3 Days in Johnson City, TN
If you’ve traveled on I-81 between Tennessee and Virginia, you’ve likely seen the turnoff for Johnson City. It’s another small city in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and their logo aptly states “start your adventure here.” It’s a great hub for biking, hiking, and even exploring a fossil site.
Over the years, the downtown has been revitalized and offers terrific restaurants and breweries in a quaint downtown setting. It’s a place where you can spend a day hiking the Appalachian Trail over numerous mountain balds with amazing 360 degree views, bike a local family-friendly bike path, or tour a fossil dig site. And from all of these activities, easily return to town for lodging, a local craft beer, and a great meal.
Day 1- Welcome to Johnson City! Visit Gray's Fossil Museum and enjoy dinner downtown at Main St. Pizza or Friebergs German Restaurant.
Day 2-Grab a quick bite at your lodging for an early start, pack a picnic and take an easy hike on the AT northbound from Carvers Gap to Round Bald and Jane Bald. Afterwards, stop by a local farm for apples or berry picking (seasonal of course). Finish off the day at White Duck Taco and Yeehaw Brewing.
Day 3- Fuel up at breakfast at Tupelo Honey (Saturday and Sunday only) before biking the easy and flat Tweetsie Trail.
Where To Sleep
Johnson City doesn’t have many VRBO or Airbnb listings, so a hotel or camping might be the best lodging option. We chose to camp at Roan Mountain Campground because we had our dog with us and its the closest lodging to the Appalachian Trail at Carvers Gap. That being said, I would certainly consider any of the lodgings listed below on a return visit. These listings are roughly 10 minutes from downtown Johnson City and 1 hour to Carver’s Gap.
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- Carnegie Hotel- This classic and elegant hotel is considered the most luxurious stay in Johnson City but is priced under $150 on weekends. It has an outdoor pool as well as a restaurant and bar on site. Good location to downtown dining (1 mile away) and across from East Tennessee State University (ETSU). You could walk to restaurants but it would be along a busy road, so car travel is recommended. (Uber is available here too.) This would be my first choice for a return visit. 1216 West State of Franklin Road.
- Doubletree Hotel- Indoor and outdoor pool located a 10 minute drive away from downtown. Prices average about $100 night. 211 Mockingbird Lane
- Hampton Inn also averages about $100 night and offers free breakfast and an outdoor pool. A 6 minute drive to downtown. 508 N. State of Franklin.
Recommended Airbnb Listings
1- The Vault Loft downtown- Sleeps 4 in 1 King bed and 1 Queen bed. Terrific location but could be loud in the main room from street noise. One bed is actually located in the vault. Averages $150 night. Her description: “Downtown loft in an old bank building from the days of Capone. Secured with code access to the building and unique code to loft. One of the rooms is inside the bank vault. It is an open floor plan with large windows over looking Spring St, YeeHaw Brewery, the train tracks, and on the backdrop of Buffalo Mountain.” Located on Spring Street.
2-Guesthouse at Jones Farm- Sleeps 6 in two bedrooms. 2 Queen beds in upstairs loft accessible by ladder and 1 queen downstairs. It offers a gorgeous outdoor pool and patio area and sits on a 90 acre farm. Would be a wonderful rental in the summer. A rural setting but within 20 minutes to downtown Johnson City and 48 minutes to Carvers Gap. Average $225 night.
Roan Mountain State Park
Located on TN Hwy 143 at the base of Roan Mountain, Roan Mountain State Park is just a 15 minute drive to the Appalachian Trail (AT) at Carvers Gap and a 40 minute drive to Johnson City. It has multiple hiking and biking trails, ranger programs, a playground, and even a pool.The Doe River, stocked with trout, runs through the park and campground.
I’m usually deterred by any campground with a pool because, for me, it takes away the nature aspect of the camping experience and almost certainly implies “crowded campground.” But I was pleasantly surprised here. Their tent section offers large sites surrounded by rhododendron offering privacy and shade. I would definitely return here with a tent, but I found the RV sites unbearably close to each other with the exception of site #52, #68, and #72. Reservations for campsites
Roan Mountain State Park Cabins
Tip: Not a camper? Consider renting a state park cabin. Reserve in advance as they go quickly.
Per the website: Cabins 1-20 have one private bedroom with queen size bed, open loft with a set of twin beds. The combination dining/living room is furnished with a dining table for six, a regular couch, two chairs and one sleeper chair which can be folded out into a single sleeper. Each cabin has one bathroom and a fully equipped kitchen. Cabin #1 and #2 are handicapped accessible. Each cabin is completely furnished with all linens and cooking utensils. All of the cabins have a wood-burning stove and rocking chairs on the front porch.
Day 1-Gray Fossil Site & Museum
Before checking in to your lodging, visit the Gray Fossil Site and Museum. The 5-million year old Gray Fossil Site was discovered in 2000 by TDOT highway crews. It now offers tours of an ongoing fossil dig, exhibits, and educational programs. Per their website: The Gray Fossil Site & Museum “is the only Miocene era fossil dig site in the Appalachian Mountains. The site contains well-preserved plant and animal remains dating from 4 million to 8 million years old. The museum features fossil displays of saber tooth cat, tapir, mastodon and many other plants and animals. Visitors can view the dig site with guided tours, browse the gift shop and experience a variety of traveling exhibits.”
The museum is very hands on and tells the story of the find and of the dig site very well. Plan on 2 hours here. I have not visited this museum yet, but have been told by numerous friends and family that it is a “hidden gem”. Adults & children (ages 3+) $5.00
Hours: Tuesday-Friday 9:00 am-5:00 pm; Saturday 10:00 am-5:00pm; Sunday 1:00 pm-5:00pm. Open Monday 9:00 am-5:00 pm during March, June, July, & August only.
Day 1-Dinner Downtown
Two great dining options downtown include Main Street Pizza or Friebergs (German fare). You’ll have to find street parking or park in the free lot across from Friebergs. Main St. Pizza is open 7 days a week from 8am-1am. 300 E Main St.
If you’re in the mood for a good schnitzel, Friebergs is your place. It has a good indoor vibe. Your kiddos will enjoy the mini-brats and pretzels, and the pork schnitzel and mashed potatoes are yummy. Park in the city lot across from the restaurant or along the street if you can find a space. 203 E. Main St. Sunday 11AM-8PM Monday-Thursday 11AM-9PM Fri-Sat. 11am 10pm.
The key today is to get up early enough to be at Carver’s Gap before 10am. So grab a quick bite at your hotel or other lodging and hit the road! Pack water, jackets, sunscreen, and picnic food for the trail.
Day 2-Hike to Round Bald and Jane Bald
Hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) northbound from Carver’s Gap across Round Bald and Jane Bald. This amazing 3 mile roundtrip hike to Jane Bald is a crowd pleaser, and believe me that it’s worth it to get here early to find parking and solitude before the crowds arrive en masse around noon. I find this hike to be one of the easiest, most accessible family hikes to one of the most beautiful views in the Appalachian mountains. Take time to enjoy the vistas, watch the changing cloud formations, and listen to the wind.
Note: From the Carver’s Gap Parking lot, you can access the Appalachian trail heading in either direction (north or south). You can hike northbound across Round Bald, Jane Bald and Grassy Ridge or follow the AT south to Roan High Knob and Roan High Knob shelter. (Roan High Knob shelter is the highest backcountry shelter on the Appalachian trail.)
The hike to Round Bald and Jane Bald is a steady but not so steep incline, especially to Round Bald (0.7 miles from Carver’s Gap). You could easily stop at Round Bald for 1.5 mile roundtrip hike and just explore the bald without continuing to the steeper Jane Bald.
Beginning at an elevation of 5512 feet at Carvers Gap, cross the road from the parking area to the trailhead to walk northbound on the Appalachian Trail (white blaze). The trail climbs gently before entering a short walk through a shaded pine forest, or “tree tunnel” as my girls called it, lined with fun boulder rocks for the kids to climb.
Once you exit the forest, you have a slight climb to the top of Round Bald for a total distance of 0.7 miles and 300’ elevation gain. Stay a while and explore here or continue on to Jane Bald for a 3 mile roundtrip hike from Carvers Gap.
From Round Bald, you can look north along the trail and see a rocky patch at the top of the next “hill.” That’s Jane Bald. To get to Jane Bald, you’ll continue walking northbound on the AT. You will walk down the backside of Round Bald before beginning your 0.7 mile climb up to Jane Bald. The final approach to Jane's Bald is rocky and steep but not terribly long. However, it requires a bit of huffing and puffing unlike the walk to Round Bald.
You will eventually arrive at a rocky, open area made for 360 degree photos. See photos atop Jane Bald below. Tip: Jane Bald is a perfect place to enjoy sunrise or sunset. Also note that the weather here can shift quickly, so it's a good idea to pack a jacket/rain gear.
If you still haven’t had enough, you can continue yet again northbound on the AT from Jane Bald to Grassy Ridge. Go all the way to Grassy Ridge Bald for a five-mile roundtrip hike from Carvers Gap (with a total of about 1,200 feet in elevation gain as you ascend and descend the balds.)
Here's a great overview of the trail.
Directions to Carvers Gap from Johnson City: Carvers Gap is roughly 15 minutes from Roan Mountain Campground and one hour from Johnson City.
- Follow I-26 E to exit 24 Elizabethton (Highway 321) and follow 321 N towards Elizabethton.
- Turn right on TN 362 which eventually turns into TN 361. Follow to the end.
- Turn right on 19 E S and follow roughly 10 miles.
- Turn right on TN 143 S and follow it through Roan State Park until you arrive at the TN/NC border at Carver’s Gap.
- Parking-Park in the parking lot on the right at Carvers Gap if there is a spot. Otherwise, continue toward North Carolina (You’ll see the big “Welcome to NC” sign) and park on the side of the road or the NC parking lot roughly 25 yards past the “Welcome to NC” sign. Tip: You will find bathrooms at the parking lot on the TN side.
Parking at Trailhead
Park in the parking lot on the right at Carvers Gap if there is a spot. Otherwise, continue toward North Carolina (You’ll see the big “Welcome to NC” sign) and park on the side of the road or the NC parking lot roughly 25 yards past the “Welcome to NC” sign. Tip: You will find bathrooms at the parking lot on the TN side.
Day 2 Afternoon- Berry or Apple Picking
Apple Picking- Jarrett's Apple Orchard does not offer pick-your own until the end of the season (Oct. 31), but you can pick up a bag of your favorite apples and taste test to make sure! Peak season is September and October. 161 Jess Jarrett Rd Mon - Sat: 8:30 am - 5:30 pm.
Directions to Jarrett’s from Carvers Gap: Drive North on 143 (Roan Rd) going towards Roan Mountain State Park. Turn right on Burbank Rd. and drive just over one mile before turning left onto Jess Jarrett Rd. You will see the Orchard Store on the right.
Berry Picking- Roan Highlands Farm offers organically grown raspberries during season, usually the last week of June and first week of July, but check with them first. Open for berry picking on Saturdays but other days are by appointment. Note: They are currently growing their apple orchard, so check with them to see if they are ready for picking. 193 Burbank Rd.
Directions to Roan Highlands farm from Carvers Gap: Return north on 143 and turn right on Burbank Rd. It is located on the right at 193 Burbank Rd. See map on next page.
Day 2 Dinner- White Duck Taco and Yeehaw Brewery
A favorite stop is the patio at White Duck Taco and the adjoining taproom of Yeehaw Brewery. Housed in the historic Tweetsie Railroad Depot, kids are welcome and will enjoy a kid’s menu (quesadilla, BLT Chicken Sandwich, etc.) and free popcorn from Yeehaw. The tacos are unique and fresh. We’ve always enjoyed the Bangkok Shrimp and theThai Chicken Curry, but all are terrific. Service is quick, but sometimes has a bit of line to order. Address: 126 Buffalo Street
Day 3 Breakfast- Tupelo Honey
Tupelo Honey is always good. Their biscuits alone can make a meal. Great southern cooking, kids menu, and a terrific outdoor patio on the platform of the historic Clinchfield Train Depot. Brunch on Saturday and Sunday. 300 Buffalo St. Monday to Thurs. 11am-9; Friday 11am-10pm; Sat. 9am-10pm; Sun. 9am-9pm. Parking: Available adjacent to the restaurant as well as across Buffalo St on the corner of Cherry St.
Day 3-Bike or Walk the Tweetsie Trail
The Tweetsie Trail is a rails-to-trails project traversing the former ET&WNC railroad right-of-way between Johnson City and Elizabethton. The well-maintained gravel path is perfect for a family bike ride with a relatively flat grade in a beautiful, natural setting. You’ll cross trestles and bike past a quarry at mile 2.9. Along the trail, you will find historical placards explaining its history and geology.
I recommend starting from Johnson City and biking about 4.4 miles to the Lions Park area and turning back at this point. This section is mostly shaded and has only a few quiet street crossings. As you get closer to Elizabethton, it is less tranquil as you’ll parallel a busy road and lose the shade from the trees.
Tip: Restrooms (porta-potties) can be found at the beginning of the Johnson City trail and at the four-mile mark at Lions Field.
Directions to trailhead: The Tweetsie Trail can be accessed at the trailhead located at the intersection of Legion and Alabama streets in Johnson City. From out-of-town, take Exit 23 from Interstate 26; taking East Main Street, proceed straight through the intersection to Legion Street. Alabama Street and the trailhead will be on the right.
- General Trail Info
- Tweetsie Trail Map
- Trek Bicycle Store (Adult Rental Bikes Only) Hopefully, you can bring your own bikes but if you can't you can rent adult bikes and pull-behind trailers for younger kiddos.
Tannery Knobs Mountain Biking Park has recently opened in Johnson City. Per their website: Riding distance from downtown Johnson City's shops, breweries, and restaurants, Tannery Knobs covers over 40 acres of heavily wooded terrain. Designed as a skills park for all ages, riders can experience the thrill of off road riding in a progressive environment. All trails and features have been professionally designed and built, ensuring enthusiasts and beginners alike will find the perfect ride.
Where To Eat
Downtown has a good selection of restaurants. Here are some to try:
Yeehaw Brewery & White Duck Taco Shop-A favorite stop is the patio at White Duck Taco and the adjoining taproom of Yeehaw Brewery. Housed in the historic Tweetsie Railroad Depot, kids are welcome and will enjoy a kid’s menu (quesadilla, BLT Chicken Sandwich, etc.) and free popcorn from Yeehaw. The tacos are unique and fresh. We’ve always enjoyed the Bangkok Shrimp and the Thai Chicken Curry, but all are terrific. Service is quick, but sometimes has a bit of a line to order. Address: 126 Buffalo Street
Yeehaw Taproom Hours
Sun-Wed from 11:30am-9pm
White Duck Taco Shop-Hours: Monday – Sunday 11:30am – 9pm
Friebergs-If you’re in the mood for a good schnitzel, Friebergs is your place. It has a good indoor vibe. Your kiddos will enjoy the mini-brats and pretzels, and the pork schnitzel and mashed potatoes are yummy. Park in the city lot across from the restaurant or along the street if you can find a space.
203 E. Main St. Sunday 11am-8pm; Monday-Thursday 11am-9pm; Fri & Sat 11am-10pm.
Tupelo Honey is always good. Their biscuits alone can make a meal. Great southern cooking, kids menu, and a terrific outdoor patio on the platform of the historic Clinchfield Train Depot. 300 Buffalo St.
Mon. to Thursday: 11am-9p; F: 11am – 10pm; Sat: 9a – 10pm; Sun: 9am – 9pm
Parking: Available adjacent to the restaurant as well as across Buffalo St on the corner of Cherry St.
Main Street Pizza- Another great stop downtown for pizza. Open 7 days a week from 8am-1am. 300 E Main St.
Southern Craft BBQ-Relatively new to the scene with cool vibe inside. 601 Spring St. downtown. 11am-9pm
Local Food Institutions (but not located downtown):
These two food establishments are not located downtown but had to be included here due to their longtime presence in Johnson City.
Firehouse BBQ, occupying the old Walnut Street Fire Station, is a local landmark for BBQ dining. Plenty of locals and visitors here. 627 W. Walnut St. Monday – Thursday: 11:00am – 9:00pm; Friday – Saturday: 11:00am – 9:30pm
PALS is a locally beloved fast-food restaurant known for their sweet tea, burgers, and fast service. It’s an East Tennessee food institution originating from the 1950‘s. You can’t miss it, just look for the large food sculptures and a line of cars. It has a number of locations throughout the area. 1200 W State Of Franklin Rd Mon-Sat 6 AM til 10 PM. Sunday 7 AM til 10 PM
Rainy Day Activities
Grays Fossil Site & Museum. See Day 1 for more info on this activity.
Hands-on Museum. Museum with hands-on play areas for kids offers a simulated rainforest, ark, airplane & coal mine. 315 E Main St, Downtown
Jonesborough, TN-Jonesborough is Tennessee’s oldest town and is listed on the state’s National Register of Historic Places. Per their website, “Visitors often begin their trip to Jonesborough at the Visitors Center and museum, then stroll through the restored downtown, where they can take a carriage tour or pop into the charming shops, restaurants and historic buildings.
The Crafty Peddler, once a saloon, sells local crafts and antiques. The Old Jonesborough Cemetery is the resting place of many of the town’s prominent residents as well as victims of the cholera epidemic of 1873. For more contemporary entertainment, take the family to Wetlands Water Park, see a performance of the Repertory Theatre and enjoy the free concerts every Friday night, May through September. Depot Street Brewing boasts locally brewed small batch beers, a large bocce court and live music. Have a treat at the Old Sweet Shop, or sit down for a meal in one of the downtown restaurants.”
The International Storytelling Center is also located in Jonesborough and offers live storytelling sessions every day. Sit down and watch skillful performers tell a story using words, music, and acting. Matinee performances are available daily between May and October.
The Carroll Reece Museum is located inside East Tennessee State University. Admission is free. Per their website: “The museum offers an in-depth look into the Appalachian history and cultural impact. It also houses an extensive collection of local art, including paintings, sculpture and photography. The museum is also home to an extensive collection of Civil War artifacts that include not only battle items, but also journals and photographs of soldiers and families that went through the war.”
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