Outdoor Opportunities Attract Tourists to Northeast Tennessee Valley Region
With hundreds of miles of trails and countless opportunities for outdoor adventure, the Northeast Tennessee Valley Region has long been a destination for nature lovers, hiking enthusiasts and adrenaline junkies. Combine those amenities with a low cost of living, short commutes and close-knit communities, and it's easy to see why many visitors eventually choose to stay and settle in the Valley.
Haven for Hikers
When Joel Zabel and his wife, Joy, were searching for places to relocate from Wisconsin, they knew they had to find an area where they could enjoy one of their favorite pastimes – hiking – and where they could also launch a business.
“We looked all over the country for places that would suit us,” Zabel says. “We picked Johnson City because of the low cost of living, great business climate and the mountains that are right outside our back door. The Appalachian Trail is less than 20 miles away, and we're close to Pisgah National Forest.”
Today, the Zabels are active members of the Johnson City Hiking Club, which plans weekly group hikes throughout the year.
“Here, it's not too cold, even in the winter,” Zabel says. “There's beautiful snow, and it's great for year-round hiking.”
The region also offers hiking opportunities at national parks such as Cumberland Gap National Historical Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as well as state parks, including Natural Tunnel State Park and Roan Mountain State Park. Hikers can also explore Grandfather Mountain – the highest point in the Blue Ridge Mountains – and the Virginia Creeper Trail, which stretches 33.4 miles from Abingdon, Va., to Whitetop Station, Va.
Fun for All Seasons
Along with hiking, the region features a diverse mix of activities that keep tourists coming back for more.
Snow skiing, tubing and snow boarding are available on Beech Mountain and Sugar Mountain, both of which are in North Carolina, while warm weather activities, including fishing, boating and water skiing, are plentiful along area streams and lakes such as the Watauga Reservoir, South Holston Reservoir and Boone Reservoir.
Adventurers enjoy spelunking in Bristol, Tenn., which is home to Bristol Caverns, and in Linville, N.C., where Linville Caverns are located. Whitewater rafters and kayakers can test the rapids on the 115-mile Nolichucky River, which stretches from North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains to East Tennessee.
The region is also attracting motorists and motorcyclists for its portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway and its scenic U.S. 25 East route, which travels from Newport, Tenn., to North Corbin, Ky. The Southern Dozen – 12 of the South's most thrilling motorcycle rides — runs through the region, snaking 1,000 miles through Watauga Lake, Mountain City, Roan Mountain and Clinch Mountain.
New State Parks
Two new recreation projects are revving up in the region, both of which are expected to draw additional tourism to the area.
Tennessee's newest state park, Rocky Fork State Park, will be constructed on 2,000 acres in the Unicoi County area. Once completed, the park will be Tennessee's highest-altitude state park and include trails, campgrounds, picnic areas, a ranger station and more.
Plans are also in the works to develop Johnson County's Doe Mountain. In 2012, the Nature Conservancy and the state of Tennessee purchased 8,600 acres of the mountain, which they plan to turn into a recreational area for mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, rock climbing, hunting and four-wheeling.
Virtual Vacation Guide
A collaborative creation of community and conservation organizations, tourism associations, and state and federal agencies, National Geographic's East Tennessee River Valley MapGuide is an interactive website that plots out the region's distinctive destinations. The site encourages residents to nominate one-of-a-kind places like local restaurants, farms, wineries, hiking and biking trails, museums and art galleries – and these sites are vetted by National Geographic and its project partners. The goal of the project is to preserve and enhance the area's geotourism, or geographical character. To view the East Tennessee River Valley MapGuide,visit www.tennesseerivervalleygeotourism.org.