When you’re planning a family adventure, the real challenge is finding a destination that offers a variety of activities. With lush mountains, rushing rivers, serene lakes, and delightful small towns, Northeast Tennessee is one of those places that has something for everyone in your family, from children to teens to adults.
As you’re ziplining through the treetops and paddling whitewater rivers, your family will not only have a blast but also build lifelong memories. After an exciting day outdoors, you can explore entertaining small towns and then stay the night in a family-friendly campground. As night falls, you can all gather around the campfire to laugh about the day’s adventures and make plans for tomorrow.
If your family loves outdoor fun and exploring new places, Northeast Tennessee is a perfect destination. To help you map out an ideal trip to the region, we’ve highlighted 10 of the area’s best activities to entertain people of all ages.
1. Hike or Bike the Tweetsie Trail
For a fun and casual family outing, head to the start of the Tweetsie Trail in Johnson City. This 10-mile path connects Johnson City and Elizabethton, offering a pleasant escape for walkers, runners, and bikers. The wide, paved trail traverses gentle terrain and passes through the charming countryside and offers excellent views of the surrounding mountains. It’s enjoyable whether you experience one, two, or all 10 of its miles. If you’re able to bring your bikes along on your trip, it’s a safe place for kids to pedal freely.
2. Zipline in Bays Mountain Park
Bays Mountain is an enormous park in Kingsport known for its peaceful hiking trails, enlightening planetarium shows, and captivating native animal exhibits. But, you’ll find an even more thrilling adventure among the park’s 3,500 acres. On the 310-foot Flying Squirrel zipline, you’ll zoom through the trees at lightning speed. There’s no minimum age as long as the harnesses and helmets fit securely, making the Flying Squirrel an adrenaline rush the whole family can experience. If you have eight people or more, you can also try the park’s low ropes course, which includes a dozen obstacles that your family can negotiate as a team.
3. Go Sailing on Watauga Lake
On the last day of 1948, the Watauga Dam was completed and the Watauga Lake was officially formed. Since then, the 6,000-acre reservoir has offered endless recreation for boaters, anglers, and water lovers. The lake is entirely within the Cherokee National Forest, leaving nearly all of its shores wooded and undeveloped. Pop into Lakeshore Resort & Marina in Hampton for boat rentals, food, and lodging. If your family is new to sailing, you can even book a lesson with the Watauga Lake Sailing Club.
4. Camp at Woodsmoke Campground
Located at the base of Buffalo Mountain near Unicoi, Woodsmoke Campground is the ideal jumping off point for some of Northeast Tennessee’s best outdoor adventures. The family-owned and operated campground offers both tent and RV sites, each equipped with a picnic table and fire ring (because s’mores are a must!). Just a short walk from the campground you’ll find the Pinnacle Mountain Tower Trail, which climbs nearly five miles to a mountaintop fire tower. Standing 40 feet high, the fire tower has an observation platform with a 360-degree view of the rolling hills of the Cherokee National Forest. When you’re not out exploring the surrounding trails, relax and enjoy the peaceful sounds of the mountain stream that runs through the campground.
5. Go Whitewater Rafting on the Nolichucky
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Don’t miss your chance to experience firsthand one of the Southeast’s most iconic rivers during your family’s visit to Northeast Tennessee. The Nolichucky is one of the last major undammed rivers in the Southeast, and a day on its wild waters is sure to become one of those stories that your family tells over and over. If all of your family members are over the age of 10, you can tackle all 11 miles of runnable water. The full trip includes more than 25 Class II-IV rapids that race through the rugged Nolichucky River gorge, which is nearly 2,000 feet deep in some places. For a milder but still exciting rafting trip, book a full day or half day on the Lower Nolichucky, which is open to ages 4 and up. You can also book a variety of water classes with Nolichucky Outdoor Learning Institute.
6. Visit the Hands On! Discovery Center and Gray Fossil Site
Take your family on an adventure of the mind at this science-focused museum geared toward kids of all ages. Your children will love playing with flying objects at the Bernoulli Table, building whatever they imagine at the Rigamajig, and climbing upward through the Paleo Tower. They’ll have so much fun that they’ll hardly notice they’re learning about science, too! During your visit to the center, allow time to explore the Gray Fossil Site, an active dig site that dates back almost 5 million years. While the center is technically for kids, most adults love it just as much.
7. Take a Whirl on the Kingsport Carousel
When the little ones need a break from the wild outdoors, make your way to Kingsport where they can ride the vintage carousel at Pal’s Roundhouse. Built in 1956, the ornate Kingsport Carousel has been completely renovated to all of its original glory with 32 hand-carved animals. When kids see the colorful array of creatures, including a tiger, a frog, and giraffe, they’ll love choosing which animal will whisk them around and around. At just $1 per ride, they can enjoy the carousel’s magic to their heart’s content.
After taking a whirl (or two), swing through Pal’s Sudden Service to order milkshakes and fries. Pal’s is Northeast Tennessee’s homegrown burger joint chain, and its original drive-thru is still offering speedy service on Revere Street in Kingsport.
8. Bristol Motor Speedway Tour
Do you have a need for speed? Book a track tour at Bristol Motor Speedway, the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile.” During the tour, which runs every half hour Monday through Saturday, you’ll walk the legendary Bristol Dragway where cars reach speeds of 300 miles per hour during races. Visitors will also get to look out on the enormous arena from the suite of Bruton Smith, who owns the Bristol Motor Speedway and seven other racetracks around the country. The tour concludes with a lap around the track, which is sure to thrill lifelong fans and NASCAR newcomers alike.
9. Birthplace of Country Music
Across town, continue your tour of Northeast Tennessee’s iconic attractions at the Birthplace of Country Music. The museum explores and explains the impact that the famous 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings had on the development of country music. Guests will find rotating exhibits and artifacts along with frequent musical performances and events. Whether or not you love country music, this heritage museum is fascinating and fun for the whole family.
10. The Lollipop Shop
The Lollipop Shop in Jonesborough takes the phrase “kid in a candy store” to a whole new level. Located on Main Street in Tennessee’s Oldest Town, the Lollipop Shop features more than 400 kinds of candy along with old-fashioned toys, personalized stuffed animals, and novelty items that will delight visitors of all ages.
Written by Madison Eubanks for Matcha in partnership with Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association.
Featured image provided by Northeast Tennessee