Carter County, TN is not a mountain community many down here have heard of, and therefore don’t have on their “to-do” lists — but I promise you, add it and you won’t regret it! Our family visited one weekend toward the end of July, and it was a jam-packed and beautiful couple of days.
We tried out new adventures, hiked new trails, swam in the most amazing lake, saw a live show, visited their downtown shops, ate their awesome food, and made new friends along the way.
This mountain community is located in northeast Tennessee, right on the border with North Carolina. The Appalachian Trail passes through this area, and there are reminders of that everywhere you look. One of our favorite things about this area, is that it’s only about a 4-hour drive to get there, but it truly felt like we were a world away. And one of the most amazing things about our visit was that even though this is an area with a lot of things to do and explore, it had an awesome small-town feel.
Everywhere we went, people were quick to chat with us and share their favorite spots and memories — it was truly the coolest part! We went there expecting to really like the hiking and adventures, but were constantly amazed at how completely awesome and welcoming everyone we met was.
Intrigued? Let us take you on a tour of our weekend in this amazing mountain playground!
Black Bear Resort
We arrived on a Friday evening at Black Bear Resort ready for a weekend in one of their rustic creekside cabins. These cabins were…adorable. I know that’s not a word that I would normally use to describe a cabin, but it seriously was!
There were four of these types of cabins surrounding a fire pit area, and to say our cabin was a huge hit for our kids would be an understatement. They loved it! Our cabin had two bunk beds in it (twins over fulls) for our family of four, and it backed up on the most beautiful trout stream.
This resort is located less than half a mile from the Appalachian Trail, and is a popular stop for hikers. We loved staying here! The kids really enjoyed the creek — they woke up every morning and headed right down there to hunt for crayfish first thing. The bathrooms and showers were located in a building a short walk from our cabin, and our daughter thought that was so cool, she insisted on a shower every day and night. So there you go — it could make your kids want to bathe!
There are all sorts of accommodations here for every type of traveler — a bunk house for hikers just stopping by, campsites, or cabins for larger groups. There is no A/C here, but there is a ceiling fan, and they do have small, portable heaters for cold nights. The whole place had a feeling of a storybook camp, and we adored it.
Saturday morning, we woke up and headed out to Southern Restaurant in the downtown area of Elizabethton for breakfast — and it was the best meal decision we ever made. This place was so good! We loved the food, we loved the service, and we loved the people! This was a place where everyone sort of seemed to know each other — and since they didn’t know us, they introduced themselves! It was honestly an amazing experience and started our day off right. And their food was awesome — we had eggs, pancakes, sausage, biscuits, gravy, coffee, juice…you name it, we had it! Everything was delicious, and we had the best time. Our kids thought this was the greatest place. We can’t wait to go back.
After breakfast, we were explored downtown Elizabethton a bit. Home to antiques shops, bookstores, restaurants, and even an escape room, this was a fun place! We loved every shop we visited, and left with new treasures, friends, and — in the case of my husband — about 20 new books.
Off The Grid Mountain Adventures
And then we were ready for adventure! We headed to Off the Grid Mountain Adventures to see if I could convince my kids to zipline! (Spoiler alert: I couldn’t.) But here’s the cool thing about this place — they have so much to do, there was still adventure in our future.
So we signed ourselves up for the ATV tour. You guys? It. Was. Awesome! I’ve never driven an ATV, and was pretty nervous to do it, but they made it so simple! After training us, and setting us up with helmets and goggles, our guide asked me what experience I had. Me: “None.” Him: “None at all? ATVs? 4-wheelers? Snow?” Me: “Umm…I’ve driven in Atlanta traffic for almost 18 years.” Him: “Oh! You’re gonna be good then!” And we were off!
I followed pretty much every single thing our guide did, and we had the best time. We drove up, around and down the mountain, on all sorts of trails, and all sorts of speeds and had the time of our lives! We thought it was wonderful. We’d also love to come back here to try their other adventures — in addition to the ATVs and ziplines, they also have BASE jumping, a giant swing, Hagglund tours (a military track vehicle), and rappeling. The place was awesome, and we loved our time here.
Shook Branch Recreation Area
Since we were all dusty, we decided our best bet was to…jump in a lake! And as luck would have it, Lake Watauga is here! So we drove over to the Shook Branch Recreation Area to swim. You know how sometimes you drive up to a new place and get excited as soon as you see it? That’s this.
This place looks like a postcard. We drove up, got changed into our suits there, and then headed out to swim. It’s gorgeous. The views were spectacular, and for us, swimming in a lake surrounded by mountains is as good as it gets. The water was perfect, and the beach area was great, with lots of picnic tables to choose from. We honestly could’ve stayed here all day — we highly recommend this stop!
“Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals”
After swimming our afternoon away, we headed back to our cabin to rest and get changed so we could see “Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals” at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. “Liberty!” is the official outdoor drama of the state of Tennessee and is shown only nine nights every summer.
This elaborate drama depicts the settlement of this area in the 18th century and takes place right in front of Fort Watauga. We didn’t know exactly what to expect, but this was one amazing show. Local residents practice for months, and it’s really, really well-done. Our kids are…active and this show had them completely mesmerized. Before the show, we also walked through the visitor area and museum, and we all loved that too!
Sunday morning first thing, we packed up and headed out to do some hiking in the Roan Mountain area! We planned to see the sunrise on our way up to Roan Mountain, but that morning was a little gloomy and rainy, and the sun hid from us. But that was fine by us, because what we did see was awesome — it was misty, and ended up looking like we walked right onto the set of Lord of the Rings!
We used Asheville Trails (of Atlanta Trails fame) as a guide for this area, with the intent of hiking the Cloudland Trail specifically. But remember how I said it was misty? So even though we parked at the right place, we actually hiked a completely different part. Ha! So let me promise you this, no matter what part of the Appalachian Trail you hike up there — it’s going to be beautiful and you will love it!
Our kids would tell you this was one of their very favorite hikes…ever! We searched for Bigfoot (came up empty), we searched for an AT shelter (found it). We looked for fairies, heart rocks, and sunshine. We loved that it was a little chilly and breezy, and were excited that it smelled like Christmas. We had the very best time up there, and it was such a perfectly fun day. We honestly never wanted to leave, but after this part of our adventure, it was time to head home.
As soon as we got home — that night — I started looking up campsite availability for a fall visit. That’s how much we loved it! We felt like we did so much, but there was still so much we wanted to do! And we have so many restaurants left on our list to try that was recommended to us by everyone we met: Captain’s Table, Jiggy Ray’s, and Red Chili, just to name a few.
We’d love to rent a boat on Lake Watauga, or go rafting down the Watauga River. We’d love to explore more of Roan Mountain State Park. We’d love to actually hike the Cloudland Trial!
The weekend we spent in Carter County was awesome. We honestly loved every aspect of our trip, and truly loved all of the new experiences and people we met along the way. They call themselves a mountain playground — and we absolutely agree. If you can’t swing a weekend getaway Carter County would be a great day trip from Knoxville, Tennessee too!
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