Unexpected Fun In Majestic Carter County, TN

Carter County, TN is not a mountain community many down here have heard of, and therefore don’t have on their “to-do” lists — but I promise you, add it and you won’t regret it!  Our family visited one weekend toward the end of July, and it was a jam-packed and beautiful couple of days.

Photo courtesy of Kate Gelsthorpe

We tried out new adventures, hiked new trails, swam in the most amazing lake, saw a live show, visited their downtown shops, ate their awesome food, and made new friends along the way.

This mountain community is located in northeast Tennessee, right on the border with North Carolina.  The Appalachian Trail passes through this area, and there are reminders of that everywhere you look. One of our favorite things about this area, is that it’s only about a 4-hour drive to get there, but it truly felt like we were a world away. And one of the most amazing things about our visit was that even though this is an area with a lot of things to do and explore, it had an awesome small-town feel.

Everywhere we went, people were quick to chat with us and share their favorite spots and memories — it was truly the coolest part!  We went there expecting to really like the hiking and adventures, but were constantly amazed at how completely awesome and welcoming everyone we met was.

Intrigued?  Let us take you on a tour of our weekend in this amazing mountain playground!

Black Bear Resort

Photo courtesy of Kate Gelsthorpe

We arrived on a Friday evening at Black Bear Resort ready for a weekend in one of their rustic creekside cabins.  These cabins were…adorable.  I know that’s not a word that I would normally use to describe a cabin, but it seriously was!

There were four of these types of cabins surrounding a fire pit area, and to say our cabin was a huge hit for our kids would be an understatement. They loved it! Our cabin had two bunk beds in it (twins over fulls) for our family of four, and it backed up on the most beautiful trout stream.

This resort is located less than half a mile from the Appalachian Trail, and is a popular stop for hikers. We loved staying here!  The kids really enjoyed the creek — they woke up every morning and headed right down there to hunt for crayfish first thing. The bathrooms and showers were located in a building a short walk from our cabin, and our daughter thought that was so cool, she insisted on a shower every day and night. So there you go — it could make your kids want to bathe!

There are all sorts of accommodations here for every type of traveler — a bunk house for hikers just stopping by, campsites, or cabins for larger groups.  There is no A/C here, but there is a ceiling fan, and they do have small, portable heaters for cold nights.  The whole place had a feeling of a storybook camp, and we adored it.

Southern Restaurant

Saturday morning, we woke up and headed out to Southern Restaurant in the downtown area of Elizabethton for breakfast — and it was the best meal decision we ever made.  This place was so good!  We loved the food, we loved the service, and we loved the people!  This was a place where everyone sort of seemed to know each other — and since they didn’t know us, they introduced themselves!  It was honestly an amazing experience and started our day off right.  And their food was awesome — we had eggs, pancakes, sausage, biscuits, gravy, coffee, juice…you name it, we had it!  Everything was delicious, and we had the best time.  Our kids thought this was the greatest place.  We can’t wait to go back.

After breakfast, we were explored downtown Elizabethton a bit.  Home to antiques shops, bookstores, restaurants, and even an escape room, this was a fun place!  We loved every shop we visited, and left with new treasures, friends, and — in the case of my husband — about 20 new books.

Off The Grid Mountain Adventures

Photo courtesy of Kate Gelsthorpe

And then we were ready for adventure!  We headed to Off the Grid Mountain Adventures to see if I could convince my kids to zipline! (Spoiler alert: I couldn’t.)  But here’s the cool thing about this place — they have so much to do, there was still adventure in our future.

So we signed ourselves up for the ATV tour. You guys?  It. Was. Awesome!  I’ve never driven an ATV, and was pretty nervous to do it, but they made it so simple!  After training us, and setting us up with helmets and goggles, our guide asked me what experience I had.  Me: “None.”  Him: “None at all?  ATVs? 4-wheelers? Snow?”  Me: “Umm…I’ve driven in Atlanta traffic for almost 18 years.”  Him: “Oh! You’re gonna be good then!”  And we were off!

I followed pretty much every single thing our guide did, and we had the best time.  We drove up, around and down the mountain, on all sorts of trails, and all sorts of speeds and had the time of our lives!  We thought it was wonderful.  We’d also love to come back here to try their other adventures — in addition to the ATVs and ziplines, they also have BASE jumping, a giant swing, Hagglund tours (a military track vehicle), and rappeling. The place was awesome, and we loved our time here.

Shook Branch Recreation Area

Since we were all dusty, we decided our best bet was to…jump in a lake!  And as luck would have it, Lake Watauga is here!  So we drove over to the Shook Branch Recreation Area to swim.  You know how sometimes you drive up to a new place and get excited as soon as you see it? That’s this.

This place looks like a postcard.  We drove up, got changed into our suits there, and then headed out to swim. It’s gorgeous.  The views were spectacular, and for us, swimming in a lake surrounded by mountains is as good as it gets.  The water was perfect, and the beach area was great, with lots of picnic tables to choose from. We honestly could’ve stayed here all day — we highly recommend this stop!

“Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals”

Photo courtesy of Kate Gelsthorpe

After swimming our afternoon away, we headed back to our cabin to rest and get changed so we could see “Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals” at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.  “Liberty!” is the official outdoor drama of the state of Tennessee and is shown only nine nights every summer.

This elaborate drama depicts the settlement of this area in the 18th century and takes place right in front of Fort Watauga.  We didn’t know exactly what to expect, but this was one amazing show.  Local residents practice for months, and it’s really, really well-done. Our kids are…active and this show had them completely mesmerized.  Before the show, we also walked through the visitor area and museum, and we all loved that too!


Sunday morning first thing, we packed up and headed out to do some hiking in the Roan Mountain area!  We planned to see the sunrise on our way up to Roan Mountain, but that morning was a little gloomy and rainy, and the sun hid from us.  But that was fine by us, because what we did see was awesome — it was misty, and ended up looking like we walked right onto the set of Lord of the Rings!

We used Asheville Trails (of Atlanta Trails fame) as a guide for this area, with the intent of hiking the Cloudland Trail specifically.  But remember how I said it was misty?  So even though we parked at the right place, we actually hiked a completely different part. Ha!  So let me promise you this, no matter what part of the Appalachian Trail you hike up there — it’s going to be beautiful and you will love it!

Our kids would tell you this was one of their very favorite hikes…ever!  We searched for Bigfoot (came up empty), we searched for an AT shelter (found it).  We looked for fairies, heart rocks, and sunshine.  We loved that it was a little chilly and breezy, and were excited that it smelled like Christmas. We had the very best time up there, and it was such a perfectly fun day.  We honestly never wanted to leave, but after this part of our adventure, it was time to head home.

As soon as we got home — that night — I started looking up campsite availability for a fall visit. That’s how much we loved it!  We felt like we did so much, but there was still so much we wanted to do! And we have so many restaurants left on our list to try that was recommended to us by everyone we met: Captain’s Table, Jiggy Ray’s, and Red Chili, just to name a few.

We’d love to rent a boat on Lake Watauga, or go rafting down the Watauga River.  We’d love to explore more of Roan Mountain State Park.  We’d love to actually hike the Cloudland Trial!

The weekend we spent in Carter County was awesome.  We honestly loved every aspect of our trip, and truly loved all of the new experiences and people we met along the way.  They call themselves a mountain playground — and we absolutely agree. If you can’t swing a weekend getaway Carter County would be a great day trip from Knoxville, Tennessee too!

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Carter County, TN is a mountain playground in NE Tennessee that you should not miss! Here are 6 awesome things you can do while you are there.


Kate Gelsthorpe is a former TV news writer, and a born and raised Georgia girl who grew up camping with her family at state parks around central and south Georgia. After 18 years in Atlanta, her family recently moved to Athens, and in their spare time you can find them exploring their new hometown. She and her husband, Kevin, are the proud parents of an 8-year-old dinosaur expert, and a 6-year-old outdoor-loving fashionista. You can follow her family’s quest to go on 100 hikes in 2018 on Instagram @loveandkate.


19 Comments on "Unexpected Fun In Majestic Carter County, TN"

  1. Madelyne Gelsthorpe | 08/03/2017 at 9:02 am | Reply

    love all the sites that my grandson and family have enjoyed. Have seen such beautiful pictures. And the children has had such wonderful time at the places they have explored.

    • Thank you all so much for all the awesome comments! I have loved reading them, and they just reinforce our feelings that the people of Carter County are what make it that much more spectacular! We can’t wait to come back for a visit, and we hope we meet some of y’all in person along the way! THANK YOU!!

  2. Jennifer Martin | 08/03/2017 at 7:10 pm | Reply

    I’ve lived in Elizabethton all my life and it really is a wonderful town with wonderful people. Jiggy Ray’s pizza is a must and so is J’s corner for a hot dog or ice cream. Im so glad you came to visit and I hope you come back soon.

  3. Jan Thomas | 08/03/2017 at 10:40 pm | Reply

    I’m also from Elizabethton. My Daddy was the last person born in the Carter Mansion, built in the mid to late 1770s first frame house with glass window in the area..(I was taught first west of the Aleganies) it’s located @ 1031 Broad Street & He is buried in our family’s river rock walled cemetery. He lived 81yrs on the Watauga River. Would get a watermelon from the garden.. tied it in a spot in the river to get good & cold while he & friends swam ~ We had a garden 2 yards over on a part of the old farm.. We would find arrowheads,or bone fragments & wonder from what animal or maybe indian… Climbed Lynn Mountain. (It’s lit in December with our Christmas Card To The World~ “Merry Christmas” from the week after Thanksgiving to just after NewYears. My Mother’s family was from Roan Mountain & later Boone, Banner Elk, NC God’s Country =:^) Her GreatGrandfather, John Ingle, established a German Reform Church in Boone… It still stands today. It’s near the entrance to Blowing Rock. All a days drive from Carter County =:^D

  4. Nelda Nave | 08/03/2017 at 11:41 pm | Reply

    It is always nice to see where we live thru someone else’s eyes. Glad your family had a good time. Check out the covered bridge next time.

  5. April Pierce | 08/04/2017 at 1:05 am | Reply

    Having lived in Carter County my entire life, I often hear folks say “there’s not much to do here.” Our family also enjoys all the hiking trails, the lake, the hidden swimming holes…the adventures are endless. I so loved reading your blog! It truly made me want to rush home from vacation so we can soak up the last week of summer in the creek! I love that you enjoyed our neck of the woods so much and had so many nice things to say! We sure hope y’all come back!

  6. Mike Ensor | 08/04/2017 at 6:35 am | Reply

    When you come back don’t forget to tie in a trip to the “blue hole” for a swim after the rafting and a trip to “back bone rock” ! Glad you all had a good time in our little county, try breakfast at Kimbo’s and a hotdogfrom Fletcher’s store!

    • Kimberly Buck | 08/04/2017 at 2:59 pm | Reply

      These are great recommendations!!!!
      You might want to look into The Laurels recreation area. Oh, and go to the other side of the lake, where the dams are. There are camp sites over there as well!! Beautiful, breathtaking views!!!!!
      It just makes my heart filled with Joy to read about how much you Love do our little hometown!!!!

  7. Jean M Rhea | 08/04/2017 at 6:55 am | Reply

    I live not far from Black Bear and love the area. We hope you will visit again soon. When you do, if you want a good hamburger and onion rings, you have got to visit Sycamore Restaurant on S. Sycamore. Owed by a local family, the burgers are freshly made and the onions rings are to DIE for!! But, go hungry!! It will be a meal in itself!! I make it my dinner at least one day every week after work.

  8. Rebecca Hood Tucker | 08/04/2017 at 9:54 am | Reply

    I’m proud to say I am from Elizabethton. Lived there until my mid twenties. Thankful for my time there. It truly is a great place to raise a family. Happy to see Carter County is getting some love. When I go back to visit, the Southern restaurant is always a must. Right after church service at the First United Methodist.

  9. Esther Kestner Day | 08/04/2017 at 10:09 am | Reply

    I want to come to Carter Co. and research my Taylor/McNabb connection. Does anyone share that ? Andrew Taylor jr. and his wife Isabella. I need to prove her maiden name. They are both buried in Carter County. Their grave markers are so old they are not readable.

  10. John Seehorn | 08/04/2017 at 11:31 am | Reply

    What a great piece about Carter County! This article is spot on about all that Carter County has to offer. Thank you, Kate Gelsthorpe! Well done.

  11. Nancy Markland | 08/04/2017 at 12:49 pm | Reply

    I hope when you return you will come and visit us at Wayne & Nancys Family Restaurant we have good ole home cooking and made from scratch biscuits and gravy like grandma made old fashion hamburgers. We would count it a great pleasure to meet the person that wrote such a great article about our lovely Carter County

  12. David E Williams | 08/04/2017 at 6:59 pm | Reply

    So glad you enjoyed your visit to Carter County. We do have our own little gem here in the mountains. Downtown Elizabethton also has a car show/cruise-in every Saturday evening from 5p.m. until 9p.m. It runs from April all the way to October. All of the restaurants mentioned here are outstanding and worth trying. The one that has not been mentioned is Dino’s Restaurant. It is just down the street from the Southern. Dino’s has been in continuous operation since 1963 and has been owned by only two families. It may be the only restaurant in the world where you can get Italian food or country cooking. There is even a plaque in the dining room issued by the city as the first restaurant to serve lasagna in the Tri-Cities.

    Here is my full disclosure. I recently left Dino’s after 21 years to move to Knoxville. I cooked, managed and became part owner during my time there. I will ad that all of the family owned restaurants in town look out for each other and are happy to help out whenever we can. We do not see our selves as competitors, but partners that want to create the very best for our community.

  13. Ruth Bowers | 08/05/2017 at 10:15 am | Reply

    Your blog about the beauties of our county belongs on the brochure for our Chamber of Commerce! Aa a life long resident it was a thrill to see my hometown through your eyes. Great work. Thank you for my day.

  14. I was born there in Elizabethton. It is a place if you leave it you spend the rest of your life wanting to move back.

  15. What a wonderful post about Carter County! I have been blessed to live in the area all my life. Sometimes I take for granted the beauty around me. We are close to the Blue Hole and I also recommend it. Ridgewood BBQ is great and you can rent bikes and enjoy The Tweetsie Trail. We also enjoy the chalets at Fairhaven and Chalet Ministries in Roan Mountain. I hope you and your family can visit again soon.

  16. What an incredible true living view of our home your words have been on a foggy Mountain morning. Carter County/Elizabethton folks value your family sharing time with us and with your traveling post. Meredith Valley Farm and Cabins/Campground is located right across the Watauga River from Sycamore Shoals State Park and we love seeing and hearing in the breeze all the historical events the park portrays locally. We would love to see your camper pull in here and share some great campfires with you. We are most positive your story will gather more guests to the comforts of our area.

    Also great to read about Black Bear Cabins. Sounds adventurous there in the beautiful setting. Lots of amazing accommodations surround this treasure of a place. Bless you all. Safe travels back !

  17. Don’t forget to eat at Shirley’s Home Cooking by the lake. The Covered Bridge Festivsl is fun too.

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