There’s something special about a road trip. Whether it’s a spontaneous escape or a well-planned journey, hitting the highway often brings surprises and a good dose of adventure. It’s the perfect vacation if you can get only get away for a few days because you can experience a lot in a short time.
If you’re looking for a great road-trip destination, you can’t beat Northeast Tennessee. It’s cities, forests, and quaint mountain towns appeal to all kinds of travelers, from foodies to beer lovers to history buffs, and people who love the outdoors. We’ve put together four road-trip itineraries for Northeast Tennessee, so you can choose the one that suits your interests.
1. The Outdoor Adventure Road Trip
Hit the trifecta of outdoor recreation with this road trip, where you’ll sample some of the best hiking, biking, and paddling in Northeast Tennessee.
Day 1: Cherokee National Forest
Kick off your outdoor extravaganza with a 9-mile round-trip hike to Cherokee National Forest’s Pinnacle Mountain Fire Tower, which stands atop Buffalo Mountain in Unicoi. The restored fire tower affords a 360-degree view of Unaka Mountain, Roan Mountain, and North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell. Afterward, relax around the campfire at the nearby Woodsmoke Campground, which offers tent and RV sites on a peaceful, shady property. The drive time from Fire Tower Trailhead to Woodsmoke Campground is only about three minutes.
Day 2: Doe Mountain Recreation Area
Drive time from Woodsmoke Campground: 1 hour
When you depart Woodsmoke Campground, you’ll travel northeast to Doe Mountain Recreation Area (DMRA) to hit the mountain biking trails. With 8,600 wooded acres, nearly 60 miles of multi-use trails, and mountain views around every corner, Doe Mountain is a wilderness paradise right outside of Mountain City. When you’re finished exploring, set up camp at R&D Campground, a family-owned spot that offers direct access to DMRA.
Day 3: USA Raft Adventure Resort
Drive time from R&D Campground: 1 hour, 10 minutes
If an adrenaline rush is on your weekend bucket list, your next stop should be the USA Raft Adventure Resort to take a guided trip on Nolichucky River. As it winds among the Unaka Mountains, the free-flowing Nolichucky passes through a rugged gorge that’s 3,000 feet deep in some places, making your raft trip scenic as well as exciting. The Upper Nolichucky is a 9-mile stretch of Class III-IV rapids that are sure to get your heart pumping. The Lower Nolichucky, however, is more gentle and suitable for families. In addition to guiding trips, USA Raft also offers an array of attractive riverfront lodging options like private cabins, hostel-style bunks, and tent campsites.
2. The Foodie’s Road Trip
From savory Southern classics to indulgent sweets, you certainly won’t go hungry while in Northeast Tennessee. This road trip route takes you to a variety of eateries throughout the region, including restaurants, bakeries, cafes, breweries. You’ll enjoy a blend of traditional foods and modern favorites that will satisfy a broad range of tastes. As you sample the flavors of Northeast Tennessee, you’ll not only enjoy delicious food, but you’ll also gain an appreciation for the culture of this unique area.
Day 1: Johnson City
When you roll into Johnson City, get ready for a day filled with fresh takes on hearty Southern classics. Indulge in a delicious breakfast at Maple Street Biscuit Company, which is known for scratch-made biscuits piled high with fried chicken and other tempting toppings. Head over to Southern Craft BBQ at lunchtime for smoked wings and meats, award-winning barbecue sauces, and housemade fixings like collard greens and blackeyed peas. Finally, for dinner and drinks, settle into the low-lit, cozy atmosphere at Label Restaurant to enjoy steak, sushi, and everything in between. After your fabulous meal at Label, settle in for a relaxing and luxurious night at the elegant Carnegie Hotel or DoubleTree by Hilton just outside of downtown.
Day 2: Bristol
Drive time from Johnson City: 40 minutes
From Johnson City, head northeast to Bristol, where you can satisfy your sweet tooth any time of day or night at the 24-hour Blackbird Bakery. While the bakery is known for its fresh doughnuts, Blackbird also dishes up a wide variety of pastries, bread, and ice cream. Continue the fun at Cootie Brown’s, a colorful, family-owned eatery with a laid-back vibe. Its menu draws inspiration from all corners of the globe and features everything from tamales and pizza to the don’t-miss key lime pie. Round out your day for the casual feel and diverse beer selection at Bristol Station Brews & Taproom. And, finish your evening with fabulous boutique accommodations at The Bristol Sessions Hotel.
Day 3: Elizabethton
Drive time from Bristol: 30 minutes
After your visit to Johnson City, it’s time to swing back south and make your way to Elizabethton, which is home to some of the region’s coziest eateries. In the historic downtown area, begin with a visit to The Coffee Company. This German-inspired bakery is the tri-cities’ only full-time coffee roaster and serves fresh cakes, cookies, pastries, and more in its classic 1928 dining room. At midday, scoot on over to Smoky Mountain Bakers and Wood Fired Pizzas in Roan Mountain. The Decker family runs this quaint spot out of a renovated barn in their backyard. They team up each day to create bread, pastries, pizzas, and more. Down the road in Hampton, dinner with a view awaits you at Captain’s Table on Watauga Lake. Guests can dine on fresh seafood while looking out over the pristine lake in the Cherokee National Forest. You can extend your lakeside adventure by spending the night at one of the resort’s peaceful cabins or motel units that look out over Watauga’s waters.
Bonus Day 4: Mountain City
Drive time from Elizabethton: 40 minutes
When it comes to food in Northeast Tennessee, you won’t want to miss the charming restaurants around Mountain City, which is surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest. BeetRoute Catering Company is an excellent place to begin the day with a smoothie, a unique coffee blend, or the seasonal pastry of the day. Suba’s Restaurant is a must for lunch or dinner, and guests will find an extensive menu of steaks, seafood, and pasta prepared by a husband-and-wife team of professional chefs. Finally, pop into the intimate dining room at La Cucina for authentic Italian food and a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains. Let the mountain charm continue by tucking in at Prospect Hill Bed and Breakfast or Iron Mountain Inn, both quaint historic inns on the outskirts of Mountain City.
3. The Breweries and Beverages Road Trip
Sip and sample your way through Northeast Tennessee’s best beers, ciders, and spirits on this twenty-one-and-over tavern tour. From breweries to distilleries, each day on this itinerary offers a range of craft ales and places with an interesting atmosphere.
Day 1: Kingsport
Begin your tour of Northeast Tennessee’s craft beverage scene in Kingsport at the award-winning Gypsy Circus Cider Company. You can choose from a vast selection of seasonal ciders made entirely from fresh-pressed apple juice. To sip something on the stronger side, stop by Hook and Ladder for a sample of bonafide Tennessee moonshine. Run by a father and son, this distillery offers free samples of its moonshine, including fun flavors like Mango, Cinnabun, and Salted Watermelon. Your last stop in Kingsport is Bays Mountain Brewing Company, where you can kick back, drink beer, and enjoy live local music. Round out your busy day with a great night’s sleep and excellent amenities at Kingsport’s MeadowView Conference Resort Center.
Day 2: Bristol
Drive time from Kingsport: 30 minutes
On day two, continue your tour of breweries by heading east to Bristol. You can begin your rounds with an offbeat beer at Elder Brew. Tennessee’s first small-batch brewery serves unique brews, and its tap list never gets boring. Next, spend some time lounging and playing games at State Street Brewing. Sip a High Hopes IPA as you challenge your road-trip partners in Skee-Ball, ping pong, and foosball. Finally, make a stop at Lost State Distillery for small-batch gin, rum, and whiskey. The distillery, which offers tours and tastings, was named for the State of Franklin, an unauthorized territory created in 1784. When you’re finished sipping, settle in at nearby Rocky Top Campground for a perfectly restful evening.
Day 3: Jonesborough
Drive time from Bristol: 45 minutes
Conclude your brewery road trip by driving southwest to reach Tennessee’s oldest town. At Depot Street Brewing in Jonesborough, you can sample beer styles from around the world and relax on the spacious outdoor patio. Nearby, in Jonesborough’s historic downtown, you’ll find Tennessee Hills Distillery, which occupies a building where salt was stored during the Civil War. The distillery makes different types of spirits by incorporating traditional recipes and methods brought over from Ireland centuries ago. Finally, head back to Johnson City to wind down at the well-loved Yee-Haw Brewing Company. The spacious taproom has arcade games and tons of outdoor space. Plus, it shares a building with White Duck Taco Shop, which pairs perfectly with Yee-Haw’s brews. End the day by heading just 10 minutes out of town for a woodsy stay at one of the rustic and cozy Watauga River Cabins.
4. History and Heritage Road Trip
Day 1: Gray Fossil Site, Kingsport & Rogersville
Drive time from Gray to Kingsport to Rogersville: 1 hour
Northeast Tennessee’s rich heritage is everywhere you look, and this road trip introduces you to some of the area’s most significant historical places and events. You’ll begin by stepping back in time to the dinosaur era, and then make your way through history to visit pioneer sites, a presidential home, and the place where country music was born.
Begin this fascinating road trip at the Hands On! Discovery Center’s Gray Fossil Site. Here, you can see and learn about an active Pliocene-era dig site where paleontologists have unearthed a mastodon, a bear, a saber tooth cat, and hundreds of plant fossils. Next, head into Kingsport to see some of Tennessee’s current native species at Bays Mountain Park. This enormous city park features kid-friendly attractions like a nature center, animal habitats, and a planetarium. Round out the day in Rogersville with dinner at McKinney’s Restaurant & Tavern, in downtown Rogersville and located inside the lovely and historic Hale Springs Inn. It was built in 1824 and has sheltered many historical figures, including three U.S. presidents.
Day 2: Sycamore Shoals State Park, Bristol & Abingdon
Drive time from Sycamore Shoals to Bristol to Abingdon: 1 hour
Day two brings more fascinating history as you head east to Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park near Elizabethton. Begin your day at the park by exploring trails and investigating historic structures. Several significant historical events took place on the park grounds, and it marks the site of one of the earliest settlements outside the 13 original colonies. Afterward, make your way to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol. The museum is centered around the momentous 1927 Bristol Sessions when 19 performers recorded 76 songs, and Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family made their first recordings. Wrap up the day in Southwest Virginia’s Historic Downtown Abingdon. The city’s sidewalks and small-town charm will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The charming burg offers shops and boutiques, irresistible bakeries, and unique local crafts. You can stay in town and spend the night in style at The Martha, Abingdon’s beloved and grandiose 19th-century inn.
Day 3: Greeneville
Drive time from Abingdon to Greeneville: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Kick off the final day of your historical road trip with an outing to President Andrew Johnson’s home in Greeneville. Take a tour of The Homestead, where the 17th president lived before and after he served. Or, take in a show at Niswonger Performing Arts Center. You could even spend the night in the historic General Morgan Inn located downtown. Next, visit the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough. The center hosts the annual National Storytelling Festival to celebrate oral traditions from around the world. Finally, close out your excursion at the Rocky Mount State Historic Site in Piney Flats. This large log house once belonged to William Cobb, who moved to the land in 1769 as one of Tennessee’s first settlers. Today, visitors to the site can see costumed interpreters perform chores and go about daily life as it would have been in the late 1790s. At the end of the day, head back to the Riverpark Campground in Jonesborough, where your lodging options include a funky retro camper, a caboose-turned-cabin, and a tiny, colorful gypsy wagon.
Written by Madison Eubanks for Matcha in partnership with Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association.