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When Appalachian Trail enthusiasts swap stories of the most breathtaking views from the route, the Roan Highlands in Carter County, Tennessee, come up again and again. On this section of

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

When Appalachian Trail enthusiasts swap stories of the most breathtaking views from the route, the Roan Highlands in Carter County, Tennessee, come up again and again. On this section of

5 Can’t-Miss Outdoor Activities in Carter County

Views of mountains in Carter County, TN

When Appalachian Trail enthusiasts swap stories of the most breathtaking views from the route, the Roan Highlands in Carter County, Tennessee, come up again and again. On this section of trail that crisscrosses the North Carolina-Tennessee border, hikers are rewarded with wide, open vistas from the tops of grassy balds.

As Dr. Cody James Howell traversed bald after bald atop Roan Mountain, he recorded the view: “For the first time, we could see hikers over a mile ahead on the trail we would soon walk ourselves. In several places, the mountains climbed above the clouds. We looked down upon those clouds that now appeared as vast white lakes among the grass-covered hills.”

Located about 30 miles west of Banner Elk, Carter County brims with biodiversity and calls nature lovers like Howell to come experience some of the best fishing, hiking, and biking in the country. Read on for local recommendations from outdoor guides and experts on their favorite ways to get outside.


Accessible only by rural mountain roads, Watauga Lake and its idyllic 100-plus-mile shoreline fly under the radar when it comes to Carter County’s more popular outdoor activities. Photography courtesy of Carter County Tourism

Where to fish

From Justin Shroyer’s house in Johnson City, he can drive 30 minutes in every direction and access countless fishing opportunities. “The fishing here is unreal,” he says. “There are lots of different wildlife species, gorgeous mountains and foothills, and a lake-river combo,” he says. “Once you’re in the waters, you can go anywhere you want.” The quantity and diversity of everything he loves all within arm’s reach inspired him to start Trophy Water Guide Service in the area.

He shared his top five fishing destinations in Carter County (each requires a Tennessee all-species license):

Watauga Lake

One of the nation’s cleanest lakes, Watauga Lake is “an underrated gem,” Shroyer says. “It’s deep and clean, and you’ll catch a little of everything. In the colder seasons, it’s more of the trout game — rainbow, brown, and lake trout — and when it gets warmer, more of the large mouth, small mouth, spotted bass.”

Wilbur Reservoir

The Wilbur Reservoir flows from the bottom of the dammed Watauga Lake, a picturesque trout fishery protected in every direction by the Cherokee National Forest. “It’s small and shallow, and super cold, so it’s great for rainbow and brown trout fishing,” Shroyer says. “It’s probably the most premier kayaking lake around.”

Cast your line into the Watauga River to catch rainbow and brown trout and striped bass. Photography courtesy of Carter County Tourism

Watauga River

Another dam separates the bottom of the Wilbur Reservoir and the Watauga River — also known as the Watauga Tailwater. “This is one of the most famous rivers for fly-fishing in the country,” Shroyer says. “It makes a huge economic impact in our area. People fly in from all over to fish for rainbow and brown trout.”

Boone Lake

The Watauga River flows all the way into Boone Lake, and along the way, drift boat fishers cast their lines for 20- to 50-pound striped bass, known to some as “stripers.” In addition, people fish here for rainbow and brown trout.

Doe River

Shroyer’s shop is located on the Doe River, a tributary that flows through the heart of Carter County. “It’s lesser known but quickly gaining popularity as the next great thing,” he says.


Hike Through History

Each September, reenactors cross the Watauga River in the spirit of the Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals. Photography courtesy of Carter County Tourism

How well do you remember your history classes and the story of the Overmountain Men? These American frontiersmen marched two and a half weeks from Sycamore Shoals, Tennessee, to Kings Mountain, North Carolina, in September of 1780. From there, just across the border in South Carolina, the stealthy American soldiers took out the British Major Patrick Ferguson and more than 200 Loyalist soldiers in one of the most decisive battles of the Revolutionary War.

At Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, you can walk the grounds where the Overmountain Men mustered before their march.

“Every September, anywhere from 12 to 20 men and women recreate that historic walk across Roan Mountain,” says Leslie Brockley with the Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. “They stop and camp where the Overmountain Men would have stopped, all dressed out, and do demonstrations for kids and adults.”

Today, Carter County’s lush forests — filled with spruce firs and rhododendron — continue to inspire a spirit of adventure. Strap on a good pair of hiking boots for your walk to Laurel Fork Falls, a spectacular 55-foot waterfall that’s especially impressive because of its width — the falls are 40-feet wide.

Two different trails lead you there; we recommend the moderate route, which is about 2.6 miles roundtrip. The trail follows an old railroad bed for the first mile or so, and the final .3 mile involves a relatively steep descent down a set of stairs that ends at the falls’ base.

Plan to explore the .3-mile, out-and-back Blue Hole Falls Trail if you’re traveling with children who can’t resist kicking off their shoes and splashing in a refreshing pool. This easy waterfall hike ends at a swimming hole filled with Holston Mountain’s beautiful, blue-green water.


The mountain views are reason enough to hike Roan Mountain, but keep your eyes and ears open for the migrant birds that flock to this part of Appalachia.  Photography courtesy of Carter County Tourism

Where to Spot Northern Bird Species

A designated “Important Bird Area” by the National Audubon Society, Hampton Creek Cove is a haven for migrating golden-winged warblers. Photography courtesy of Carter County Tourism

At the base of the 6,285-foot Roan Mountain, Roan Mountain State Park boasts an ecosystem that feels more like southeastern Canada. Birders often come here to spy the golden-winged warbler, a yellow-headed, black-eyed neo-tropical migrant bird that breeds in southeastern Canada and in the Appalachian Mountains. If you’re visiting the park in May or June, head three miles past Picnic Shelter No. 1, where the sharp curve known as “golden-winged warbler curve” serves as a prime location for hearing the warbler’s buzzy song.

The nearby Hampton Creek Cove offers golden-winged warblers an ideal field-and-forest habitat. The cove offers another opportunity to hike along the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, where the Overmountain Men marched to King’s Mountain.


The often-calm waters of Watauga Lake make it a destination for boating, swimming, and paddleboarding, in addition to fishing. Photography courtesy of Carter County Tourism

Where to Explore by Boat

National forest surrounds close to half of Watauga Lake’s shoreline, lending a quiet and peaceful backdrop for kayaking. “Most of the time, the big space is perfect for beginners who want a space for stillwater kayaking,” Shroyer says, but he cautions that if the wind picks up, conditions might get a little choppy on this high-elevation lake. It is easily accessible via several boat ramps, including the popular Rat Branch launch with a beach and fishing pier.

And when the wind does blow, Shroyer recommends making your way to Wilbur Lake, a smaller, more protected lake where the hum of a boat doesn’t get any louder than the occasional trolling motor.

For a family-friendly rafting experience, venture out on the Watauga River, which runs right through the town of Elizabethton. “The upper section has a popular rafting stretch, with a rapid called ‘the anaconda,’” Shroyer says. “In our boats, we row around it, but you can get into it if you want to.”

Shroyer recommends checking the TVA Authority’s dam release schedule before you head out. “The water can fluctuate three to five feet, so you just want to be sure the flows are appropriate for your trip.”


The Tweetsie Trail draws cyclists, runners, and casual walkers to its natural setting that’s peppered with pieces of local history along its 9.6-mile route, from the original railroad depot to the Sabine Hill State Historic Site.  Photography courtesy of Carter County Tourism

Where to Bike

The Hampton Watershed trail system, which hugs the Doe River, is a go-to destination for mountain bikers of all skill levels. Access the six miles of trails from the parking area off of 1st Avenue in the heart of Hampton, and then explore a network of singletrack trails that offer forest, mountain, and river views. Expert bikers head straight to The Cat’s Pajamas, a challenging black diamond upper loop.

Arguably the most relaxing route for biking — especially if you’re planning an outdoor adventure for kids — is the Tweetsie Trail, a wide path that connects Johnson City and Elizabethton. Along the way, almost two dozen markers provide insight into the surrounding geology, trees, birds, and local history.

Walkers and bikers can tackle the entire 9.6-mile trail, or they can meander portions of it. Brockley especially likes the section that starts just below Sabine Hill Historic Home and heads toward Johnson City. “It’s quiet and peaceful, and some parts run along beside Buffalo Creek — it’s just beautiful.”

Ready for a road trip? Pack your car and head west to soak up the rich outdoors in Carter County. Click here to start planning your trip.

This story was published on Apr 05, 2024

Robin Sutton Anders

Robin Sutton Anders is a writer based in Greensboro.