Holston Mountain is one of our region’s iconic summits and is a fantastic place to visit during fall color season, whether you are on foot or simply touring by auto. Holston Mountain is a long northeast-trending ridge, stretching 30 miles from Elizabethton, Tennessee to Damascus, Virginia. Trails extend almost its entire length. The most southwesterly section, near Low Gap Campground, is a hodge-podge of road and paths. The Holston Mountain Trail covers middle segment of the mountain and is where the hike to Flint Rock, a natural open stone break in the forest, takes place.
Here is a quick overview of this 7.0-mile there and back hike. First, follow a fire tower access road, then join a remote ridge-running footpath, dropping to Flint Mill Gap. Take the Flint Mill Trail to a high elevation stream and bog before reaching Flint Rock and stellar views of South Holston Lake and the mountain and ridges beyond.
On the drive to the trailhead, you will pass the Blue Hole, one of the chilliest and most scenic swimming holes in the area. A jump in the Blue Hole will shed any sweat from the hike, and will probably leave you with goose bumps on your skin from the cold aqua.
Begin the Holston Mountain Trail on the shoulder of Holston High Knob. Leave Forest Road 56, passing around a pole gate. Walk the double track tower access, Forest Road 56A, easterly along Holston Mountain. At .2 mile, a grassy forest road leads left — stay right, rising by switchbacks amid oak, sassafras, mountain laurel and red maple. Keep rising, crisscrossing under a powerline.
At 1.0 mile, the tower access road makes a hard left and you can see the metal Holston High Knob tower, perched at 4,136 ft. This 100 ft. steel lookout tower, closed to public access, is a Mississippi transplant. It was moved here in the 1940s, replacing an old wooden tower that burned. Nowadays, fire watching is done by air, but this lookout was manned until the late 1980s.
The signed and blazed Holston Mountain Trail begins at this hard left near the tower. Pick up a single track footpath continuing northeast along the ridgeline, shaded by high canopy of hardwoods. The forest floor is open but often thick with low brush in summer, obscuring the trailbed. In winter, the trailbed shows clear and distinct. Compared to other mountain trails this path is amazingly free of rocks, making the hiking easy.
You are heading down more than not along the ridge nose. The Holston River drainage lies to your left, with Stony Creek cutting the valley to your right. Great hickory and oak forests spread over Holston Mountain, under which lie acorns aplenty in fruitful falls. These mast-producing woods are essential for wildlife. Reach a gap at 1.8 miles. A spring, the origin of Big Creek, which flows into South Holston Lake, lies to your left.
Top a knob at 2.1 miles, then resume your downgrade. In fall, asters and goldenrod rise purple and yellow, followed by the turning of the hardwoods overhead. This is an improvement over the acres of stinging nettle of summer – if you are here then wear long pants to avoid the itch. At 2.6 miles, the descent steepens. Make one long switchback before coming to Flint Mill Gap at 3.0 miles. Here, the Holston Mountain Trail keeps straight, joining a closed forest road. Another closed forest road comes in on your far left.
Join the Flint Mill Trail, a singletrack path heading left, west, from the gap. A sign clearly marks the way. Pass a wildlife clearing on your right, then dip into a biologically rich, high elevation bog and spring branch. There is a campsite here. Step over the spring branch at 3.2 miles, then climb into a south-facing xeric hardwood forest of pine, black gum, mountain laurel and beds of galax. Look for young chestnut trees rising to a hiker’s height before succumbing to the chestnut blight. Pass a horse hitching rack on your right.
At 3.5 miles, emerge onto the open outcrop of carved-upon Flint Rock. The stone protrusion angles toward the sky, creating a slender perch. As you stand atop Flint Rock, ridges and valleys of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia stretch to the horizon. In the near, the aquatic arms of South Holston Lake distend among woods and islands. Beyond is open country. Clinch Mountain frames the panorama.
A keen eye will spot the Tri-Cities airport. Also, you can look back, southward on Holston Mountain, and see the Holston High Knob tower this hike passes, as well as a host of other towers at Holston High Point. After rains, highland streams flowing from Holston Mountain are clearly audible. The return trip is mostly uphill, but a sweaty workout can be a good excuse to jump in the Blue Hole on the way home.
Even if it is too cold to swim, stop and visit the Blue Hole, a superlative swimming spot on Mill Creek. Here, a series of stone-lipped falls settle in deep and cool pools bordered by rock amphitheaters. It is but a short walk to the stream and its rocky gorge. The only drawback is trash sometimes left by thoughtless visitors.
To reach the trailhead from exit 24 on I-26 near Johnson City, follow the signs for Elizabethton, joining US 321 north/TN 67 east. Travel for 8.6 miles to reach US 19E and a traffic light. Turn left, now joining US 19E north. Follow US 19E north a short distance to reach the TN 91 north exit, Stony Creek, Shady Valley (Coming from Bristol Highway it is 8.3 miles to the TN 91 north exit on US 19E south). Follow TN 91 north for 10.0 miles to turn left on Panhandle Road. Look for the sign for Blue Hole and Low Gap Campground.
At .9 mile, Panhandle Road becomes Forest Road 56, then immediately passes the Blue Hole on your left. Continue up Forest Road 56 a total of 4.4 miles from TN 91 to reach the mountain crest and a sharp left turn where FR 56 becomes FR 202. On the right here, you will see a gated road, FR 56A, and the beginning of the hike. Do not park in front of the gate.