Nestled in the Smoky Mountains near Johnson City, just north of the national park, Carter County is home to incredible outdoor recreation, beautiful scenery, fascinating history and small town charm. We’ve found the best places to hike, paddle, bike and go back in time near Elizabethton, Watauga Lake, Roan Mountain and more.
Best Place to Hike
Roan Mountain is a gorgeous five-mile series of balds (mountain summits covered in thick grassy meadows) that make for a great hiking excursion. Park at the Carver’s Gap Trailhead on the Tennessee-North Carolina border and hike one of the most scenic sections of the Appalachian Trail. It’s an easy three-quarter-mile, one-way hike to the first bald, Round Bald, where you’ll find incredible views of the surrounding mountains and forests. It’s particularly beautiful in the fall when the leaves turn. Continue on to Jane Bald for a 3-mile roundtrip hike, or Grassy Bald to make it a 5-mile, roundtrip hike with 1,300 feet of elevation gain.
For a more mild, but equally stunning stroll, park just across the border in North Carolina at the Roan Mountain Recreation Area and take an easy, paved path through the world’s largest naturally occurring rhododendron garden. Perched high up in the mountains, these gardens are often above the clouds which lends them an ethereal air. Visit mid-to-late June to see them in peak bloom where a sea of fuchsia blossoms covers the landscape.
If you’re looking for more trails, camping and cabin stays, head to Roan Mountain State Park.
Best Place to Get Out on the Water
If you want to get out on the water, head to Watauga Lake. Surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest, this beautiful 10-square-mile lake is a great place to go boating. Rent a pontoon boat at Lakeside Marina to explore the water or enjoy a day at the “beach” and take in views of sailboats on the lake’s waters.
Afterwards, don’t miss lunch at Southern Craft BBQ at the marina. Enjoy barbeque fare like pulled pork and burnt ends alongside fried catfish and homemade sauces. The restaurant has local beers on tap, a beautiful patio, and indoor seating with picture windows, so you can take in views of the lake.
If you prefer paddle sports, Wilbur Lake, just north of Watauga Lake, isn’t open to motor boats, making for a serene place to kayak or stand-up paddleboard. Boots Off Hostel in Hampton rents paddle crafts. If you’re looking for more of a whitewater experience, Watauga Kayak offers kayak and raft trips on the Watauga River.
Best Place to Bike
Rent a bike at Pedals on Rails in Elizabethton and ride the 10-mile Tweetsie Trail to Johnson City. This rail trail follows the bed of the former Tweetsie Railroad and is now a crushed gravel bike path. It’s a beautiful ride that will take you by charming Elizabethton, through the forest and into Johnson City. Join the trail at Blue Ridge Drive and State Line Road in Elizabethton and ride as far as you like before turning around.
Afterwards, grab lunch at The Coffee Company which serves both coffee and breakfast and lunch fare like salads and soups. Be sure to spend the afternoon wandering Elizabethton’s antique stores and then take a walk across the town’s beautiful white covered bridge.
Best Place to Experience History
Sycamore Shoals was the first community to declare itself free and independent from British rule in America four years before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Today, it’s a state park that’s a great place to learn about Revolutionary War history. See the Carter Mansion, the oldest standing frame house in Tennessee, a replica of Fort Watauga and take in a variety of living history events. If you’re in town in June, you won’t want to miss Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals. This play is Tennessee’s official outdoor drama and brings to life the history of the colonists who settled in Sycamore Shoals. The play runs every weekend evening in June.
Learn more at tourcartercounty.com.