Ah…Spring is in the air! Literally. The birds are beginning to chirp, which means the pollen season is not far behind. St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner, which is also the same weekend as the first race of the season at Bristol Motor Speedway. Just a few days later, the first day of Spring pounces on the calendar. It’s been a long, cold winter marked with terms like “polar vortex” and “unseasonably cold”. At this point, even the staunchest of hermits are probably itching to get outside. But where do you go if you’re restless legs need to be taken for a walk?
Northeast Tennessee is a beautiful area of the country located deep in the Appalachian Mountains. From lakes and rivers to popular city destinations, this area of the state has plenty to offer travelers. But when it comes to outdoor recreation, the possibilities are nearly endless. So when this Spring season comes knocking on your door, keep this list of 5 Hidden Places for a Hike in Northeast Tennessee in mind.
1. Laurel Fork Falls
Laurel Fork Falls is located about 25 minutes from Elizabethton, and just an hour from the Tri-Cities region. The massive 55′ waterfall is located at Mile 413.8 on the Appalachian Trail as it wonders around Dennis Cove, across several ridges, before winding around Watauga Lake. Accessing this waterfall is fairly easy from a small parking area on Dennis Cove Road a few miles from Hampton. From here, a short 1.2-mile hike will get you to the base of the waterfall (keep in mind you will have to walk back).
This is a beautiful, quiet place for a nice day-hike along the Appalachian Trail. The journey there and back will take a reasonably-fit person about 2-3 hours. It is entirely possible to make the journey if you’re indulged a little too much during the Winter, but bear in mind the final quarter-mile descends a few hundred steps to the base of the waterfall (it took me nearly forty minutes just to climb those stairs a few years ago). The area at the bottom is wide, flat, and perfect for enjoying a picnic with the family or watching the dogs swim in the shallow waters.
2. Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium
Bays Mountain is perhaps most well-known for the pack of wolves they keep as part of their Nature Program. But this is more than just a place to watch them feed 5-pound logs of hamburger to the wolves once a week. The park is built around the Kingsport Reservoir on top of a nearby mountain, close to Interstate 26. The park features a barge ride across the reservoir, a nature area with dozens of wildlife animals to view, a planetarium, and dozens of miles of hiking trails.
Visit the Bays Mountain website to download a map of the hiking trails (you can also pick up a paper map at the entrance to the park). Trust me when I say you will want a map. Starting at the Nature Center on the lake edge, you can hike strenuous trails climbing 400′ in elevation to the antennas on the top of the mountain, or you can hike an easy 5-mile loop around the lake. If you’re just up for a simple hike for a few hours in the afternoon, try the lakeside trail across the dam for about a 1-mile round trip hike to a floating wooden bridge and an ecology pond.
3. Round Bald
Another trip on the Appalachian Trail, Round Bald Mountain is located at Carver’s Gap near Roan Mountain State Park. An easy 40 minutes from Elizabethton, you access the AT at a small parking area at the base of Roan High Knob on Tennessee Highway 143 – North Carolina Highway 261, also called Roan Mountain Highway. Once you have parked in the gravel parking lot or wide shoulders on the highway, it’s an easy 30-minute hike to reach the top of Round Bald.
This area of the state is a popular destination for day-hikers, people wanting to ball while enjoying a picnic, or people just wanting a place to chat while enjoying the great outdoors. The hike up to Round Bald is pretty easy as you gradually climb 300′ in elevation, winding around the mountain until you reach the top. Once there, you are greeted with one of the most breathtaking mountain views in Northeast Tennessee as you look out across the Roan Highlands from the bald mountain top. It’s an easy 2-hour hike, or a great place for a greater day-hike.
4. Osceola Island
Located just 30 minutes outside Bristol, the Osceola Island and Weir Dam Recreation Area sits at the base of the South Holston Dam. While you can certainly enjoy a beautiful view from the top of the dam, you can also get out and stretch your legs on the island in the middle of the South Fork of the Holston River.
The recreation area has a large parking lot featuring a bathroom facility, a few good places to fish, picnic tables and grills, and a small balcony overlooking one of the two weir dams. But if you’re up for a little walk, head across the steel footbridge to the island and enjoy the 1.2-mile loop trail. The leisurely 30-minute walk takes you around the entire island, passing by the second weir dam on the backside, all the way to the opposite end with a view of the nearby dam. The paths are flat, covered with fine gravels, making it easy for just about anyone to enjoy the hike. If you’re not up for the entire hike, you can take a shortcut trail straight across the island to the second weir dam.
5. Sycamore Shoals State Park
Located along Highway 321 in Elizabethton, Sycamore Shoals State Park has a lot to offer any traveler. You can visit the newly-opened Interpretive Museum, take a walk through the life-size recreation of Fort Watauga, or you can strike out on the short 2-mile Mountain River Trail.
The trail begins at the end of the parking lot next to the main building and winds along the Watauga River. It is flat, covered with fine gravels, and an easy walk or a great place to enjoy a jog. The trail has a few information signs along the way, one of them noting the point where the Overmountain Men crossed the shoals of the river in 1780. The end of the trail loops around and brings you back again, where you can cross a large open field often used for live demonstrations such as the Saga of Sycamore Shoals, bringing you to the recreation of Fort Watauga.
Spring is a great time of year. The clocks of sprung forward. The days are getting longer. The temperatures are getting warmer. It is a great time of year to get outside for a short walk, a simple day-hike, or something even longer. Whatever you decide to do, just do it outside and do it in Northeast Tennessee.