Cherokee National Forest, Northeast Tennessee is home to fantastic trails that wind through lush mountains and gorgeous countryside. But, when you step off the trails you’ll discover even more treasures. Tucked away in the folds of the landscape are many “trail towns” that offer explorers a chance to grab a hearty meal, relax, and restore their supplies. To help you plan your next trek through Northeast Tennessee, we’ve highlighted 11 of our favorite trail towns.
Walking down Elizabethton’s historic Elk Avenue is like a trip down memory lane, with its 1920s-style brick buildings, antique malls, and dress shops. Begin your day at The Coffee Company, the region’s only full-time roaster, for fresh German-style pastries and cafe fare. Swing by the 19th century Covered Bridge before heading to Sycamore Shoals State Park. The park has seen many important historical events and now features a 2-mile river trail, educational exhibits, and living history reenactments. Jiggy Ray’s Downtown Pizzeria or Big Dan’s BBQ are perfect for your post-adventure food fix.
Roan Mountain is a tiny community located in the heart of the Cherokee National Forest. Before you go exploring, say hello to the good folks at Smoky Mountain Bakers for fresh pastries, pancakes, and biscuits. On the outskirts of town you’ll find Roan Mountain State Park, home to trout, wildflowers and the beautiful Doe River, all interwoven with 12 miles of hiking trails. Stop in Highlander BBQ for hearty sandwiches and fries that are sure to hit the spot.
There’s a lot of history packed into this little town—you could spend days exploring Greeneville’s significance in the early United States. But, before you dive into the local history, begin your day with a trip to the Creamy Cup Coffee Shop, where indulgent espresso drinks and fresh iced teas are sure to perk you up. Frappes in hand, head to the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site and spend the day learning about the life and accomplishments of the 17th U.S. President. If your history itch still isn’t scratched, take a drive to David Crockett Birthplace State Park on the Nolichucky River. Grab dinner at Salsas Restaurant back in Greeneville because, really, who doesn’t love good Mexican food after a great day?
With its 20th century brick-faced buildings, historic homes and towering trees, you’ll love perusing downtown Rogersville. Sit down to a hearty breakfast at OH Henry’s before driving to Amis Mill to gander at Tennessee’s oldest stone dam. When you’re finished enjoying the lush grounds and the visitor center, have a tasty meal and a lovely view at the Amis Mill Eatery.
Just the name of this town makes it worth a visit, and you won’t be disappointed. For breakfast in Mountain City, you can’t beat the down-home feel and southern favorites at Lois’s Country Cafe. From there it’s only a 5-minute drive to Doe Mountain Recreation Area, where you’ll find 9,000 acres of woodlands and 60 miles of multi-use trails. Round out your day with fresh cuisine and a festive atmosphere at La Cucina Italian Kitchen.
There’s more to Bristol than race cars and country music, even though those are pretty great. Breakfast at Manna Bagel Company is the perfect way to carbo load for your day of activity. For lighter fare, grab smoothies or espresso drinks at Bloom Cafe. If you’re seeking a family-friendly destination, head to Steele Creek Park and Nature Center, which has paddleboats, disc golf, trails, natural history exhibits, and lovely gardens. If you’re feeling more daring, book a tour of Bristol Caverns’ ancient passageways and spectacular formations. Whatever adventure you choose, end it with specialty burgers and parmesan fries at the iconic Burger Bar in downtown Bristol.
With tons of restaurants and nearby parks, Kingsport is a destination that the whole family will enjoy. There’s no better way to kick off your day than with a sugar rush from Seaver’s Bakery— yes, we’re talking fresh, scratch-made doughnuts. Then, hop over to Bays Mountain Park to explore the animal habitat exhibits, Planetarium and Adventure Ropes Course. For even more family fun, Warrior’s Path State Park offers activities for people of all abilities—like the Boundless Playground, the Lions Narnia Braille Trail and the fully accessible Anderson Treehouse. Wrap up your day at Tennessee’s originary cidery, Gypy Circus Cider Company.
Situated among densely forested ridges, the small town of Unicoi is tucked just inside the bounds of Cherokee National Forest. You’ll want a full breakfast for this adventurous day, so start at Maple Grove Restaurant for homestyle biscuits, omelets, and sweets. Lace up your boots for a 9-mile round-trip hike to the Pinnacle Tower, a fire tower that offers sweeping views of the rolling mountains. For a more leisurely outing, visit the Farmhouse Gallery and Gardens for artisanal bread, serene landscapes, and local art. Finally, unwind with scrumptious salads and subs at Primo’s Italian Cuisine.
Just down the road from Unicoi, Erwin is the last stop before you’re immersed in the scenic Cherokee National Forest. Get your morning fix at Steel Rails Coffee House in historic downtown Erwin, which serves up locally roasted coffee and colorful espresso drinks. Drive into Chestoa Recreation Area and enjoy roadside views of the Nolichucky River and spots for picnicking, fishing, and swimming. For a more strenuous outing, make the steep, 4-mile round-trip hike to remote Rock Creek Falls on Unaka Mountain. End the day at Clarence’s Drive- In with comfort food, fresh deserts and a warm, family-friendly atmosphere.
With its quaint parks and endless historical sites, Jonesborough is a must-see destination on a trip to Northeast Tennessee. Begin your tour of Tennessee’s oldest town at the The Corner Cup, where you can enjoy locally roasted coffee and delightful treats in a cozy environment. After your morning pick-me-up, head to Persimmon Ridge Park, which has a full disc golf course, hiking and biking trails, and picnic areas. In summer you can also visit the nearby Wetlands Water Park for waterslides, a lazy river, and activities for all ages. If you’re in Jonesborough for lunch, don’t miss the delicious sandwiches and fresh sweet tea at the Main Street Cafe. Or stop by the Tennessee Hills Distillery to sample old-fashioned, small-batch spirits.
Downtown Johnson City has sprung to life with shops and restaurants, so make sure to reserve some time for urban exploring during your visit. The Willow Tree Coffeehouse is a local favorite for delicious drinks and light food in an eclectic, bohemian space. For brunch, Main Street Pizza Company has recently added a fabulous breakfast menu to its repertoire. To get some exercise, head to Buffalo Mountain Park, where you can explore several hiking trails with wonderful views of the city and the surrounding landscapes. Another great spot to play is the Tweetsie Trail, the region’s esteemed rails-to-trails project that connects Johnson City and Elizabethton. Unwind with craft brews and fresh tacos at Yee-Haw Brewing Company and White Duck Taco Shop. With games and tons of outdoor seating, this is the perfect spot to relax after a day full of adventure.
Written by Madison Eubanks for RootsRated in partnership with Northeast Tennessee Tourism.