The ancient, weathered Appalachian Mountains line the extreme southeastern tip of Tennessee from the Virginia state line to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Tucked here and there along the length of this stretch of the mountain chain are outdoor recreation opportunities, historical sites and interesting small towns.
Beginning at the Virginia state line and heading southwest, the small town of Mountain City is the first stop on this back road tour. Located at the junction of Highways 91 and 67, the town sits at an elevation of 2,350 feet and is the highest town in the state. Golfing is popular here and the scenery is breathtaking. Camping is available at the welcome center/museum.
Follow winding Hwy. 421 to nearby Shady Valley, a town with a cool, wet climate that's perfect for growing cranberries, originally brought here by northern birds. Orchard Bog and Quarry Bog, owned by the Nature Conservancy and open dawn to dusk, have maintained the crop. The berries may not be numerous but an annual festival is held in their honor. Drive through "the shortest tunnel in the world" as the highway pierces 20-foot thick Backbone Rock. The 75-foot high natural stone wall is located in a park with camping facilities.
Head south on Hwy. 91 to visit the town of Elizabethton, home to Sycamore Shoals State Historical Area. The 50-acre park, located in town, features a reconstructed fort and trail to the Watauga River shoals; the area played an important role in the early settlement of the state. Watauga Dam & Recreation Area offers camping, boating and fishing at the man-made lake. In the downtown area, take a walking tour to see 1882 Doe River Covered Bridge and the John & Landon Carter Mansion, built between 1775 and 1780. Before leaving town, stop by Ridgewood Restaurant, cited in national publications as having the best barbecue in the state.
Follow Highway 19E to Roan Mountain State Park, close to the North Carolina border. If you visit during the last two weeks of June, you'll be treated to a colorful display of over 600 acres of rhododendron. The park is popular year-round with its scenic view of Roan Mountain, at 6,286 feet high. The state park features access to the Appalachian Trail, hiking, fishing and cross-country skiing plus the Dave Miller Homestead, where visitors can see what life might have been like at the early part of the 20th century.
Head southwest on Hwy. 19W/23 to visit Erwin, a historic railroad town. Located in a valley surrounded by the mountains, Erwin is home to the National Fish Hatchery, one of the oldest in the country. On the grounds in a mansion once home to the hatchery superintendent, Unicoi County Heritage Museum features a collection of railroad items and Blue Ridge Pottery. This famous pottery was made in the small town until 1957 and is highly sought after. Whitewater enthusiasts will enjoy Nolichuckey River near Erwin.
This stretch of the Appalachian Mountains runs from the Virginia state line in upper east Tennessee to the Great Smoky Mountains and extends to the North Carolina border.