Complex was built as part of the Manhattan Project specifically for enriching uranium through electromagnetic means. The fuel for the bomb dropped on Hiroshima came from this. building. That is so mindblowing to me.
You’ll get to go inside (but only so deep—they’re watching you) and visit the New Hope Visitor Center that showcases some of the many ways our history has been influenced by this very building (hello, moon landing), and listen to a handful of presentations on uranium enrichment and the atomic history of Oak Ridge. It’s really cool okay?!
The Bethel Valley Church
It’s a historic church? Not at all sure why the tour goes here but it’s Tennessee so I’m not even a little bit surprised.
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Heading west? You might like my post on 200 things to do in Memphis – written by me, born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. Heading east? Check out how to spend a non-gimmicky weekend in Gatlinburg & Pigeon Forge.
The Spallation Neutron Source
Y’all, some really crazy stuff goes down here. There’s just protons, neutrons, and electrons flying about everywhere. If you want the detailed version, check out this page.
In short, the Spallation Neutron Source is an “accelerator-based facility that provides the most intense pulsed neutron beams in the world.” That doesn’t mean a whole lot to me, but it’s the [insert superlative distinction here] of its kind anywhere in the world and that’s pretty impressive.
X-10 Graphite Reactor
This National Historic Landmark is the world’s oldest nuclear reactor. So much science… can’t… grasp… brain… hurting… [Tasmanian Devil sounds]. The description of the processes that took place here are far beyond anything my simple pea brain can comprehend, but what basically went down here is: attempted to get plutonium isotopes from uranium. Spoiler alert: it worked!
For your information
The first atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, was a uranium bomb. The second and much more powerful bomb, dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, was a plutonium bomb.
The Former K-25 Building Site
The K-25 building no longer exists but was once the primary location of uranium enrichment for the Manhattan Project. Here, you’ll learn all about the gaseous diffusion process used here.
Though they completely demolished it in 2013, at the time of its construction in 1944 the K-25 building was the largest building in the entire world. It measured in at a whopping 1.64 million square feet. And not a soul outside Oak Ridge knew it existed. BALLER.
You can’t go to Oak Ridge and not take a Department of Energy bus tour—it’s the city’s bread and butter and most of the sites on the tour can only be visited on a tour. That being said, let’s get to some of the details.
DOE bus tour important information
The DOE only offers bus tours from March through November. Either on Mondays and Fridays only, or on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays, depending on the month. (Check here.)
It was really fun finding that out after I planned my entire week around taking the bus tour on a Thursday. I drove back and forth from Oak Ridge to Nashville four times over two days. Don’t be like me, folks.
Bus tours cost $8 and limit themselves to 32 people. (My tour was full so you can take back all those things you said about me being the only person interested in the gaseous diffusion of uranium, mm-hmm.)
You must be a U.S. citizen, possess a current photo ID, and be at least ten years old. At 35 I was still the youngest by a large margin so I think you’re good on that.
The bus tours board at 11:15 am, start at 11:30 am and last until 2:30 pm. The last half hour is just driving back to the AMSE from the K-25 building site, i.e. nap time because brain tired.
To register for a DOE bus tour, you can register online ahead of time (recommended!) but only for the first 16 spots. After those are full, 16 more spots are available on a walk-in, first come, first served basis starting at 9:00 am the day of the tour. Online registration opens up a month ahead of time.
Killing the Rising Sun, by Bill O’Reilly
5. Have lunch at Big Ed’s Pizza
On Oak Ridge’s tourism website, Big Ed’s Pizza is one of the top things to do during a day in Oak Ridge. The town is that small—it’s adorable.
Turns out, Big Ed’s Pizza was voted one of USA Today’s 51 greatest pizza joints in the country (one for each state + Washington DC). And since anyone who knows me could tell you I have two loves—iconic eateries and spallating neutrons, duh—I had to check this place out.
Short story, short: the BBQ chicken pizza at Big Ed’s is one of the BEST pizzas I’ve ever had in my life. And I lived in Italy for four months!
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If you are indeed heading to Nashville on your trip, check out my post on how to spend a weekend in Nashville if you don’t like country music. If you also, indeed, don’t like country music. Tennessee’s capital city has so much more to offer!
Not only was the pizza amazing, but the atmosphere was great—is there anything I love in a restaurant more than high ceilings and an open kitchen? Methinks not—and the service was some of the best I’ve ever received. Shoutout to my server Michael who knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that I’d love it even more if I added pineapple. I feel so seen.
The pizzas are created with made-in-house dough and sauce, fresh ingredients, and sent home with you in brown paper bags like you’ve never seen ‘em before.
6. Visit historic Jackson Square
Just down the block from Big Ed’s (just toss your bag of pizza into your rental car and walk on over) is historic Jackson Square.
Back in the mid-1940s when Oak Ridge was the place to be for… absolutely no one / I don’t know what you’re talking about / there’s nothing to see here. Ok, fine. But back when the population of Oak Ridge topped 75,000 people, Jackson Square was the center of it all. It was the social gathering spot for Oak Ridgers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Today there are a handful of quaint shops, a local restaurant and beer garden, a live theater, and a weekly farmers market. You can also find photo displays of what Jackson Square looked like during World War II.
Just across the street at the northwest corner of Jackson Square is the Alexander Inn, originally known as the Guest House. This building was built during the Manhattan Project and used as a—you guessed it—guest house for official visitors and various other smartypants.
As you can see from the signage, the Guest House hosted such famous people as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi. Today, it’s included on the National Register of Historic Places.
If you’re looking to get your National Parks Passport stamped, the visitor information desk for the National Park Service is located at the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge. Don’t worry, they assured me more adults than kids show up for this. 🤓
7. Check out Norris Dam
Hop back in your rental and head just a little bit out of Oak Ridge into neighboring—I wish this was a joke—Rocky Top, Tennessee. ‘Tis a real place, y’all. Within the 1.6 square mile Rocky Top is Norris Dam State Park… where you’ll find Norris Dam.
Built between 1933 and 1936, Norris Dam is a hydroelectric dam spanning 265 feet high and 1,860 feet across the Clinch River. According to the placard, “water stored here helps control floods. Released water generates electricity.” And the largest consumers of the energy produced by the Norris Dam are the atomic plants at Oak Ridge which use “more power than a great city.” That’s a lot of dam power.
Norris Dam has more than a few cameos in The Girls of Atomic City so I was excited to see it for myself. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and features both a cool overlook and a visitor center.
Where to stay in Oak Ridge, Tennessee
One thing I loved about spending a day in Oak Ridge, Tennessee was it being a no-frills destination. No one was trying to out-do anyone else. Nothing was overstated and no one tried too hard. It was just… simple.
That attitude rolls over into deciding where to stay in Oak Ridge. Forget your Airbnbs and your boutique hotels and just book yourself into the Quality Inn and be done with it. For less than $60 I got a huge, clean, comfortable room, free breakfast, a place to park my car, all right there on the main road in between all the sights I wanted to see. Refreshingly simple!
Read reviews on Tripadvisor or just go ahead and book your room now!
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There’s also a very cool 1943 time capsule apartment you can stay in here in Oak Ridge–for when you want the true Secret City experience. Read all about it in this post on WWII hotels and Airbnbs.
Don’t miss Oak Ridge
Now, I know a day in Oak Ridge may not be the in-your-face most thrilling, most adventurous, or even most Instagrammable way to spend your time, but Oak Ridge, Tennessee is really not to be discounted.
Sometimes you find some of the most worthwhile and interesting travel destinations in some of the most modest places. I’d take a day in Oak Ridge, Tennessee over a day in Paris or Brussels or Milan any damn day. I had more fun checking out these historical sites–all by my lonesome–than I have in many other notable destinations.
However, what really sold me on Oak Ridge was the people. You can travel all over the world and you’ll never find authentic Southern hospitality like you will in the state of Tennessee. That was worth the four drives right there.✌🏼
More info for your day in Oak Ridge
Heading to Oak Ridge? Read hotel reviews on TripAdvisor or book your room now!
Don’t forget to read: The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan
What else have I written about Tennessee? Check out these posts.
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Ashley … I’m a fellow travel blogger. So glad to see you visited Oak Ridge. I live in Clinton just a few miles away and am in Oak Ridge often. It really is a cool city and you managed to do well with the highlights. There’s a great “wild” side to the city, too, so come back when you can.
Yes, I really wish I could’ve stayed in the area longer! I know for next time though 🙂
I went a few months back! I got the last spot for the season. There was a good bagel place I went to in a strip mall.
Wow – good job! I wish I had known about that bagel place!
Ashley, I am so bummed to know that you came to Oak Ridge recently. I am a transplant to Oak Ridge for the last 7 yrs and would have been thrilled to host you or at least connected up with you for a good beer or 3… There are several places to get a great craft beer and soak up some great atmosphere with the locals or get some good food. If you decide to come back during warmer weather for a follow up story at some point let me know, I would to meet you. I also know of a few other sites that have great history of the Secret City that I would love to share with you. I love your travel blogs. Keep up the great work.
What a small world! I had no idea. There is still plenty more I wanted to see (and drink) in Oak Ridge – I’ll keep that in mind for the next time I’m around. (I need more pizza.)