Here in Appalachian Wanderers, we delight in whisking our readers away to new and exciting destinations every week. Whether it’s hidden waterfalls, obscure trails, or sprawling amusement parks, our travels take us to all corners of the Southern Appalachian region and beyond. Sometimes there are enjoyable and fun places to visit that are just in our backyard, but we’ve never noticed them or bothered to stop by. For those of us who live in the city, our busy schedules make it seem difficult to pry ourselves away for a few hours of outdoor recreation, even on the loveliest days. In addition, as winter rapidly approaches, many roads and trails in the mountains are closed, and who wants to hike in the many feet of snow which accumulates in the higher elevations of Roan and the Smokies?
There are several great winter destinations you can visit in the following months that are just a short drive away. Three of these are within our cities and offer a myriad of activities, in addition to hiking, biking, and paddling. Bays Mountain Park in Kingsport, Buffalo Mountain Park in Johnson City, and Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville all lie within the city limits of their respective towns and are no more than a ten-minute drive from the city center.
Buffalo Mountain Park was created in 1994 and stretches across 725 acres. Located on the steep northern face of Buffalo Mountain, the park is home to no less than thirteen miles of trails. Ranging from ridge top scrambles to gentler walks along Catbird Creek, the park’s trails are the main attraction and afford numerous views of the city far below and greater vistas of the Tennessee Valley. Although they won’t be around for several more months, the trails pass through some rich wildflower areas in the spring, with the Lady Slipper Loop Trail giving visitors a chance to see this rare flower for themselves.
Totaling just over four miles in length, the White Rocks Loop combines several trails to encompass the entire park. It’s a little less strenuous if you hike it counter-clockwise, beginning at the main parking lot. The trail starts off by skirting a steep ridge, weaving in and out along the finger ridges until it crosses a small stream. A short side trail near the beginning to the right leads to a great view from the peak of Huckleberry Knob. Here there is a lovely cascade in wet weather. Immediately afterward, you begin steeply climbing the ridge face until you reach the top. The next portion of the trail lies atop the park’s main ridge, as you slowly approach the park’s second highest peak. You’ll pass some radio towers, and then shortly after come to the White Rock Overlook. At 3,100 feet, this is one of the best views available in the entire park. The rest of the trail is an easier walk down another ridge and through a stream valley to reach the starting point from which you came.
Just thirty minutes away in Kingsport lies Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium, by far the largest of our three parks with over 3,550 acres of land to explore. Over thirty miles of trails crisscross the area, allowing ample exploration of the varied terrain. Trails range from easy strolls around the park’s central lake to more rugged adventures along the ridgetops.