Johnson City, Tennessee is a place born of the blast of steam engine whistles and the hushed whispers of ties to Prohibition’s most notorious kingpin. Blossoming from a modest watering stop to a full-fledged hub of the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad, and playing host to Al Capone–or so the locals say–imbues the town of 63,000 with a rich history all its own. Nestled in the mountains of East Tennessee, surrounded by lakes and rivers renowned for their bounty of trout and bass, and serving as the gateway to the Cherokee National Forest, Johnson City is a town rediscovering itself. A reawakening downtown, a brand new microbrewery invigorating a long-simmering beer culture, and new parks and trails on the rise give Johnson City a future that is sure to be as storied as its past.
Fish South Holston Tailwater
Once described as “’A River Runs Through It’ on mescaline,” the tail water of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s South Holston Dam boasts around 8,500 trout per mile; 80% of that massive population are wild. SoHo, as the locals affectionately know it, begins approximately 20 miles from Johnson City proper. South Holston Fly Shop sits on Emmett Rd., en route to the most easily accessible spots on the river, including Osceola Island, not far below the dam. Orvis’ 2014 National Guide of the Year, Patrick Fulkrod, also calls SoHo his home water. With water temperatures that vary only about 10 degrees over the course of the year, SoHo is perfect for wading or floating any time of the year. January through March see a lot of action on Black Duns, Blue Wing Olives, Olive Soft Hackles, and the trusty Pheasant Tail Nymph.
Go for a Run or a Ride on the Tweetsie Trail
The former ET&WNC rail line sat abandoned for decades, until the largest rails-to-trails project in Tennessee converted the long-defunct spur line into the Tweetsie Trail. The trail ambles ten miles between downtown Johnson City and downtown Elizabethton on a relatively flat grade and is perfect for running, biking, or just a leisurely stroll. The trail can be picked up at any point along its downtown length, or at the trailhead on Alabama St.
Hike Buffalo Mtn.
Obtained in 1994 through a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service, Buffalo Mountain Park boasts 725 acres of dense forest and rugged topography relatively close to town. Not a place of great renown regionally, but much loved by locals, Buffalo Mountain is a fantastic day hike with unexpected rewards; White Rock overlook and Tip Top overlook lend hikers some of the most spectacular views to be seen so close to the comforts of town.
Touch everything at Hands On Museum
For families visiting Downtown Johnson City, Hands On Museum is exactly what it sounds like: a museum where visitors are allowed, and encouraged, to touch everything in sight. Recently home to the traveling ‘Bodies’ exhibit, and housing exhibits on space, weather, TV news production, and a vast array of varied and unique learning experiences, Hands On is wildly popular with local kids, and local kids-at-heart.
Opened in 2008 by native German Andreas Herholz, a newly-minted American citizen, Freiberg’s very quickly became a local favorite. Everything in the cozy, rustic corner restaurant on Fountain Square in Downton Johnson City is made from scratch and fully authentic German fare. A full tap of imported German beers and every combination of schnitzels, brats, kraut, and potatoes imaginable make Freiberg a one-of-a-kind gem downtown, and welcome respite from humdrum culinaria. Check them out on Facebook for more info.
A copious and continually-rotating beer selection and a full menu of tacos, tamales, burritos, and nachos make this downtown taco joint a frequent haunt for loads of locals. A patio, open during the warmer months, adds to the possibilities for you and your party people. Also during the warmer months, the local Trek Bikes store hosts a giant group ride through the historic Tree Streets district of downtown Johnson City. The aptly-named Taco Trek terminates at the back gates of Holy Taco for tacos and hard-earned cervezas.
Dos Gatos Coffee Bar
The former Brew Plum Coffee Bar, newly rebranded to honor owner Dick Nelson’s two cats, Georgia and O’Keefe, has continued its role as an oasis for coffee lovers in Downtown Johnson City. Located inside Nelson’s Fine Art Gallery on Main Street, this new-old coffee shop serving Stumptown beans is known far and wide for one treat in particular: Nitro-infused coffees. Nelson has expanded that concept to cover nitro-infused Earl Grey teas, in addition to the stunning fresh-made pumpkin syrups and other flavorings for seasonal drinks, as well as constantly expanding food offerings. Dos Gatos is a must-visit, especially for a Saturday morning jolt before tackling Buffalo Mountain or driving up to Carver’s Gap to hike Roan Mountain. Visit Dos Gatos on Facebook for hours and to find out what treats Nelson’s crew is currently serving up.
Willow Tree Coffeehouse and Music Room
Affectionately referred to as ‘Johnson City’s living room,’ The Willow Tree on Main Street in Downtown Johnson City serves up a full compliment of locally-roasted coffee and fantastic specialty drinks, as well as a menu of lunch specials that Johnson City’s denizens swear by. The house-made pimento cheese sandwich is a smash hit. At night, nearly every evening finds local artists playing in the music room, or some traveling troubadours such as Ashville’s River Whyless gracing the stage. Wednesdays give would-be singer-songwriters their 15 minutes of fame for Open Mic Nights. One rule at the Willow Tree: listen to the music. Conversation can wait.
Few places in Johnson City elicit such deep sighs and far-off gazes from the locals as Scratch. This wood-fired pizza joint in the heart of downtown feels like home to Johnson City-ites. Mostly because it is, in fact, a home. Built in an old house on the corner of South Roan St. and Unaka Ave., the weirdest little pizza place in all the land serves up huge pies with any smorgasbord of toppings diners dare to ask for from top-notch pepperoni or capicola to shaved salmon and mandarin oranges. Or, act like a local; just walk right in and order a ‘Trust Pizza.’ Account for allergies or personal exclusions and then hand over purview of your pie to the masters behind the counter. They never, ever disappoint. Mexican Coca-Cola and the lauded local favorite Dr. Enuf fill the coolers, and guests are encouraged to find a record they like from the crate, and change the tunes at their discretion.
Libations and Nightlife
Pouring their first pint in summer 2015, Johnson City’s first true microbrewery boasts a strong pedigree in the form of former Lagunitas brewer Brandon Greenwood. YeeHaw keeps a solid stable of meticulously-crafted styles on hand including a true pilsner, Munich dunkel, Scottish ale, pale ale, IPA, Oktoberfest, and winter porter. Yahoo Travel thought so much of the upstart brewery that they recently named YeeHaw the best brewery in the state of Tennessee. Housed in the former Tweetsie Depot on the edge of Downtown, YeeHaw’s taproom welcomes those thirsty among us with a lively ambience that includes skee-ball and comfortable seating in abundance inside, and plenteous patio space around a tri-star fire pit – an homage to the state flag – outside. Paired with a crispy pork belly or Korean bulgogi taco from the attached White Duck Taco Shop, YeeHaw’s brews are a must while in JC.
Johnson City Brewing Company:
A passion project turned side hustle turned full-fledged nano-brewery (and soon to be micro-brewery), JCB is a local favorite. Step into their brand-spanking-new downtown taproom at the corner of East Main St. and Roan St. and you’ll soon find out why. The (literally) dozens of owners of the venture are a creative force. In an era where throwing more hops into a beer and aging it in a bourbon barrel is passed off as avant garde, the folks at JCB have hung on to the homebrew ethos of experimentation. There’s never any telling what they’ve got a special barrel of, just waiting to be unleashed on a choice few lucky imbibers. In their new location, and with their in-progress production facility upgrade, JCB is poised to become the beer of Johnson City. Need proof? For the grand opening shindig of their new space in November, the street was blocked off and the line for a beer could have left time for reading a David Foster Wallace novel. Bottom line: It’s good beer made here by good people. Pay a visit to their Facebook page for up-to-date hours and offerings.
Main St. Pizza
Justifiably included in either the Libations or the Food section, Main St. Pizza is an unexpected chimera of fantastic pizza and pasta joint, and creative cocktail bar. The constantly-changing menu of house cocktails never fails to disappoint; there is always a new drink on the board to try. Past concoctions have included the Flannel Shirt, a blend of beer, Tennessee whiskey, lemon, maple syrup, and candied bacon, and the Southern Belle, a smoked mixture of Earl Grey-infused brandy and allspice dram. Situated on the corner of Main St. and South Roan St., with huge windows and late hours that allow for premium people watching, Main St. has a well-earned reputation as a downtown favorite. Try the Pine Street Pesto pie. You’ll be glad you did.
Housed in the Carnegie Hotel, a rebuilt homage to the city’s upscale hotel lost to a fire in the 1920s, Wellington’s is the preferred destination for good whisk(e)y imbibed by a fire in leather chairs. Wellington’s is home to a truly massive selection of bourbon and Scotch whiskies, which can be enjoyed in the main bar area, or taken down the hall to the Roosevelt Library, a lounge area paying its respects to the truest traditions of ‘20s era hotel life. Adam makes a mean Sazerac. Don’t leave without one.
The Down Home
Owned and operated by Ed Snodderly whose lyrics are inscribed on the walls of the Country Music Hall of Fame, The Down Home is a music venue in its purest form. In an unassuming section of West Main Street, in an equally unassuming building, the Down Home plays host to the likes of young guns like Parker Millsap, and established names like Dan Tyminski, and Noam Pikelny of Punch Brothers fame. Beer and simple fare are available, but when the music starts the patrons of the Down Home know the rules: they’re here to listen. The result is an intimate, communal music experience that draws serious musicians and serious patrons with one common love: good shared art.
Carden’s Bluff Campground
Carden’s Bluff, open mid-April through early November, offers 40 sites, primarily for tent camping, on a peninsula overlooking the 6,430-acre Watauga Lake and surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest. Waking up overlooking the sunrise coming up over Watauga is an experience that every lover of the natural world must experience. A bathhouse with flush toilets offers a bastion of creature comfort in the otherwise simple facility. From Hampton, Tenn., a left turn onto State Route 321, and three more miles will lead campers to the site.
For visitors to Johnson City looking for more upscale accommodations the Carnegie Hotel, a AAA Four-Diamond hotel, is the place to bed down for the evening. 128 guestrooms and 11 suites, including four Presidential Suites offer guests modern comforts in a recreated and rebuilt (the original hotel was lost to a fire) hotel from the 1920s. On site, guests will find the aforementioned Wellington’s, a fantastic stop for dinner and drinks, as well as the Austin Springs Spa, if a little pampering is on the agenda.
Approximately 15 minutes from Johnson City is Jonesborough, Tennessee’s oldest town. In addition to a main street filled with small, unique shops including an artisan chocolatier and a record shop, Jonesborough is home to a number of charming bed and breakfasts all along Main Street. Soak up the history of the state’s oldest town, and let the morning linger a little in accommodations that have been welcoming visitors to the area since the 18th century.
The Fouled Anchor
Downtown Johnson City is no stranger to the blight of the disappearance of small business wasting disease. But through the dedicated efforts and long-shot gambles of advocates and business owners, downtown Johnson City’s once-thriving shops are being reborn and imbued with new energy. One of those shops is The Fouled Anchor, a West Main Street shop featuring handcrafted goods for men. From clothing from Crawford Denim in California, to axes and hatchets from Victor Axe and Tool in Michigan, to that icon of the American working man, Stanley, the wares in this downtown mecca of manhood are intentionally curated and perfectly suited to the man looking to break out of the big box mold.
A brand-spankin-new addition to the outfitter game in JC, Overmountain Outdoors’ Market Street shop features a carefully-chosen selection of goods for intrepid adventurers from proven brands such as Astral and Bertucci in a quickly reawakening downtown setting. Check them out on Instgram.
C.S. McCullough’s Barber Shop
Opened on East Main St. in January 2016, and now hosting the Fouled Anchor’s retail space, this old-school joint named for owner Randy Almanzor’s grandfather has everything a man could want in a barber shop. Large leather couches and chairs populate the waiting area, the smell of an honest-to-god barber shop hits you square in the face, and someone offers you a beer as soon as you walk in the door. That should be enough of a sell, but the barbers and stylists are top-notch pros at any style you could possibly ask them about, including an old-school hot lather, straight razor shave. Complete with a bracing blast of aftershave (if you want). Play shuffleboard while you wait, or browse the manly wares that The Fouled Anchor has on offer. Regulars also know the secret of the gutted and refurbished Frigidaire that’s been turned into a whisk(e)y locker. Bring a bottle, put your name on it, and enjoy a pour from your preferred stash whenever you come in for a trim. One rule: If you bring Pappy, you have to share. Book an appointment in seconds online at csbarbers.com and recieve reminders and confirmations via text or email.
[divider]About the Author[/divider]
Ryan Lee is a freelance writer, history nerd, and trout bum living and working in Johnson City, Tenn. You can check out more of his work at pryanlee.com.