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The great hike near Johnson City, Tennessee features great views and several side trails. But beware the rogue grouse that attacked this hiker.
In the early 1990s, the US Forest Service agreed to a land exchange, and I believe Johnson City, Tennessee, got the better part of the deal. The forest service received the acreage it wanted, but that merely added to its vast land holdings, while the people of Johnson City and surrounding towns obtained a mountain with miles of trails and sweeping vistas located at their doorstep.
Buffalo Mountain’s 725 acres are now operated by Johnson City’s Parks and Recreation Department as a natural resource area and are home to an array of wildlife, including snakes, toads, frogs, turtles, salamanders, grouse and deer. The more than 200 species of wildflowers alone would be an enticement to return here throughout the changing seasons. Among those that may persist into fall are evening primrose, flowering spurge and horsebalm.
It remained overcast from the heavy rain the night before as I started hiking from the area’s picnic grounds. The procession of wildflowers began immediately, with the gradually ascending switchbacks of the Cascade Trail lined by touch-me-not and black cohosh. The latter, also commonly called fairy candles, have tall spikes of little white flowers whose small petals fall off soon after opening, leaving behind fluffy masses of tiny pistils and stamens.
I had read that Huckleberry Knob had a grand outlook onto Johnson City and, since it’s only a one-tenth-mile side trip, I ascended those few hundred feet to be greeted with what I have come to call the “jetliner view of the world.” The white surface of a cloudbank concealed everything below. All I could make out were the highest knobs of Buffalo Mountain stretching to the south and a couple of ridgelines that rose to the west of where I thought the city would be. The “jetliner view” always compensates by providing a “being on top of the world” feeling.
Back on the ascending main trail, it was obvious as to how the knob came by its name; huckleberry bushes were so thick that they almost obscured the pathway. Many people use the names huckleberry and blueberry interchangeably, but they are two distinct plants. The branches of blueberries have small warts and each berry will have more than 100 seeds. A huckleberry contains fewer than a dozen seeds and its twigs are wart-free.
Vegetation is returning to this portion of Buffalo Mountain where a wildfire swept across it in 2008, but many of the plants are still low-growing, providing additional views to the west. Darkening skies were the incentive for me to bypass the High Ridge Trail to the right at 2 miles into the hike. That route ascends (somewhat steeply) for .3 mile along a rocky sandstone pathway to Tip Top. I encourage you to take this short journey to the 3,330-foot summit if you’re here on a nice day as it has a far-reaching view that takes in Johnson City, Erwin, Jonesborough and The Pinnacle fire tower.
Continuing on the main trail, it’s only a few hundred feet to the Fort Knob Trail coming in from the left. If tired or running out of time, it’s possible to follow that descending pathway for .7 mile to bear right onto the Cascade Trail for an additional .4 mile to return to the picnic area trailhead.
To complete the circuit, I continued for .8 mile on the main route, now designated the Fork Ridge Trail, to another high point, this one bristling with cell phone towers a few feet off the trail. They were somewhat of a jarring reminder of the modern world after having walked within the beauty of the natural world for an hour or so.
The route name had changed again, becoming the White Rock Trail and soon reaching a rock outcropping known locally as Chimney Top. The hazy view, dotted by small wisps of fog and clouds, took in I-26 passing through fields of green as the four-lane heads northward from Erwin to Johnson City. Shortly after arriving, I experienced one of the most unusual wildlife encounters I’ve ever had.
I’ve witnessed many a grouse running ahead of me on a trail, acting out the broken wing gambit to lure me away from her chicks. However, this one waddled up to within inches of me, looked up with her brown and black eyes, and proceeded to follow me like a puppy dog as I wandered around, taking in different aspects of the view. I thought I left her behind when I walked to the White Rock viewpoint, but there she was a few moments later, again coming close. Thinking people may have been feeding her at this popular overlook, I reached out as if I had some food, but there was no reaction, she just continued following me around.
Pondering her behavior as I continued along the ridgeline, I was startled two minutes later when, transformed from her friendly persona, she burst out of the undergrowth, letting out short screeches (not the usual grouse hissing) and flying into my back, repeatedly beating her wings against my daypack. Not once, not twice, but three times she attacked, only leaving me alone when I evidently walked far enough away from her young to no longer be a perceived threat.
The rest of the journey was peaceful, with small ups and downs and a crossing of Hartsell Hollow, where a recent outing of school children reported finding dusky, two-lined and red-backed salamanders, along with some crawfish and a red eft.
Enjoy your hike on Buffalo Mountain—just beware the banshee grouse!
Find out more about Leonard’s hiking adventures at habitualhiker.com.