Chasing Waterfalls in Tennessee’s Unicoi County
Remember that ’90s TLC song with the lyric: “Don’t go chasing waterfalls”?
Well, I went chasing waterfalls in the far eastern part of Tennessee near Erwin and it was a challenging, fun and at times laughable experience.
Unicoi County is flush with waterfalls. A 10,000-acre chunk of the massive Cherokee National Forest covers the map with the whitewater Nolichucky River flowing through the bottomlands. This makes the county a beautiful, lush green place where the sound of water rushing over rock can be heard at every bend.
So, why are the waterfalls so hard to find?
The main reason is the lack of signage. In this wilderness area, arrows don’t point the way. No sign even told me if I had arrived at the falls.
Guidebooks proved just helpful enough to get me lost with directions like “stay on 19W for 3 miles to unmarked paved road on right” and “Park here, follow the gravel lane on foot.” That’s fine as long as you know where “here” is. To find Red Fork Falls, follow Unaka Mountain Road and “look for red blotch of paint on tree, right side of road.”
Early on my iPhone battery gave out. Asking for direction turned into an entertaining sport. Friendly folks pointed me in nearly all directions with thoughtful advice like, “There’s some pretty falls up around the bend that might be Spivey Falls.” Hmm.
The result was that I’m almost certain I saw Rocky Fork Falls, or maybe not.
Which brings me to my point: No place in East Tennessee contains more beauty to get lost in than Unicoi County. Roads like US 19W meander through densely forested mountain country. The trees are tall, strong and old. The air is fresh and the moist smell of the backwoods is a pleasant constant.
A 2,000-acre parcel of the wilderness area is expected to become Rocky Fork State Park, Tennessee’s 55th state park. This is exciting news for the county and all of us, and should help with posted directions for folks like me.
Exploring the Towns of Unicoi
Unicoi County offers much more. Downtown Erwin boasts white frame cottages and two-story homes with carefully groomed gardens supporting an abundance of cheerful lawn art. People idle on front porches just to feel the breeze and watch an occasional car pass. The train depot has been converted to the Col. J.F. Toney Library. Main Street has offices, antique shops and eateries like the Choo Choo Café and Hawg-n-Dawg BBQ and Coneys (both closed on Sundays). Erwin also offers to visitors the Unicoi Country Heritage Museum, the Clinchfield Railroad Museum and the Erwin National Fish Hatchery.
The Erwin Presbyterian Church, a structure of grandeur with stained glass windows, four white columns and a domed sanctuary, extends a friendly “Hikers welcome” sign by the front door. As you might have guessed, the Appalachian Trail crosses the mountains, so thru-hikers come into town for supplies, haircuts, and church services.
The new Erwin Linear Park is a paved, lighted walking and biking path which stretches for about five miles, taking in a bit of downtown, woodlands, and natural water features. One fisherman summed it up: “You have the best of both worlds—lake and river fishing.” Along the way, I passed couples biking for their morning exercise, young couples pushing strollers and nodding hello, and fishermen in lawn chairs hoping for a catch while nearly nodding off. Ducks, geese, and rabbits feel at home here.
Rock Creek Park has campsites at the foot of Unaka Mountain, hiking trails, bike trail, picnic tables, swimming pool, and amphitheater. Day hikers have many trails to follow, with the Red Fork Falls Trail being one of the steepest. The scenic overlook at Beauty Spot is a must-do because its views are from one of the highest elevation balds of the South Appalachian Range.
Rafting companies take full advantage of this spring’s heavy rains that plunged down the mountainsides and elevated the Nolichucky River. The water rushes through deep gorges, allowing views of steep cliffs towering 2,000 feet above the river. Outfitters offer guided half- and full-day trips and rent kayaks for do-it-yourselfers. Anglers try their luck for trout and small-mouth bass.
Farmers markets punctuate TN Highway 107 (Erwin Highway) where tomato and strawberry farms blanket both sides of the road. Family-owned apple orchards are located in the mountains of the Coffee Ridge and Flag Pond areas of Unicoi County. “You pick” opportunities are available.
Finally, if you happen to be exploring the area on a weekend like I was, then treat yourself to a family-style, home-cooked meal at The Farmer’s Daughter restaurant on TN Highway 107 in Chuckey, just outside of Greeneville. It’s a friendly place, where the regulars stop at your table to talk. You will be treated with very cordial Southern hospitality, have all the food you could possibly want, and walk away rubbing your tummy with satisfaction.
Where is your favorite Tennessee waterfall?