I’m going to say something that will probably get me in trouble: I’m not really that into football. In a college town like Knoxville, this is considered borderline heresy.
When Fall rolls around and everyone is breaking out their UT Orange, I’m usually giving Neyland Stadium a wide berth on my way to watch a different changing pallet: the ornamental, vibrant autumn colors of southern Appalachia. So if you’re like me and run from Big Orange fever as fast as you can or if you just need a brief respite from the swarms of people pouring into Knoxville on October weekends, stick around for this highlight reel of must see destinations in the nearby Tellico Plains and Fort Loudoun areas.
If you wake up early enough, you might be able to make it in time to see the fog rolling in from the lake over the wooden bulwarks of the reconstructed fort at Fort Loudoun State Historic Park. A pivotal hold against the French in the Seven Years War, the fort is now open to the public and is host to numerous reenactments and seasonal festivals throughout the year. But even if your visit doesn’t align with any official presentations, the placards and signage dispersed throughout the fort provide a nice peek into eighteenth-century America and there’s always at least one uniformed British soldier holding steady at the eastern gate. He is rather stiff (i.e. totally made out of wood) and could probably use a new paint job. If the fort’s not old enough for you, head over to Coker Creek south of Tellico Plains before lunch, where you can see part of the original Unicoi Turnpike that is over one thousand years old! Once all that history has worked up a sufficient appetite, head back to Tellico Plains and check out one the most famous eateries in the region, Tellico Grains Bakery.
Tellico Grains is a charming little bakery and a great place to carbo-load before an afternoon hike. Before it was a bakery, the building was the home of a local bank and the vault is still intact and in active use as a storage space for baking ingredients. Conveniently, it doubles as a bunker for employees during tornado season. Stone-ground and wood-fired, the bread produced here makes some of the best rolls, pastries, sandwiches and pizza around. If you make it in on a Saturday, do yourself a favor and order one of their brick oven pizzas. But if you stop in any other time (save Sunday and Monday, when they’re closed), their sandwiches are a more-than-sufficient substitute. But keep in mind that all of their lunch options are made fresh to order, so either be ready to hang out in this friendly little shop for awhile (which I highly recommend) or call ahead. After you’ve topped out your gluten capacities, check out some of the other shops around Tellico Plains and let your food digest. When you’re ready, hop back in the car and head toward Bald River Falls.
Take the Cherohala Skyway (TN 165) east to Turkey Creek Road. When Turkey Creek ends, turn left onto River Road and you’ll see Bald River Falls in a little over two miles. Towering at ninety feet, many say these are the most beautiful falls in the region and for good reason. Numerous cascades form these wide, powerful falls that pour over the final stretch of the Bald River before meeting up with the Tellico. It’s a great photo-op, but easy access also means crowds, especially on weekends and holidays. Find a parking spot that won’t block the flow of traffic and be careful as you walk along the road and bridge. Once you’ve fully taken in the falls and taken what feels like every couple’s picture at their pleading behest, head up the Bald River Falls Trail and trace the river upstream into the densely wooded forest. Only a small percentage of the tourists that gather at the base of the falls venture very far up the trail, so it’s a great opportunity to ditch the crowds and have a more secluded stroll. You’ll see several smaller cascades along this verdant path, but unless you’ve parked another car where the trail terminates at FS 126, you’ll have to retrace the 5.6-mile length of the trail.
Back at the falls, you can either choose to head back east and return to Knoxville, or you can continue west on the Cherohala Skyline to where Tennessee meets North Carolina, about eighteen miles away. Just make sure that when you finally make it back to Knoxville, you check the score of the game, so that no one knows you skipped out.