Cherokee legend tells the story of the Great Buzzard, a being who is responsible for creating the mountains we call home. It is said that when the earth was first formed, the ground was still soft mud. The buzzard was sent to look for a dry landing spot, but as he flew on and on with no place to alight, he grew tired and his heavy wings began to droop downward until they touched the ground. With every flap upward, mountains were formed, while every push downward created the river valleys. While we might not be able to catch a glimpse of the Buzzard today, we can certainly marvel at his handiwork.
Descendants of the mighty bird are ever present across these hills, and on many a clear day they can be seen circling higher and higher along the air currents. One of the best places to find them, along with countless other avian species is along the Unaka Mountain Wildlife Auto Loop, a series of roads which climb some of the highest peaks of the Unaka Mountains. At just under thirty miles long, it is certainly long enough to furnish the inquisitive with an all day adventure, while at the same time being short enough to provide families with a perfect afternoon escape to nature.
This scenic drive begins in the nearby town of Unicoi, Tennessee, located directly off Interstate 26 and surrounded on all sides by Cherokee National Forest. Since the route makes a loop, it could technically be driven from either direction, but we decided to follow it clockwise from downtown. Follow TN 107 East from its intersection with Unicoi Drive directly in front of the town hall. While technically within the boundaries of the national forest, the upcoming 7.7 miles offer little in the way of scenery as the highway twists through the outlying communities of the town.
It’s only after you make a right hand turn onto Red Fork Road, otherwise known as Forest Service Road 230, that the scenic portion of the route becomes apparent. As the road turns to gravel and begins switchbacking up the slopes of Unaka Mountain, the need for a high clearance vehicle also grows obvious. It is here in the interior of the forest that you may begin to look for the numerous species of birds which frequent these woods. These can be familiar friends such as chickadees and the common crow to rarer specimens like the golden-crowned kinglet.
As the road climbs higher and the forest transitions to the spruce-fir forest so common at the higher elevations, the chances of seeing even more species increases. Ravens replace the crows and can be distinguished by their larger body size as well as their contrasting croaking sound. Black-footed blue warblers dart through the spruce branches along with dark-eyed juncos, while the peregrine falcons prefer to soar the skies high above. If you’re extremely lucky, you might here the too-too call of the Northern Saw-whet Owl, a threatened species which makes the evergreen forests of Unaka Mountain its nesting hideout throughout the spring months.
While birding enthusiasts will no doubt be overjoyed at the magnificent opportunities atop the mountain, there are plenty of opportunities for everyone to enjoy their time on the mountain. Several parking areas along the road offer access to trailheads which explore the Unaka Mountain National Wilderness Area, a completely roadless area of more then 4,000 acres which protect the western slope of the mountain almost to Unicoi. In addition, as the road begins its descent to return to the valley once more, the Appalachian Trail can be seen on the left side of the road. This offers ample possibilities for day hikes or for a longer backpacking trek.
Descending along the state line with North Carolina, the road passes through several fields which are bursting with wildflowers in the summer months. Amazing and wonderful plants grow throughout the higher elevations, so don’t spend all your time looking at the birds! Mammals, insects, and amphibians too are found in abundance if you take the time to explore and search for them. Red squirrels, or “boomers” are the easiest to spot as they will let you know that you’re not welcome with their incessant chatter. The amphibians, while possibly most plentiful, will doubtless be difficult to find. Salamanders hide under moist stones and along streams to keep out of sunlight, while the grey tree frog can change colors like a chameleon to blend in naturally with its environment.
Several miles below the mountain you will what appears to be an intersection. While the correct route to complete the loop is to the right, a detour to the left soon ends at perhaps the loveliest location along the scenic route: Beauty Spot. A bald almost identical to Andrews Bald in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Beauty Spot makes up in size what it lacks azaleas. Acres upon acres of grass and wildflowers make a perfect spot to enjoy a picnic, or just to stand and take in the breathtaking views of North Carolina to the east, and the towns of Erwin and Unicoi far below to the west.
Linger as long as you want, for it is not much farther from this point until the highway leads you back into civilization. When you are ready to leave, just continue to follow the forest road until it comes to an intersection with TN 395 at the state line. Turn right and follow this road 6.2 miles until it reaches TN 107 once again. If you would like to return to Unicoi, make a right hand turn and you’ll reach our starting point in four miles. A left turn will lead to the town of Erwin, or beyond to other adventures which wait only for us to take them.
Directions: From Johnson City, follow Interstate 26 East to exit 32 and turn left onto TN 173 toward Unicoi Road. Turn right onto Unicoi Drive, and in less than a mile you will reach the start of the auto tour in front of the town hall. Remember, Forest Road 230 is mainly gravel and can become difficult to traverse at times, especially after periods of rain, which are quite common at higher elevations. A vehicle with sufficient ground clearance and four wheel drive is recommended but not required.