Views like this make hiking a pleasure.Photo/Johnny Molloy
In this outdoor writer job I travel a lot. And inevitably, after new friends learn I am from Johnson City, Tennessee, they invariably say, “Oh, what a beautiful area”, or “That is a pretty part of the country.” Know what? They are right. Residents of the greater Tri-Cities, including Southwest Virginia and western North Carolina, live in an incredibly scenic land, a place where mountains tower thousands of feet above bucolic valleys, a land where placid lakes lie still beneath resplendent ridges, a land where brawling rivers cut deep gorges through majestic highlands.
It is a land where elevation changes of over 5,000 feet create ecotones that mimic flora and fauna stretching the length of the Appalachians. Here, the spruce-fir forests on Roan Mountain contrast with the great oak woodlands found on the shores of Patrick Henry Lake at Warriors Path State Park. A host of ecosystems thrive in between elevations.
In this diverse terrain and habitat, we find variety in our hiking destinations. And I have written a book titled Five Star Trails: Tri-Cities of Tennessee & Virginia, detailing 40 hikes that cover our beautiful region.
We of the Mountain Empire (as our area is affectionately known) are blessed with abundant public lands on which to roam. Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest, Virginia’s Jefferson National Forest and North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest collectively avail hundreds of thousands of acres of lands laced with hundreds of miles of trails. State parks preserve special places we can visit via their pathways. Even urban parks in area cities provide quick nature escapes for hikers.
Our bountiful lands and trails are enhanced by the master path of the East, the most heralded and hiked footpath in our country, the Appalachian Trail. It courses some 220 miles in our midst, and is the spine from which a network of trails spread through local wildlands. The proximity of the AT and the trail towns of Damascus, Virginia and Erwin, Tennessee put hiking on the front burner of outdoor activities in our region.
Several hikes in this book use all or part of the AT. Hike from Watauga Dam along the spine of Iron Mountain, to gain views from outcrops near Vandeventer shelter. Soak in views from an old farm where the AT travels atop Cross Mountain. Climb to the crags known as High Rocks. Hike the AT through Damascus, Virginia, then to the backwoods before returning to town.
Hikes also examine fascinating flora of our region. Walk through the Emerald Forest atop Unaka Mountain, where a dense spruce forest forms storybook woodland. Traverse the open balds of Roan Mountain, contemplating their origin, and view its world famous wildflower gardens, where rhododendron blooms in concentrations unseen anywhere else on the planet.
Still other hikes are water oriented, with waterfalls as destinations. This includes some classic such as Laurel Falls and Margarette Falls, but also the lesser visited Lower Higgins Creek Falls in Unicoi County or the Falls of Little Stony near Dungannon, Virginia. Waterside treks include more than just cataracts. Hikes in this book also visit swimming holes, sunning rocks and fishing hotspots.
And then there are hikes that explore the fascinating geology of the region. The Great Channels of Virginia, recently opened to the public, present incredible views from Clinch Mountain and a maze of narrow passageways between massive sandstone pillars. The Devils Bathtub can be found along Devils Fork, a canyon filled with boulder fields, cliffs and cataracts.
Solitude can be found in our region. Hike with nothing but nature en route to Flint Rock on Holston Mountain Trail, then grab an unparalleled view of South Holston Lake. Bet you haven’t seen the falls along Hickey Fork, a seldom-visited aquatic gem. Been to Hidden Lake? That hike explores the recently acquired Rocky Fork tract in Unicoi and Greene Counties.
Moreover, don’t forget local and quick destinations. The Kingsport Greenbelt is a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon, walking along Reedy Creek. Bristol has Steele Creek Park, with its wildflower rich vales and wooded ridges. Buffalo Mountain Park rises above Johnson City, presenting grand mountain scenery minutes from downtown.
So hiking in the Tri-Cities can mean a ramble through the backcountry of the Bald Mountains, a trek to a crashing cascade, or a quick escape on a greenway near your house. It all depends on your mood, company and desires. So not only is the “where to hike” component covered, but so is “what type of hike.” As far as when: You can hike year-round in the Tri-Cities, whether it be in the heat of summer — where you can escape to the high country, or the chill of winter, where the trails of the lowlands can still be enjoyed no matter the temperatures.
That is where this book comes into play. The variety of hikes contained within its pages reflects the variety of opportunities in this region. I sought to include day hikes covering routes of multiple lengths, ranging from easy to difficult. Trail configurations are diverse as well — including out-and-back hikes, loops and balloon loops. Hike settings vary from the city of Kingsport to secluded rocky gorges to distant mountaintops.
The routes befit a range of athletic prowess and hiking experience. Simply scan through the table of contents, randomly flip through the book or utilize the hiking recommendations list included. Find your hike, get out there and enjoy it. And bring a friend, too. Enjoying nature in the company of another is a great way to enhance your relationship as well as escape from television, email, Internet and other electronic chains that bind us to the daily grind.
One last thing — there is a reason I live here. Having written outdoor guidebooks covering more than 20 states, I truly believe that we live in the best part of the best country on God’s green earth. May this book help you enjoy the wonderful rewarding trails of our region. It’s available on the Internet and at local retailers and outdoor shops.