Less than two hours northeast of the bustle of Knoxville, yet an entire world away, Unicoi County - pronounced "you-nih-koi" - makes for an ideal getaway that is, without a doubt, an outdoorsmen's dream.
Sited on the western slopes of the wild and rugged Blue Ridge Mountains along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, much of Unicoi County lies tucked into the folds of the Cherokee National Forest. Its boundaries encompass a stunning slice of Southern Appalachia, with the Nolichucky River flowing cool and clear out of the Unaka and Bald mountain ranges on its way to the French Broad River to the west.
Upon arrival, locals will point visitors to pitch their tents, park their RVs or even rent a cabin at the Nolichucky Gorge Campground, situated right on the scenic river and surrounded by wooded mountain slopes. This spot is the premier camping site for anyone toting a kayak or canoe (you can paddle right up to your campsite) as well as those seeking a little whitewater rafting, as rentals and guides are available next-door. But don't disparage if you're a little water shy: the Appalachian Trail is a mere 50 yards from the campgrounds; with the morning dew, you can lace up and get out on the trail.
A magnet for hikers of all levels, Unicoi County also sports several unique entrances into the absolutely expansive Cherokee National Forest, and is home to one of Tennessee's newest state parks - Rocky Fork State Park.
When you see Rocky Fork State Park for the first time, you'll find old logging roads that have sprouted a few hiking trails. These trails are marked only by a worn dirt footpath in the forest floor made by the hikers, but mostly park rangers, that have gone before you. Here and there a tree is tied with an orange ribbon as the only assurance that you haven't wandered off the trail completely. It truly is an adventurer's park, given that the wooden signposts common to state parks that tell the name of the trail you are embarking on, or the distance from start to finish, are, for the time being, absent.
Yet, for all that Unicoi County appears on its face to be a wilderness for the wild at heart, the truth is is that you don't have to be an outdoors person to feel at home here.
The county is serviced by the interstate system and among the mountainous expanses is the county's largest town, Erwin. Situated near the banks of the Nolichucky, Erwin is a town of a few thousand and has a lively downtown district, which is no doubt considerably livelier during one of Unicoi County's well-known festivals, including the Erwin Great Outdoors Festival and the weekend-long Unicoi County Apple Festival. You'll find a variety of restaurants, boutiques and amazing public art. Take endless selfies with the elephant statues, a public art project and community initiative created to reflect on the memory of Mary the Elephant whose life ended in the Clinchfield Railroad Yard in 1916. Funds raised go to local charities and the Elephant Sanctuary of Hohenwald.
It may feel Unicoi County is one of East Tennessee's best kept secrets; truth is, it's never been a secret to begin with. Spend a little time here and see for yourself the unmatched, outdoor adventure that awaits each visitor.
Franklin is filled with Christmas wonder.