10 Places for Epic Adventures in Cherokee National Forest in East Tennessee

These destinations will guarantee epic adventures when you visit Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee.

Written by

Jason Barnette


July 13, 2020

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COVID-19 has changed the world. The tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit areas of the global pandemic. Local restaurants, museums, state and national parks have all changed hours of operation, procedures, and some have gone out of business altogether.

Please verify current operations of any places you want to visit mentioned in these articles, and contact me if a business has permanently closed so I can update the article. Thank you and stay safe out there!

Stretching from Chattanooga to Bristol, Cherokee National Forest is one of the most adventurous destinations in Tennessee. Whitewater rafting and horseback riding are options, but so are peaceful drives on scenic highways and long picnics atop bald mountains. But where should you visit in this sizeable national forest?

I’ve been exploring Cherokee National Forests on road trips, weekend getaways, and media tours for nearly ten years. I haven’t come close to doing or seeing it all, and that’s precisely what I love about this national forest. It’s the only national forest in Tennessee, aside from the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, so I tend to soak it up when I can.

Here are some places for epic adventures in Cherokee National Forest. Leave me a comment below and tell me your experiences at any of these awesome destinations.

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No. 1

Backbone Rock Recreation Area

In 1901, a tunnel was drilled through solid rock to create a route for a railroad between Shady Valley, Tennessee, and Damascus, Virginia. Today, TN Highway 133 passes through what the locals call “The Shortest Tunnel in the World.”

Two trails at the small recreation area offer exciting opportunities to get outside. Visitors can climb a series of wooden stairs at the end of the parking lot and walk across the tunnel with views over the road. Across the road, a short trail leads to Backbone Falls, a small cascading waterfall tucked into a cove.

Backbone Rock Campground has 10 campsites along the bubbling Beaverdam Creek. Each campsite has a fire ring and picnic table, and the campground features flush toilets.

Watauga Ranger Station 4400 Unicoi Drive, Unicoi, TN | 423-735-1500

No. 2

Appalachian Trail

Stretching almost 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine, the Appalachian Trail is the premier hiking trail on the east coast. About 150 miles of the scenic hiking trail passes through Cherokee National Forest between Damascus, Virginia and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

As the AT passes through the national forest, there are three really great day hiking destinations to enjoy.

  • From the crossing at US Highway 321, it’s a few miles hike along the AT to Laurel Fork Falls, one of the most beautiful hidden waterfalls in Tennessee.
  • The Appalachian Trail crosses the Roan Highlands and Carver’s Gap, making it one of the most popular day hike destinations on the entire trail.
  • The hike on the AT at either end of Unaka Mountain is strenuous at best, but a popular day hike destination begins at The Beauty Spot near the top of the mountain.

Want to thru-hike the 150-mile section through Cherokee National Forest? Begin at the Appalachian Trail crossing the Pigeon River in Hartford and hike northbound. Continue through the national forest into Damascus, Virginia, also known as “Trail Town USA” and home of the annual Trail Days Festival.

No. 3

South Holston Lake

The 7,580-acre South Holston Lake is an excellent place to spend a day. Just a half-hour drive from Bristol, the lake offers all sorts of water activities, hiking trails, horseback riding trails, and camping.

South Holston Dam offers a rare chance to drive across the top of a Tennessee Valley Authority dam. A small recreation area on the other side provides picnic tables with a gorgeous view of the lake. Below the dam, Osceola Island has an easy hiking trail that loops around the island surrounded by the river. Just below the weir dam at the island is a popular place for fly fishing.

Didn’t bring your own boat? Head over to Laurel Marina & Yacht Club for rental pontoon boats and motorboats. Spend a day exploring the undeveloped shoreline and hidden coves of the lake.

For a real treat, spend a night or two at the Little Oak Campground. Entirely surrounded by undeveloped national forest land, a night at this campground is about as peaceful as it can get. The campground includes 69 campsites for RVs or tents, flush toilets, and a shower facility.

Watauga Ranger Station 4400 Unicoi Drive, Unicoi, TN | 423-735-1500

No. 4

Watauga Lake

While South Holston Lake is a popular destination for motorboating, the 6,430-acre Watauga Lake is popular for sailing. US Highway 321 winds along the southern shore, connecting nearby Johnson City with Boone, North Carolina.

The Watauga Dam area is a great place to spend a weekend. A small recreation area beside the dam offers picnic tables and a spectacular view of the lake. The Appalachian Trail crosses the dam here as it meanders along the shoreline. Below the dam, the Watauga Dam Campground is the perfect getaway.

Shook Branch Beach is an excellent day trip destination with a large, sandy beach and swimming area in the corner of Watauga Lake. Watauga Point Recreation Area is my favorite place to visit around the lake with several picnic tables beneath the shade of trees and lots of places to string up a hammock.

Cardens Bluff Campground, located between the two recreation areas, includes 43 campsites on a peaceful peninsula on the lake. Each campsite includes a fire ring and picnic table, and the campground has flush toilets and a shower facility.

Watauga Ranger Station 4400 Unicoi Drive, Unicoi, TN | 423-735-1500

No. 5

Roan Highlands

At 6,285’ above sea level, Roan High Knob is one of the highest peaks of the Appalachian Mountains. Surrounding this mountain peak is the Rhododendron Gardens, an area filled with Catawba rhododendrons that blooms every spring. While visiting this attraction, be sure to take the short 1-mile trail out to Roan High Bluff to the observation deck on the side of the mountain.

READ MORE: How to View Thousands of Blooms at the Rhododendron Gardens on Roan Mountain, Tennessee

Just below the gardens, Carver’s Gap is the meeting point of the Appalachian Trail and TN Highway 143. The small parking lot is a popular day hiking destination on the AT across the Roan Highlands, a series of bald mountains. The hike is easy, making it such a popular destination.

Nolichucky-Unaka Ranger Station 4900 Asheville Highway, Greeneville, TN | 423-638-4109

No. 6

Unaka Mountain

The Appalachian Trail crosses Unaka Mountain, and either side involves a rather difficult ascent. However, visitors hoping to enjoy one of the most breathtaking views in Tennessee can drive along the gravel Unaka Mountain Road to The Beauty Spot. A short hike from the parking area leads to a bald hilltop with views to the horizon.

At the base of the mountain, Rock Creek Recreation Area is a fantastic place to spend a couple nights. The secluded campground is one of the best in Cherokee National Forest. The campground includes 27 fully accessible campsites with electric hookups. Go for a hike to a nearby waterfall, or just hang back to enjoy the natural swimming pool and playground.

One of my favorite places in the area is the Chestoa Recreation Area along the Nolichucky River. The shallow water along the rocky beach is the perfect place to swim or go tubing. But if you’re up for more adventure, USA Raft Adventure Resort offers whitewater rafting excursions on the Nolichucky.

Nolichucky-Unaka Ranger Station 4900 Asheville Highway, Greeneville, TN | 423-638-4109

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No. 7

Pigeon River

The Pigeon River runs through a gap in the Appalachian Mountains at the northern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The river is a popular destination for whitewater rafting with Class II and III rapids between Hartford and Denton.

Wildwater is one of the best whitewater rafting companies offering excursions on the Pigeon River. Their 2-3 hour trips include thrilling paddles through the rapids and quiet moments along the way. Be sure to book a Jeep experience and zip lining adventure to complete the day!

Nolichucky-Unaka Ranger Station 4900 Asheville Highway, Greeneville, TN | 423-638-4109

No. 8

Cherohala Skyway

The 43-mile Cherohala Skyway is one of the most beautiful, hidden road trip destinations in the southeast. Stretching from Tellico Plains, Tennessee, across the mountains to Robbinsville, North Carolina, the scenic route includes a dozen gorgeous scenic overlooks and hiking trails.

Along the way, the Indian Boundary Recreation Area is a great place to spend a night or two. The massive secluded campground includes 87 campsites with electric hookups, water faucets throughout the loops, and shower facilities. A gorgeous lake is a great place for swimming or kayaking with a view of mountain ranges in the distance.

READ MORE: Road Trip on the Cherohala Skyway From Tennessee to North Carolina

A few miles from the Tellico Ranger Station, Bald River Falls is the most accessible waterfall in the state. Visitors can drive to the waterfall, park the car nearby, and walk back to a bridge a couple hundred feet in front of the thunderous waterfall.

Tellico Ranger Station 250 Ranger Station Road, Tellico Plains, TN | 423-253-8400

No. 9

Hiwassee River

The 6-mile stretch of the Hiwassee River through Cherokee National Forest offers Class I-III rapids along a curvy path through the mountains. The small community of Reliance sits in the middle of that stretch of river, offering an excellent opportunity for getting on the water with Hiwassee Outfitters.

The Benton MacKaye Trail, a 300-mile scenic trail, passes through Reliance. Named after the Massachusetts forester, who was an early proponent to the Appalachian Trail, the Benton MacKaye Trail begins in Springer Mountain, Georgia, and ends in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Ocoee-Hiwassee Ranger Station 3171 Highway 64, Benton, TN | 423-338-3300

No. 10

Ocoee Scenic Byway

The 30-mile Ocoee Scenic Byway is one of the most gorgeous and exciting road trip routes in Tennessee. Stretching between Ocoee and Ducktown, the route passes through the Ocoee River Gorge in Cherokee National Forest.

Parksville Lake, created in 1911 by the Tennessee Rural Electric Company, is the oldest lake in Cherokee National Forest. The 1,930-acre lake is an excellent day trip destination. Rent a boat at Lake Ocoee Inn & Marina, or bring your own kayak to enjoy a day on the water. Head over to Mac Point or Parksville Beach to enjoy swimming and picnicking with a view of the lake.

READ MORE: Road Trip: Exploring the Ocoee Scenic Byway Through East Tennessee

The Ocoee River is a popular place for whitewater rafting. Throughout the week, rafters enjoy excursions on the lower half of the river from the Middle Ocoee Put-In to a pull out near Parksville Lake. On weekends, the TVA releases water from the dam upriver to allow rafters a full experience on the river. Adventures Unlimited is my favorite local outfitter for whitewater rafting on the Ocoee.  

Near the end of the scenic drive is the Ocoee Whitewater Center. Built in 1996 for the Summer Olympics, today, the building serves as a visitor center, gift shop, and launching point for adventures in Cherokee National Forest. Take a walk along the Ocoee River, or cross it on the gorgeous steel bridge, and discover some nearby hiking trails.

Ocoee-Hiwassee Ranger Station 3171 Highway 64, Benton, TN | 423-338-3300

Did you know?

In 1988, the 19-mile stretch of US Highway 64/74 between Ocoee and Ducktown was designated the Ocoee Scenic Byway. It was the first National Scenic Byway designated in a national forest in the country.

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2 Responses

  1. Excellent article, Jason! I have all of the Appalachian Trail through the Cherokee National Forest, thus I am familiar with the places you highlighted.

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