Johnson City Press: Summer time means to head for the hills
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Summer time means to head for the hills

Jeff Birchfield • Jul 14, 2019 at 12:00 AM

The older I get, the more I appreciate these old mountains.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been able to hike the balds at Roan Mountain, spend a day in the Smokies with my kids, hike to Pinnacle Tower on Buffalo Mountain, pick huckleberries with my daughter on Unaka Mountain and see the wild ponies at Grayson Highlands Park.

This week, I’ve been on a camping trip with my brother in Kentucky close to Cumberland Falls, nicknamed the “Niagara of the South.”

With the outdoor activities and the fact I have more free time now than when the high school and college sports begin, summer has replaced autumn as my favorite season.

Don’t take that the wrong way, I love my job and feel fortunate to cover so many of our athletes, coaches and others in local sports, but it is nice to have the few weeks that I’m able to get out in the woods.

Sure, there is football in the fall, but it’s cathartic to get outside and experience nature during a summer day. Whether you’re into hiking, running, cycling, fishing or golf, those outdoor activities provide a welcome relief from the stress of everyday life.

I love seeing people so happy this time of year whether they’re posting on social media about riding their motorcycles or getting out in a boat. Don’t get me wrong, I love the beach and the short time I lived in Florida was great with so much to see and do, but there’s nothing like breathing mountain air.

There’s plenty to do here within a two-hour radius if you take advantage.

Beyond the Tri-Cities, there are great downtown areas in Knoxville, Asheville and Greenville, S.C. Of course, there are all the attractions in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville if you want to go on a day trip or a full-blown vacation.

I’m glad local cities and towns have been proactive in walking and cycling trails. Last Sunday, my best friend and I walked five miles on the Tweetsie Trail, while other favorite places of mine are Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton and Erwin’s Linear Trail.

The natural beauty is one thing that makes this area special and one of the most beautiful places in my opinion is Sill Branch Falls, which is an easy waterfall to get to. It’s particularly beautiful after a stretch of rain when the water is flowing heavy.

If you’re up for a drive or a good overnight trip, a couple of great waterfalls in Western North Carolina are Dry Falls, which you walk under, and Bridal Veil Falls, which you drive your car under.

If you’re more into the high peaks, Mount Mitchell is the highest point in the Eastern U.S. with an elevation of 6,684 feet.

When I think about growing up, being outdoors often meant farm work. While it was hard at the time, I appreciate the times spent with my dad working in the tobacco patch, hay field or cutting wood.

My dad also liked to take the short trips which is something passed down to me.

Two of the best days of my entire life were recent days in the mountains. A couple of weeks ago, my daughter and I spent most of the day on Unaka Mountain. There are so many great places on the mountain including Red Fork Falls, the spectacular overlook and Beauty Spot.

The one place to pick huckleberries, which are smaller than farm-raised blueberries, leads to a forested area where you feel the soft moss under your feet.

Another terrific trip was taking my girlfriend to see the wild ponies on the Fourth of July. The drive to Grayson Highlands park is just two hours from Johnson City, but it’s filled with great scenery. That day we had to hike a good ways before we saw the first group of ponies, but were met by a couple of other groups on the hike back and counted 22 overall.

We chose a more scenic drive through Damascus on the way back. After lunch, we drove through Shady Valley and then took Hwy. 421, nicknamed “The Snake,” to Mountain City. The drive past Watauga Lake provides more great scenery.

It was another reminder of how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful area and how great it is to head for the hills.

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