A Guide to the Perfect Outdoor Weekend in Johnson City

Just 25 miles from downtown Johnson City, the Roan Highlands of Tennessee offer some of the best views along the entire Appalachian Trail
Just 25 miles from downtown Johnson City, the Roan Highlands of Tennessee offer some of the best views along the entire Appalachian Trail Dallas Krentzel
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Johnson City, TN was once a major railroad hub for the Southeastern United States. These days, restaurants and breweries inhabit the historic trail depots, and Johnson City is a bustling college town filled with bluegrass, farmers markets, and festivals. Nestled in the idyllic Appalachian Ridge and Valley Province just West of the Blue Ridge Mountains and surrounded by state parks, the opportunities to get out on the trail are seemingly endless. Here is a weekend guide to the city's hottest restaurants, best-loved trails, and off the beaten path adventure.

Start Off Right

Live music at the Willow Tree Cafe and Music House.
Live music at the Willow Tree Cafe and Music House. Courtesy of Willow Tree Cafe

Before you take off on the trail, drop by The Willow Tree Coffeehouse and Music Room for a latte and a breakfast bagel sandwich (locally sourced from Wheeler's Bagels.) Cozy and eclectic, Willow Tree has everything you could want from a funky community coffee house: brightly painted brick hung with local art, live music in the evenings, and fresh coffee roasted just down the road in Elizabethton. A lunchtime menu offers a selection of homemade soups, wraps, and salads.

The Acoustic Coffeehouse, favored by students at East Tennessee State University, offers the full spectrum of pre and post adventure treats, from a full espresso bar to an impressive lineup of craft beers and live music events. Another local hot spot is the Brew Plum Coffee Bar, located in the Nelson Fine Art Center on East Main Street. Fuel up with a nitro cold-brewed coffee and a slice of cinnamon walnut coffee cake, or a cappuccino with a shot of with house-made pumpkin spice syrup.

Hit the Trail

Roan Mountain State Park is famous for its brilliant rhododendron blossoms.
Roan Mountain State Park is famous for its brilliant rhododendron blossoms. Keith Callahan

Because of its location, situated among mountains and state parks, Johnson City offers an abundance of opportunity for hiking in the area. For more information on trailheads and hikes, or if you just need to stock up on supplies, Mahoney's Outfitters is a great place to check out before hitting the trails.

From downtown, you can hop right on The Tweetsie Trail, a 10-mile greenway between Johnson City and Elizabethton. What was once the Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina railroad line is now a scenic pathway of crushed blue stone, cutting through forested groves and across railroad trestles to connect two historic cities. A great source of community pride, this unique trail—at times pastoral, at times urban—will provide a great day of biking, jogging, and site-seeing.

Only five minutes outside of town, Buffalo Mountain Park is a local classic. The White Rock trail winds up the north slope of Buffalo Mountain, gaining 1,500 feet in 1.5 miles and providing rippling mountain views that extend into Virginia and North Carolina. In the spring, take the Lady Slipper Loop off the Fork Knob trail to see the forest floor awash with the delicate, low lying Lady Slipper blossoms.

Don't miss the canopied trails and breathtaking vistas of Roan Mountain State Park, famous for its wealth of rhododendron gardens. This sublime swath of wilderness is situated in the Blue Ridge of the Appalachian Mountains and offers plenty of great options for hiking. One of the most rewarding trails in the park is the Chestnut Ridge Trail, a rigorous 2.3 miles that dips and climbs multiple times before culminating at the Strawberry Mountain Lookout. From here you can view a stretch of the stunning Roan Mountain Highlands, from Big Hump Mountain all the way to Carvers Gap.

If you're up for an epic hike, traverse the Highlands on this 14 mile section of the Appalachian Trail between Carvers Gap and Highway 19. You can accomplish this in one marathon day, or split up the miles and enjoy some truly spectacular backpacking along the way. This trek meanders across grassy balds and plunges into mountain gaps with nonstop, unforgettable views of ethereal Appalachian beauty.

Where to Grab Lunch

Dig into a slice of farm-to- table pizza.
Dig into a slice of farm-to- table pizza. Courtesy of The Main Street Pizza Company

Your visit to Johnson City would be remiss without a visit to The Main Street Pizza Company for lunch. Many of their ingredients come straight from their very own River Creek Farm on the banks of the Nolichucky River in Limestone, TN. For fresh, bright flavors, you simply can't beat farm-to-table cuisine! To start if off, pick from an array of salads and rustic-creative appetizers (pancetta cups with thick-cut salt cured spiced Italian bacon are particularly satisfying after a morning hike.) Sip a tall glass of tart Seasonal Shrub Soda or a house-made ginger beer as you peruse the wide selection of award-winning pizzas. You can even design your own pie, but with over 50 toppings available, you might find it to be a little (deliciously) daunting.

Get Cultured

Cherry tomatoes at the Johnson City Farmers Market.
Cherry tomatoes at the Johnson City Farmers Market. Melina Coogan

From snow peas in May to bok choy in October, watch historic downtown Johnson City spring to life in a cornucopia of tastes, colors, and music at the twice-weekly Farmers Market . On Wednesdays and Saturdays from 7am-2pm, stroll through the vendors selling honey, homemade soap, and crafts; sample gooseberries, sorghum syrup, and muscadine grapes; and savor a fragrant, freshly baked croissant with your morning coffee. Each market features a live musical performance from local favorites such as the Smoky Mountain Blue Grass Band, the Old Time Band, and more.

Post-Adventure Bites and Brews

The patio is guaranteed to be kicking on a Friday night.
The patio is guaranteed to be kicking on a Friday night. Courtesy of Yee-Haw Brewing Company

Winding trails and mountain traverses are guaranteed to leave you thirsty. Head on over to Yee-Haw Brewing Company and kick back with a cold pint of their famous Eighty-Shilling Scottish Ale, silky smooth and with bold notes of caramel and coffee. Located in the refurbished Tweetsie Railroad Depot in downtown Johnson City, the brewery is evidence of a growing trend towards restoration and revitalization of the downtown region.

After a drink at Yee-Haw, drop by Tupelo Honey Cafe, yet another downtown eatery located in an old train depot. This is the spot for scratch-made southern comfort cuisine, with such delicacies as fried green tomatoes, buttermilk fried chicken breast, and goat cheese grits poppers. If you're looking for something on the lighter side, choose from a tasty selection of salads and veggie bowls, but be warned, the biscuit, butter and fresh strawberry jam that comes alongside every meal is pretty hard to resist.

Holy Taco Cantina is the beloved Johnson City Mexican institution, legendary for their house-made guacamole. Affordable prices, bold flavors, and excellent service have long established the Holy Taco as the go-to dinner spot for locals and East Tennessee State University students. Ask to be seated on the patio, which has a charming, old-city vibe of exposed brick and climbing vines. Dig into a plate of pulled-pork tacos, sip a margarita on the rocks, and enjoy.

Where to Get a Good Night's Sleep

Uncle Johnny's Nolichucky Hostel provides shuttles, showers, room, board and good company.
Uncle Johnny's Nolichucky Hostel provides shuttles, showers, room, board and good company. G N Bassett

Appalachian Trail thru-hikers will fondly recall Uncle Johnny's Nolichucky Hostel as an oasis of hot showers, clean sheets, and snickers bars. For the rest of us, Uncle Johnny's provides an inexpensive, off-the-beaten-path experience in rustic lodging. Private cabins are available to rent, each one cozy, furnished, and complete with its own tiny front porch. Share meals and play card games in the common areas with other explorers, travelers, and hikers passing through. Shuttle services, gear rentals, and other services are available to help you get out and explore the nearby Cherokee National Park and Nolichucky River.

Cabins are also available to rent at the Whidden Fly Fishing Lodge on the the banks of the Watauga River. These spacious cabins tucked away into a quiet forest are only five miles from downtown, ideal for anyone hoping to enjoy a rural getaway, yet also experience the Johnson City nightlife.

Perhaps you're hoping to treat yourself to a night in the heart of the city. If so, Carnegie Hotel and Spa is just what you're looking for. Step into the lobby and you will find yourself transported to the days when hotels were the paragon of luxury and grandeur. The price is quite reasonable for such elegant accommodations, which include an on-site spa for deep relaxation after a rigorous day in the mountains.

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