“We’ve just always come up here,” Cindy Booth said, relaxing at a picnic table on their favorite campsite. “It’s just cool and nice on the hot days.”
They were set up with a camper, tent, cooking area and satellite dish. Their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter had just come by for a Sunday dinner of burgers around the campfire.
They were among several families scattered among the Rock Creek campground’s 38 sites, 33 of which allow campers and five of which are tent-only. The campground is popular throughout the season, said Margaret Rice who, with her husband Frank, is the campground host. The season is weather-dependent and typically runs from April through November.
On the same Sunday afternoon, the concrete pond that’s commonly known as “Rock Creek Pool” was full of children swimming, wading, splashing and jumping off an elevated platform. Several of them belonged to the Briggs family, who had come to picnic on pizza and enjoy the water. While the other children swam, 13-year-old Jesse and 10-year-old Dalston readily showed off the salamanders they’d uncovered in the stream that feeds into the pool.
Emma and Gabriel Williams, ages 7 and 5, started out wading in the shallow water of the stream but ventured into the pool fully-clothed, splashing each other in the sunshine.
“Everybody should enjoy the mountains,” said their dad, Richard Williams, who brought them from Johnson City to enjoy the outdoors. “This isn’t that rugged; there are bathrooms, but on the walking trails [you can] get out and enjoy nature.”
The biggest attraction along the park’s network of walking trails is the 1.5-mile hike to Rock Creek Falls, a scenic double waterfall that tumbles down into a small, moss-covered canyon.
When I started up the rocky creekside trail in the late afternoon, it was gray and damp, lined with rhododendron and shaded by towering poplars and magnolias. Most of the trail runs through the Unaka Mountain Wilderness.
“I’ve been up there a lot,” said Steve Overbeck of Jonesborough, who was visiting the park with his friends and girlfriend. “It’s a nice walk, and once you get up to the waterfall, it just makes it worth the effort of trying to get there.”
With several stops for photos, the hike took about an hour. With several creek crossings, hiking sandals proved to be an excellent choice of footwear. The fast-moving water was low and I could walk across the rocks, but from the logs and ropes left by others across the stream, it appeared that the crossings might be deep and dangerous when the creeks are high.
Other visitors to the park told me that black bears frequent the area, but I wasn’t lucky enough to see any; aside from insects, I didn’t see much wildlife. Along the trail, I said hello to several families hiking back from the falls. When I reached the end of the trail, Rock Creek Falls was directly in front of me, a double waterfall that tumbles down over moss-covered rocks into a small pool. While the stream that meandered down from there was only a trickle, it was clear from the logs strewn at the base of the falls that the creek can be powerful when it rains.
Rice said the day use fee for the park, which includes the trails, picnic area, pool and playground, is $2 per car; camping is $15 per night or $10 for seniors and the handicapped. Almost all of the campsites include electric and water hookups, with access to water and dump stations. Site selection is on a first-come, first-served basis.
The park’s network of walking trails connects to the Appalachian Trail, and the pool (now closed for the season) is typically open from May through September.
The park gates are open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and no alcohol is allowed in the park. In the summer, there are sometimes free Friday night concerts at the park’s outdoor amphitheater. Private events – including weddings, baptisms, birthday parties, showers and family reunions – have also been held there.
“It’s peaceful here,” said Rice, explaining why she and her husband, who live locally in Erwin, enjoy living seven months out of the year in their camper at Rock Creek. “You have warm days and cool nights; we’re about 10 degrees cooler than downtown.”
In the fall, she said, “The foliage is beautiful.”
Rock Creek Recreation Area is located just outside Erwin in the Cherokee National Forest. From I-26, it can be reached via Exit 36 or Exit 37. For more information, contact the Unaka Ranger District at 423-638-4109.