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Discovering the Tennessee Blue Ridge

David A. Ramsey • Jan 13, 2019 at 8:00 AM

Among the various outdoor-related things about which you will frequently read in this column will be places of exceptional natural beauty and outdoor recreational opportunities. And honestly, I can't think of a better place with which to start than the one in which I'm sitting and writing right now, my native Northeast Tennessee.

More specifically I'm referring to the mountainous part of the region that includes portions of Greene, Unicoi, Washington, Carter, Sullivan and Johnson Counties. This rugged, stunning area of Tennessee rivals any in the entire Blue Ridge for its scenic qualities and outdoor opportunities. And despite the unequivocal, geographic fact (reference any official, regional Blue Ridge map) that this region actually forms much of the western rim of the Blue Ridge Province, business and civic leaders have never fully acknowledged or capitalized on our authentic Tennessee Blue Ridge identity — or the potentially enormous marketing opportunity it represents.

From time to time we hear references to this area such as "The Tennessee High Country," (the nearby Boone–Blowing Rock–Banner Elk area claimed "High Country" decades ago), or "The Tennessee Highlands," (accurate, but even the Cumberland Plateau, on the far side of the Upper Tennessee Valley, is considered a "highland" region of the state) and more recently the term "Appalachian Highlands" has been used. This last one is a fine, accurate regional name—if we are talking about the region occupied not only by northeastern Tennessee, but by eastern Kentucky, much of West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina, northern Georgia, northern Alabama and even a bit of upstate South Carolina. All are located in what can correctly be called the Appalachian highlands. But I'm beginning to digress here.

The Tennessee Blue Ridge, which comprises the mountainous portions of those counties mentioned earlier, is a veritable outdoor paradise. Think of a place, say within about a hundred miles or so, that you like to visit from time to time for a scenic and/or outdoor recreation related getaway. Chances are pretty good the Gatlinburg–Great Smoky Mountains area is up there near the top of your list. Or maybe Asheville and the Blue Ridge Parkway region, or Banner Elk–Boone–Blowing Rock.

Now think of exactly what it is about those places that draws you to them to hike, fish, bike, camp, paddle, four-wheel, photograph, explore and so on. I'm talking the actual outdoor stuff you love to do—not the cozy rental cabins, outlet shops or tourist "attraptions," these places have in common. If you live in or near the Tennessee Blue Ridge and believe that you go to those other places to do those things because the outdoor opportunities are better there, it's possible you don't really know your home area as well as you might. The reality is that many of the outdoor opportunities in those places are simply different — not necessarily better. A bit skeptical, are you? How about a little game of outdoor trivia?

1) Which whitewater river gorge is often called the deepest east of the Mississippi? (Some paddlers and a few locals will know this, but likely few others.)

2) Where, according to Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine, is the best mountain bike ride in the Blue Ridge? (It's not the Asheville area or vast Pisgah National Forest of western NC.)

3) Which do many fishermen and professional guides, from around the country, consider to be two of the top trout fishing rivers in America?

4) Name NE TN's only National Park unit (Nope— it ain't in the Great Smoky Mountains!)

5) What town did Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine name Top Adventure Town in the Blue Ridge for 2018?

6) Where was the original route supposed to be for the southern leg of the Blue Ridge Parkway?

Of course, heading out for new adventures in other regions of the country or world is part of what outdoor adventure is all about. But spend a little time getting to know better the adventures that await you here in our region—the more you do, the more you might find it harder to match the thrills you'll find right in your own Tennessee Blue Ridge back yard.

(Answers: 1. Nolichucky; 2. Rocky Fork; 3. Watauga & South Holston; 4. Appalachian National Scenic Trail; 5. Johnson City; 6. From Linville, NC northwest over Carver's Gap and through Carter, Washington, Unicoi and Greene Counties toward the Smokies.)

David A. Ramsey is a regionally and nationally recognized outdoor photographer and writer. His new book, “ROCKY FORK: Hidden Jewel of the Blue Ridge Wild,” is available at www.ramseyphotos.com.

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