Sometimes the best trips are centered around places that don’t have the bustling energy of the more populated areas and frankly often have way more heart than the big touristy attractions.
At least that was my experience when visiting the Tennessee Tri Cities.
Among the absolutely breathtaking scenery and adventures that I got to experience, I met the men and women of Northeastern Tennessee who have spent their lives working to bring awareness to the areas that they love so much.
Along the way, I thought to myself that even as someone that travels often, we don’t venture too far off of the beaten path as a family and that we should strive to do more of that.
What Cities Make Up the Tri Cities Area of Tennessee?
The Tri-Cities is the region of Tennessee comprised of the bigger cities of Kingsport, Johnson City, and Bristol.
The Tri Cities airport services this area offering flights from American, Delta and Allegiant airlines.
Drive Time Examples:
Kingsport to Gatlinburg: 2 hours (103 miles)
Kingsport to Knoxville: 1 hour and 30 mins (100 miles)
Kingsport to Louisville: 5 hours (290 miles)
Why the Tri Cities are the perfect place to begin adventure travel with your family.
When hiking in Tennessee people often gravitate towards what is familiar or what their friends and family have done before and can speak to.
The issue or potential issue with this is often, the spot that you are hoping to visit can be overly crowded which can dampen the excitement if you are hoping to enjoy nature and not encounter lots of other people.
Which is where Northeastern Tennessee comes in.
On our hiking adventures, we encountered just a handful of other people once we were actually on the trails.
Truth be told, as soon as I arrived home from the trip I told my husband that we needed to do more adventure travel with the kids.
By the way, adventure travel is defined as a type of tourism in which travelers take part in adventure activities like hiking, climbing, rafting, scuba diving and more.
Family Friendly Hikes in the Tennessee Tri Cities Area
Roan Mountain is located in southeastern Carter County, near the Tennessee-North Carolina border. There were many times that while we were hiking, we joked that we were constantly crossing back and forth between Tennessee and North Carolina. In fact, many travelers consider Roan Mountain to be part of Asheville, North Carolina.
Roan Mountain State Park is known for the largest natural Catawba rhododendron gardens in North America. The blooms usually peak around the third week of June.
The path to see the rhododendron garden is paved and while I don’t know if it is officially ADA compliant, that feature makes accessibility less of a concern for many.
Don’t miss out on the smaller off shoot trails that aren’t paved, they truly felt magical and because the day we were visiting, there was a fog and grey skies, it made the landscape feel that much more special.
Near the area where the rhododendron garden is, is also the site of where the Cloudland Hotel once stood. There aren’t any remnants of the hotel that remain but it is still neat to stand and look around and imagine what things were like when that hotel was in it’s glory.
Roan Mountain is also known for the balds. Known as the Roan Highlands, this area is the longest stretch of grassy balds in the Appalachian Mountains and are a stark contrast to the rocky, tree-covered Roan Mountain.
Bays Mountain Park
Bays Mountain Park is located in Kingsport, Tennessee and is roughly 3,500 acres. Bays Mountain is the largest city owned park in the state of Tennessee and it opened to the public in 1971.
The park sees around 200,000 visitors per year and is a very reasonable $5 per car load no matter the number of folks in your car.
In addition to the 25+ miles of trails to hike or bike, the park also has a planetarium that seats 100 people.
The planetarium shows are so well done (having a person who used to work for Disney helps makes the shows awesome) that they’ve been sent to planetariums all over the world.
In addition to the fantastic options for hiking and biking Bays Mountain also offers barge rides (a pontoon if we are getting specific) around the reservoir to take in the animals and nature from a different angle. Tickets for barge rides are $5 per person. Park members receive free passes.
Our group had the pleasure of getting to spend time with Ranger Bob and learn about all that Bays Mountain has to offer.
Remember when I talked about the great people of Tennessee making such a difference?
Ranger Bob is a prime example of that. He has worked at Bays Mountain since it opened and spoiler, he isn’t really a ranger but everyone calls him that!
Buffalo Mountain is a city owned park located in Johnson City, Tennessee.
The most notable hiking trail at Buffalo Mountain is the White Rock Loop which will take you between 2 and 2.5 hours, full disclosure it is a pretty strenuous steep hike but the views at the top are worth it!
While the trails and views are absolutely beautiful, what I enjoyed the most was getting to know Allan who is a volunteer at Buffalo Mountain.
He is a 77 year old character who spends four hours each day, tending to the trails with his dogs. He does this completely unpaid because he feels so passionate about Buffalo Mountain and wants to see it become the best that it possibly can.
His dogs that come with him each day? They are trained to pick up trash and cans that are found along the trails.
Biking the Tweetsie Trail with Kids
If a bike ride sounds like a fun time while on vacation but you don’t want to get into anything too extreme, then the Tweetsie Trail that starts in Johnson City and runs through Elizabethton Tennessee, is for you.
The Tweetsie Trail starts at the corner of Alabama and Legion streets in Johnson City. You are able to rent bikes at the bike shop (Local Motion) adjacent to the main parking lot for the Tweetsie Trail.
Rentals start at 2 hours and have options through the whole day. Ebikes are offered for rent as well.
The trail is an out and back trail that is roughly 10 miles from trail head to end. Based on my experience the trail is fairly easy to navigate on the way out and is still that way on the way back, but there is a climb that is gradual on the way back and is sneaky. So this is something to take into consideration as you are planning to go with your kids.
In other words, don’t wear yourself out too much before you head back knowing that the ride back isn’t as much as a piece of cake as the ride out.
Once you hit mile 6 or so on the trail, the road crossings go from no big deal to large intersections near large shopping centers. That was the point comfort level wise I opted to turn around and thought several times that I wouldn’t want to try to navigate that with my kiddos.
Water Adventures in the Tennessee Tri Cities
Nolichucky River Rafting
If I am being 100% transparent, water activities that aren’t confined within a pool often make me nervous.
That being said I am determined not to operate out of fear and let that stop me from doing things. Because 10 years from now I want my kids to look back and think that their mom is a badass who did really cool things.
I had so much fun whitewater rafting along the Nolichucky River. Our group went on the whitewater rafting trip with USA Raft Adventure Resort.
The day we went was overcast with a few sprinkles here and there. FYI, they don’t cancel due to rain, because you are going to get wet anyway.
On a Summer day the water was great but splash jackets are available if you want to wear them. I opted to for the first part mainly because the early morning was a bit chilly.
They don’t provide water shoes or wet boots, and I didn’t pack very well and didn’t have any with me. However, they had some for sale in the shop at a very reasonable price, I think I paid around $10 or so for the water shoes.
Our guide was absolutely fantastic, knowledgeable and kept safety at the forefront of the trip all while being lighthearted and fun.
The Nolichucky River Gorge is one of the most adventurous and scenic rivers in the entire Southeast. The Upper Nolichucky has over 25 named class II, III, and IV rapids along nine miles of wilderness.
The interesting part of the trip is that the bigger rapids are at the beginning of the trip. So if the bigger rapids make you nervous, you get that part over with quickly. That’s not to say that there aren’t any rapids during the rest of the trip, there were plenty!
The scenery was amazing and the lulls between rapids was so peaceful.
This trip was slightly different from the other whitewater trip that I had been on, in that at a certain point during the trip we got out and had to hike about a half mile down the river (in the woods) to get past a super rocky point in the river.
The guide stayed in the boat and navigated the raft down the river while the rest of our group hiked. Initially I wasn’t sure what I would think about this part, until, I realized that my legs were starting to cramp and I needed to have a chance to stretch.
Our trip was a 1/2 day trip (4 hours) and frankly was the perfect length. I do think it is worth noting that going with a group of people that you enjoy and trust is important in the success of your rafting trip.
The minimum age for rafting the Nolichucky Gorge is 10 years old and the upper Nolichucky is a much tamer experience and the minimum age is 4+ for that trip.
Fly fishing the South Holston River
I had been fly fishing once before and absolutely loved it, so I was a bit surprised to learn that we’d be fishing from a drift boat.
The addition of the drift boat took away the need to get suited up in waders and stand in the water to fish, which by the way, if you haven’t experienced that type of fly fishing you totally should.
This type of fly fishing on the South Holston river, which I am told is the mecca for trout fishing, I throughly enjoyed. As someone else who was fishing with us put it, it takes all of the ‘fussy’ parts out of fly fishing and allows you to get to fishing quickly.
I was lucky enough to go out with a guide from the South Holston River Company and our time together was the perfect combo of enjoying fishing and having some help doing the things that I don’t enjoy as much with fishing.
Got your line tangled? They will take care of it for you. Need help casting further than you are able to? They will make sure your line goes further than you could get it. Don’t want to take the fish off the hook? No problem.
Probably the part of the trip that I thought was the most insightful and really neat was when I caught my first fist, our guide was able to safely take the stomach contents of the fish and put the fish back into the water. Upon looking at the contents, our guide could tell what types of bugs the fish had been eating and determine if the flys that we were using on our line were going to work well on our fishing trip.
Pretty cool, huh?
If you will be fishing with kids, while in town, it is important to note that while there isn’t an age minimum, it is based on maturity level than anything. Some kids would be totally content to sit and fish and look at the water. Other kids would start asking how much longer within 30 mins of being on the boat. I have both of those kind of kids myself.
Both full day and half day trips are available and lunch is provided with full day trips.
The trip was part education and part what felt like a fishing trip with an old friend.
Camping in the Northeastern Tennessee Area
While I don’t currently have a firm number, there are at least 20 camping facilities within the region at this time. The camping areas range from tent camping to full hookups.
When we got off the river after the white water trip, we ended up at the USA Raft Adventure Resort and they had a wide variety of camping styles there and the resort looked incredibly nice with a ton of different things to do. At the resort there are 19 lodging units consisting of Cabins, Noli Lofts, Noli Stretch units, Vintage Airstreams, Geodesic Domes, Bungalows, and the Hiker Barn. Limited campsites are available at the Resort location
No matter the type of adventure that you are hoping to have while traveling, with family or otherwise, the Tri Cities area of Tennessee is the perfect spot to get started trying new activities or simply find a new area to do the things you already know and love.