This week kicks off with the vernal equinox, better known as the first day of spring, and I’m already enjoying an 80 degree day here in Middle Tennessee. All this warm weather and equinox excitement has thawed my icy cold hearted love for winter and actually has me very much looking forward to my upcoming weekend back home in Tri-Cities. No matter what our corner of the world might be lacking, it is most certainly overrun with outdoor activities and scenic beauty.
One of the highlights during the early Covid shutdowns last year was being forced to rediscover my love of hiking. When I lost my job and everything was closed I spent about 3 weeks in my Tri-Cities home and feel like I hiked every mountain from Greene County to Boone, NC. It was a fantastic pastime for killing boredom, burned tons of calories and was a great way to connect with family and friends without the distractions of electronics or alcohol. There is also no better way to clear your own mind when you need some peace and solitude than with a long hike in the woods.
One spot I always recommend to anyone looking to get a great workout and fresh air is to start with White Rock on Buffalo Mountain. Often I think people assume they have to travel an hour into the hills to get the full experience, forgetting that Buffalo Mountain is centrally located in the heart of Johnson City and within 15 minute of many our backyards. It’s an easy drive to the base of the mountain, located just a few miles behind Pine Oaks Golf Course, and the hike itself can be as hard or easy as you want to make it. But there is no doubt that once you make it to the peak of the mountain at the White Rock overlook, you will be left breathless, whether it’s from the strenuous climb or the stunning view. Awaiting your arrival are 360 degree views of Johnson City. My favorite way to relax is to take a seat and see how many landmarks I can pinpoint while letting my heart rate slow. A precautionary word though, I have seen both copperheads and rattlesnakes sunning themselves on those very rocks, so stay alert and watch where you step. It would be a long way back to the car if you were bitten.
If you’re looking a hike with a water feature, a well-trafficked trail located along the AT is always Laurel Falls. There are 2 entrances at least, with parking at the bottom and further up the mountain. Both ways will lead you about 2.5 miles back into the mountain and end at the beautiful waterfall. While I know many people go there and swim, and regardless of what I say in this column, I cannot emphasize enough to NOT swim in this water. I’ve tragically seen someone lose their life firsthand in those falls and it’s one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. We all forget just how powerful mother nature actually is, and while the water might be as calm as glass on the surface, you never know if there is a current underneath that could pull you down. Please go enjoy these beautiful places, wade in up to your knees if you’d like. But just be respectful of the unknown and play it safe.
If you’re looking for a longer hike to fill your day, the fire tower in Unicoi is another one with exceptional views. Clocking in at about 10 miles round-trip, I would suggest NOT doing this at high noon in the middle of July like I did. You will definitely be ready to climb the narrow stairs and cool your heels with a snack and much needed water once you get to the tower itself. But again, you will get unparalleled views of the surrounding Tennessee and North Carolina mountains. While I by no means condone this kind of activity, I still got a kick out of reading the wealth of graffiti that has been etched into the structure over the years. Nothing soothes the soul following a grueling climb in the heat like reading “Pam’s a skank 3/8/1994” on a handrail.
If you’re not interested in a serious trek but still want to see some amazing water features and fresh air, take a drive up to The Blue Hole. It’s a short walk down man-made wooden steps to one of the most beautiful, and chilly, swimming holes around. The water itself is so cold and deep in the middle, it’s a sparkling deep turquoise year-round, hence the origin of its name. Again I would not recommend swimming in any of these natural locales, but particularly at Blue Hole if for no other reason than it is bone-chillingly cold even in the depths of August heat waves. But what a beautiful place to relax, take photos and get fresh mountain air without killing yourself to get there.
I couldn’t begin to compile a complete list of all the amazing options we have for hiking in our region. These were just a few easy ones off the top of my head, and I’m always looking for new places to explore. What are your favorite trails? Feel free to share with me via Instagram! I hope you all get your butts outside and get to enjoy the spring weather! Before we know it, it’ll be too hot for anything but air conditioning.