Sitting inside Cherokee National Forest in northeastern Tennessee, Erwin is a hiker’s paradise. The town is surrounded by 150 miles of forest trails, not to mention the A.T., which skirts the edge of the small mountain community. And then there’s the Nolichucky River, a classic Southern whitewater run that borders the town providing easy access to playboating and river running excursions. A.T. thru-hikers usually rest a couple of days in Erwin before pushing on to Damascus, and paddlers regularly descend on the small mountain town, making the community a hub for adventure in Eastern Tennessee.
TOP 5 ADVENTURES</em>
PADDLE THE NOLICHUCKY
The Noli cuts one of the deepest gorges on the east coast, with stretches that run 1,000 feet deep. It’s one of the classic whitewater runs on the to-do list of every Southern boater. Paddle the popular 8.5-mile run through the heart of the gorge, chock full of class II-IV rapids. Most of the heavy whitewater is frontloaded at the beginning of the run. Keep an eye out for Quarter Mile—a long series of class IV drops with multiple lines, and Jaws—a wide, powerful class III wave that playboaters will spend hours surfing.
EXPLORE THE LAND OF THE LOST
Worley’s Cave (aka Morril’s Cave State Natural Area) is an expansive system of rooms and tunnels with 37,000 feet of mapped passages on two levels. All the caving porn is there (stalagtites, stalagmites, underground creek), but what’s really impressive is the size. Some rooms have ceilings that loom 100 feet over your head.
BIKE BUFFALO MOUNTAIN
Located inside the Cherokee National Forest, the Buffalo Mountain trail system is managed primarily for ATV use, but mountain bikers living in nearby Erwin and Johnson City have adopted the system as their own. Blue Trail is the jewel of the system. The long, long, downhill boasts banked turns, whoop-de-doos, jumps, and rock gardens. Time your visit right, though. After a good rain, Blue Trail is a mud pit.
TREK THE WILDERNESS
The Unaka Mountain Wilderness may only be 4,500 acres, but it packs a wallop. The area is filled with giant 100-year-old hemlocks, packed with waterfalls, and boasts a summit worthy of any peak bagger’s portfolio. Hike the A.T. from the Nolichucky to the top of Unaka Mountain (5,180 feet). It’s a 6.5 mile one way hike that passes by Beauty Spot, a high elevation grassy bald with views that stretch to Roan Mountain.
HIKE TO BUCKEYE FALLS
Depending on who you talk to, Buckeye Falls is either a 400-foot waterfall or a 700-foot waterfall. Either way, it’s the highest waterfall in Tennessee, cascading for several hundred feet as it drops off the edge of Sampson Mountain. Hike the Clark Creek Trail from the Horse Creek Recreation Area inside the Unaka District of the Cherokee National Forest.
Sure, the barbecue is outstanding at the River’s Edge (riversedgebbq.com), but what’s truly unique is the location. The restaurant sits on the edge of the Noli at the bottom of an 800-foot tall rock cliff known as the Devil’s Looking Glass. Native Americans used to chase herds of deer off the top of the cliffs in order to provide supplies of meat for their village. For burritos (a trail staple), Erwin Burrito (423-743-7171) is your destination. Thru-hikers rave about the spicy chicken all the way to Damascus. Skip the hotel and opt for a campsite in Erwin. Check out the Nolichucky Gorge Campground, which is flanked by the Noli on one side and the A.T. on the other. For a bit of luxury, book one of the campground’s elevated platform tents, complete with air mattress. 423-743-8876. For a guided rafting trip, look up Mountain Adventure Guides (mtnadventureguides.com) and for backcountry supplies and a bit of local character, hit Uncle Johnny’s Hostel and Outfitters (unclejohnnys.net), which provides shuttles for hikers and boaters.
Erwin enjoys the distinction of being the only town in Tennessee that has publicly executed an elephant. In 1916, a circus elephant named Mary trampled her handler and was punished for the crime by hanging. You’d think this would be the only public execution of an elephant in the entire country, but you’d be wrong. Executing elephants was more common than you could imagine throughout our country’s history. Thomas Edison even electrocuted an elephant to prove a point about electricity.