Tennessee in Autumn
A brilliant fall red touches the trees in a state whose mountains and meadows are filled with history, the heritage of storytelling, the rattling echo of 19th-century stagecoaches, the vibrant activity of artists, the peace of farms hidden in hollows.
Travel the loop of Northeast Tennessee towns around Interstate 81 and you’ll pass the Great War Path of the Cherokee. Visit towns along the loop and you’ll be stopping at the relay stations that stagecoaches and pioneer wagons used along the Great Stage Road on the way to Cumberland Gap. History lessons abound in this tip of the state.
Bring your camera and capture autumn-colored mountains, a rustic cabin or an inn that has watched centuries go by in Tennessee’s oldest town. Bring your walking shoes for a forest exploration, town tour or down-home festival.
You may think you hear the sweet strains of old-time mountain music when you begin your tour of Tennessee’s first frontier at Bristol, a twin city that straddles the Tennessee-Virginia state line just off I-81. The town has been recognized by Congress as the Birthplace of Country Music and celebrates its history through a museum, a downtown mural and the Tennessee Ernie Ford Home on Anderson Street (540/466-3631). The museum, located at Bristol Mall, pays tribute to the area’s rich history of music and musicians (423/990-BCMA). You may hear an actual tune or two at the downtown mural depicting the first country music recording in Bristol. A twice-a-week farmers’/craft market and seating for concerts have recently been added at the mural.
Sporting and outdoor fun in Bristol includes the Bristol Motor Speedway (423/764-1161), a day of golf at one of several area courses or boating on South Holston Lake, just outside town on U.S. 421 (423/878-6931).
Take Tenn. 37 to nearby Blountville and visit Appalachian Caverns (423/323-2337) where you can take the usual tour or spelunkers can try a three-hour “wild” tour. Later, stop by Countryside Vineyards & Winery (423/323-1660) for a taste tour.
Long Island or the Model City?
Take U.S. 11W to reach Kingsport, once known as Long Island when the Cherokee regarded this area along the Holston River as sacred. This third of the Tri-Cities (along with Bristol and Johnson City) was chartered as a model industrial center in 1907, and George Eastman chose it for his chemical company.
Exchange Place on Orebank Road was once a plantation and relay station on the Great Stage Road. Today, the collection of restored 1800s buildings displays life on a 19th-century farm. Demonstrations include quilting, candle dipping and weaving (423/288-6071). Another stagecoach stop was Netherland Inn. The fully restored, three-story inn includes a log cabin children’s museum and schoolhouse depicting a child’s life in the 18th and 19th centuries (423/246-6262). Nearby Allandale Mansion is Kingsport’s “white house,” a Georgian mansion set on a 25-acre estate (423/229-9422).
After touring the town’s history, visit Bay’s Mountain Park & Planetarium off I-181 to explore the area’s natural wonders. The 3,000-acre nature preserve has 25 miles of hiking trails, lake barge rides and wildlife habitats where visitors can see native animals such as otters, gray wolves and bobcat. A planetarium theater and farmstead museum round out more than one day’s fun (423/229-9447).
The Ebb and Flow of History
“Historic” is nearly always said in the same breath as Rogersville. Travel west on U.S. 11W to the 1789-established town, one of the oldest in the state. The pre-Civil War Hawkins County Courthouse is still in use today. Three presidents hung their hats at Hale Springs Inn on Main Street, operated continuously from 1824-1998.
In an area once known for springs rumored to possess medicinal properties, the Ebbing and Flowing Spring, four miles from the downtown, was especially revered. Its tidal-like water flow changes between a trickle and a flow of five hundred gallons per minute every three hours.
Take Tenn. 70 and 33 to Sneedville to visit Elrod Falls, dual cascades of water with a pool below for swimming. Or delve into the Melungeon history of the town (423/733-4524).
The Town With the Extra “E” (and Lots More)
Take Tenn. 70 to U.S. 11E to reach Greeneville and tour the downtown tailor shop and the home of President Andrew Johnson, who began his political career here as mayor (423/638-3551). Also downtown is the General Morgan Inn, created from four interconnecting railroad hotels of the 1800s where guests can dine and lodge in four-star style (1-800-223-2679).
Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park, located in nearby Limestone off U.S. 11E, preserves the frontiersman’s birthplace on the banks of the Nolichuckey River. A reconstruction of Crockett’s cabin, a museum, camping and swimming are park features (423/257-2167).
Tennessee’s Oldest Town Today
Founded in 1779 when East Tennessee was part of North Carolina, Jonesborough was later the capital of the Lost State of Franklin. Take U.S. 11E to reach a town chock full of tales of other times such as future president Andrew Jackson’s unsuccessful duel or the publication of the first periodicals on the abolition of slavery. It seems only natural that the town would become a magnet for storytellers. The Storytelling Foundation is headquartered here, and each fall the National Storytelling Festival attracts listeners from across the country (1-800-952-8392).
From the Salt House of Civil War times to numerous inns of the 1800s, historic buildings are the norm in the downtown. Stay the night at Hawley House Bed & Breakfast, the oldest building in the state’s oldest town. The B & B features 18th-century logs, stone walls and massive fireplaces with modern conveniences (1-800-753-8869).
The University Town
Johnson City, on U.S. 11E/19W, part of the Tri-Cities, has its modern side – a university (East Tennessee State) and a medical school (Quillen College of Medicine). However, the town hasn’t forgotten its roots. The Archives of Appalachia, at ETSU, preserves the music, oral histories and crafts of the region’s heritage (423/439-4338). Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site, on South Roan Street, was the site of the battle for the Lost State of Franklin (423/926-3631). Rocky Mount, at nearby Piney Flats, is a living history site that preserves the U.S. Territorial Capital of 1790-1792 (1-888-538-1791).
Cyclists will think they’ve found paradise in the Bicycle Friendly-designated community, with several trails around town. Other sports include boating and water-skiing on Boone Lake in North Johnson City.
There are several B & Bs in town, or consider a luxurious stay at the new Carnegie Hotel, styled after the original Carnegie of 1891-1910 (423/979-6400).
Down in the Valley
Take I-181 from Johnson City to reach the town of Erwin, a beautiful green valley surrounded by mountains. Apples are a principal crop here and a cause for a celebration in October. Erwin was once an important railroad town; today this history is showcased at the Unicoi County Heritage Museum (423/743-9449). The 1903 building houses railroad memorabilia and Blue Ridge Pottery pieces (Erwin is the home of these collectibles). Adjacent to the museum is the Erwin Fish Hatchery, a learning experience for all ages (423/743-4712).
Take a peaceful autumn drive through the Cherokee National Forest that surrounds the town, or enjoy a rigorous day of hiking before a night of camping in Tennessee’s only national forest. Or try some of the wildest whitewater in the area on the Nolichuckey River, just outside Erwin. Nantahala Outdoor Center offers guided tours of the river (1-800-232-7238).
In nearby Unicoi (two miles from I-181), visit Farmhouse Gallery & Gardens to see the log cabin gallery of wildlife artist Johnny Lynch (1-800-952-6043).
Where It All Began
Elizabethton, off U.S. 19E, is where Northeast Tennessee truly was born. The first permanent settlement outside the 13 colonies was here, at Sycamore Shoals, which also served as a muster point for the Overmountain Men in the Battle of King’s Mountain. The park has a reconstructed fort and museum (423/543-5808). The nearby Doe River Covered Bridge in the downtown is one of the few remaining covered bridges in Tennessee.
Sixty miles of the Appalachian Trail run through Carter County from the Rhododendron Gardens of nearby Roan Mountain State Park, where breathtaking mountain views compete with the colorful blossoms (1-800-250-8620), to the shoreline of Watauga Lake, which offers fishing, boating, swimming and water-skiing. Visit Watauga Lakeshore Resort, a full-service facility with cottages, a restaurant overlooking the lake and a marina (423/725-2223). Or stay at Iron Mountain Inn in nearby Butler and enjoy outdoor activities plus a little pampering (888/781-2399).
Tennessee’s First Sunrise
End your trip by taking Tenn. 67 to Mountain City in the extreme northeastern tip of the state. The town was originally called Taylorsville but its name was changed in 1885 to more accurately identify the highest town in Tennessee. Enjoy a picnic by one of many streams in the area, play a round of golf with a view at Roan Valley Golf Course (423/727-7931) or hike the trails around Backbone Rock, a 100-foot-high wall of sandstone jutting off Holston Mountain. End the day with a night in an 1889 mansion, Prospect Hill B & B, on Main Street (423/727-0139).