American history, country music, Appalachian heritage and, of course, NASCAR: these are usually the first things that spring to mind when people think of Northeast Tennessee. But this area offers so much more, especially for adventurous travelers.
If you’re planning a getaway for friends, you’ll find that Northeast Tennessee offers a surprising variety of unique places to enjoy great food, entertainment and outdoor adventure.
During an escape to Northeast Tennessee you can savor locally roasted coffee and hear live music in eclectic cafes, roam the wilds of the Cherokee National Forest, or just relax in a rustic cabin and enjoy some good old Southern charm. With inviting cuisine, diverse outdoor recreation, and off-the-beaten path fun, Northeast Tennessee has everything you need (and more!) for your next getaway with friends. Here are some ideas to help you create your perfect itinerary.
Where to Get Caffeinated
A day of adventure and sightseeing can hardly begin without a splash of coffee and something tasty to munch on. The quaint Bloom Cafe and Listening Room in downtown Bristol offers something for every mood—fresh Portland-roasted coffee for those early mornings, cafe-style food for lunchtime cravings and draft beer paired with live entertainment for the evening hours. Bloom also hosts various community events such as workshops and other unique performances, and, of course, visitors will always find fresh flower arrangements on every table.
Much of the coffee you’ll find in Northeast Tennessee originates at The Coffee Company in Elizabethton, the region’s only full-time roaster and supplier of coffee to many local businesses. In addition to caffeine drinks, The Coffee Company offers an extensive cafe menu that includes German-style pastries made fresh each day.
In Johnson City, you’ll find The Coffee Company’s arabica blends at The Willow Tree Coffeehouse and Music Room. Part coffee shop, part book store, part music venue and art gallery, this cozy abode serves up soups, sandwiches, bagels and more alongside tunes from local musicians. With steamy espresso in the mornings and mini-concerts in the evenings, The Willow Tree has all the right vibes for a perfect beginning or end to your day.
Perhaps the funkiest spot to get your morning jolt is The Corner Cup, located smack in the middle of Jonesborough’s historic district. Fondly known as "Jonesborough’s Living Room," The Corner Cup offers all the usuals, from specialty espresso drinks to locally baked muffins and cookies. During the weekends, the cafe serves sweet and savory crepes, and if you’re lucky you’ll bump into Deb, the Wyoming native who opened the shop in 2015.
Finding Nearby Adventure
For a long day in the woods, you can’t beat the 9-mile Pinnacle Mountain Fire Tower Trail near Unicoi. The busy bike-friendly and dog-friendly path winds to the top of 3,520-foot Buffalo Mountain, where you’ll find one of only four remaining fire towers in the Cherokee National Forest. From the tower you’ll have views of nearby towns as well as several of the region’s most impressive peaks, such as Unaka Mountain, Roan Mountain and Mount Mitchell.
Connecting Johnson City and Elizabethton, the 10-mile paved Tweetsie Trailis Tennessee’s newest and longest rails-to-trails project. The railroad that once ran this course was nicknamed "tweetsie" because of it’s unique whistle, and the name has been revived for the multi-purpose path that offers a smooth, easy place for outdoor recreation amid nature and historic sites.
Located just a mile off of the Tweetsie Trail in Johnson City, Tannery Knobs Park will soon offer 40 acres of bike trails for all skill levels. The heavily forested park is within riding distance of Johnson City’s downtown area, and it will provide a series of progressive trails for beginner to expert riders (and walkers and runners, too). The park’s first phase of trails is slated to open in late 2017 and will offer miles-long views of the surrounding Appalachian Mountains.
For fishing, hiking and sightseeing, a detour to Roan Mountain State Park promises plenty of activities to keep you moving all day. With 12 miles of hiking trails and an abundance of creeks to cast your line into, this 2,000-acre wooded park is a gem of Northeast Tennessee. If you want to extend your time among the wildflowers and trees, the park offers fully-outfitted cabins and campgrounds tucked at the base of the towering Roan Mountain.
For a great day-long outing, visit Kingsport, which boasts Tennessee’s largest city-owned park. Spanning 3,550 acres, the Bays Mountain Park nature preserve includes a planetarium, ropes course, 38 miles of trails, and a native animal habitat with wolves, bobcats, reptiles, and raptors.
If you and your friends like motorized fun, check out Doe Mountain Recreation Area in Mountain City, where old logging roads have been converted into 800 acres of ATV trails. If pavement is more your style, the 33-mile stretch of highway between Bristol and Mountain city known as The Snake is sure to have you white-knuckled and grinning as you navigate nearly 500 curves on this scenic route.
Where to Unwind
It can’t be denied—part of the joy of getting outside is looking forward to that post-adventure meal, and Northeast Tennessee has plenty of local hangouts with just the right stuff. For a taste of the region’s heritage, pop in at the Tennessee Hills Distillery in Jonesborough for a sample of their award-winning liquor. You might feel like you’ve traveled back in time as you sit in the Civil War-era building and sip on spirits made from locally grown corn and centuries-old recipes.
For a modern rustic atmosphere in Johnson City, stop in at Label Restaurant after you’re done hitting the trail. A variety of appetizers, sandwiches, and entrees are sure to satisfy the after-adventure cravings of everyone in your party. For a perfect, relaxing end to your day, pair your meal with craft beers or a selection of specialty bourbon or scotch.
A more casual but equally delicious dining experience can be found at Phil’s Dream Piton the highway between Johnson City and Kingsport. In 2008, Phil cashed in his 401(k) to open this roadside joint with the mission of serving delicious, affordable barbecue to families in his community and everyone passing through. In addition to the barbecue pit classics, Phil also serves three special sauces and an irresistible selection of homemade desserts.
When Tiny Roberson started making moonshine in his garage, he didn’t intend to open a business. But, as his moonshine grew more popular, and Tennessee began licensing white whiskey distilleries, Roberson soon put Piney Flats on the map with the East Tennessee Distillery. Including a dozen flavors from caramel to honey ginseng, Roberson’s Mellomoon Moonshine offers a taste of Appalachian tradition. Stop by the distillery to meet the man who makes it all happen and enjoy a taste of his outlaw-style shine.
A Good Night’s Rest
The Carnegie Hotel in Johnson City promises to be nothing short of luxurious. The hotel merges antique decor with modern amenities, providing guests with a unique and relaxing experience. While you’re there, treat yourself to a meal at Wellington’s Restaurant or a rejuvenating treatment at the in-house spa.
For a more rustic getaway, the Watauga Lakeshore Resort offers lodge-style rooms and cabins for guests who want to enjoy the great outdoors alongside some modern comforts. Tucked inside the expanses of Cherokee National Forest, the Watauga Lake area provides visitors with plenty of hiking trails and other recreational opportunities, plus all the fun that comes with being on the lakefront.
If you’re truly looking for an outdoor experience, set up camp at the Woodsmoke Campgroundin Unicoi. The family-operated campground offers tent and RV sites, as well as amenities like picnic tables and a bath house. Located near the Pinnacle Fire Tower trailhead, the campground offers peaceful seclusion without being too far from town.
Written by Madison Eubanks for RootsRated in partnership with Northeast Tennessee Tourism.