On to the Volunteer State! After our short stay in Roanoke, Virginia, we headed south to the small city of Johnson City, Tennessee. Why’d we pick Johnson City? As always, why not?! We like small cities, and it was the perfect place to spend a couple of days on our slow drive from Roanoke to North Carolina.
Johnson City is part of the Tri-Cities region of northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia, which includes JC as well as the cities of Bristol and Kingsport. A lot of reading about this area told us it had been quite depressed for years after a lot of manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs had left the region.
However. However! Things are possibly looking up around here, as more technical industries are coming in and people are looking for smaller cities to live their lives and raise their families. Not to mention, Johnson City is also home to Eastern Tennessee State University, which helps keep the population young and lively.
But, for us, we really just went because it looked like an interesting place to go. The city is just on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and if you’ve been reading our posts, then you know we like us some mountainous scenery. While the mountains are visible from town, the city itself isn’t in the mountains, as was the case at our last stop in Roanoke.
Nonetheless, it’s easy to get to the mountains as they’re only a short drive away from town. I’m saving where we stayed and where we ate/drank for another post, so let’s get more into what we did during our couple of days in Johnson City.
We arrived in JC in the early afternoon, so we decided to save the city itself for another day. Instead, we headed 15-20 minutes southwest to check out the small town of Jonesborough.
Jonesborough is the oldest town in Tennessee, founded way back in 1779.
It’s got a beautiful and historic downtown and Main Street, and is situated in a hilly area that gives a bit more character and charm to its look.
It’s also home to the International Storytelling Center, which hosts the National Storytelling Festival every October. So, despite its population of barely 6,000 people, it gets a lot of attention from folks who are into this kind of thing, as well as people who want to visit an historic town or just walk around a pretty environment.
When we were there, there was indeed a little festival going on in the plaza, with dozens of people milling about, treats from regional beer and coffee specialists, and live music and storytelling. Guess we showed up on a good day!
During our walk around town, we found it really odd that most businesses in town close early in the evening. For a place that relies on tourism, we’d think that they’d want to keep opening times that fall in line with the hours people stop by.
This sentiment was echoed to us as well by a lifelong and very proud resident named Bill, who was nice enough to spend a couple hours with us, chatting about everything from the history of Jonesborough to the intricacies of making homemade maple syrup.
Good gosh, we love meeting and spending time with locals.
Outside of that, we really just enjoyed walking around, getting some frozen treats at the local ice cream shoppe, and wondering why there were so few local restaurants downtown (another issue we wondered about during our conversation with Bill).
Of course, we had to stop by the local candy shop to check out some new goodies and old treats from our youth, as well as some weird sodas.
I love chocolate and peanut butter. Alas, hard pass on these.
We also stumbled across a new distillery that’s opening in the old Salt House along the railroad tracks. Our eyes lit up as we walked up to the door and saw the We’re Open sign. To our disappointment, they weren’t actually open. I think they weren’t actually open yet at all, as the place is brand new. Ah well, next time!
We liked Jonesborough quite a bit. Enough that we started browsing property listings and reading more about the town.
It’s a very interesting place, and even though it’s super small, I’d say it’s easy to spend a day here, sitting in the plaza and watching the world go by.
We spent a day walking around downtown Johnson City, as well as driving around some of its historic neighborhoods. It’s a city of around 66,000 people, and we were somewhat surprised at how small the downtown area is. It’s really only comprised of a few blocks of businesses, and then spreads out to a lot of residential areas that make up most of its actual size.
It appears to us that the downtown is still making a comeback, while most people spend their time at jobs and other places in the area that are not near downtown itself.
However, we really, really enjoyed ourselves here. We can’t necessarily put our fingers on it, but Johnson City has something that draws us in. It wasn’t necessarily the local beer or food – more on that in another post – but just a vibe we got from it. Even though it was so tiny for such a large town, it felt good.
Also, the architecture here is really cool. Even though its formerly depressed economy left JC with a lot of empty manufacturing and warehousing facilities, those buildings are now being re-purposed into other businesses. Instead of tearing down these wonderful brick-and-mortar structures, new and vibrant businesses are moving in. The fact that these entrepreneurs are keeping what we consider the character of the town alive through its original architecture is a wonderful thing to us and we can’t get enough of it.
Like Tupelo Honey Cafe, which is in the old railroad depot.
Or Yee-Haw Brewing Company, which is also in an old railroad depot.
Johnson City and Elizabethton are also linked by the in-progress Tweetsie Trail, a trails-to-rails project that links these two towns. I love seeing projects like this, and am so very happy that yet another local government has decided to once again revitalize and reuse something that’s so important to both the history and future of an area.
What really got us good, though, was the food and drink. But! You’re going to have to wait for our next post about that. Oddly enough, most of our pictures in Johnson City are from stuffing our faces. More pictures…sounds like a good reason to return!
Just northeast of Johnson City is the small town of Elizabethton. This place of 14,000 people sits between JC and the Blue Ridge Mountains, and is quite a bit larger than we thought it’d be.
It even has its own minor league baseball team, which was quite a surprise to us! At this point in time, the rookie league Elizabethton Twins are a farm team of the Minnesota Twins in the Appalachian League, and I really thought it was interesting that such a small town has such a team. Maybe this is a thing and I just don’t know. Who knows?! In any case, I think that’s cool.
What struck us, though, is how completely and entirely different Elizabethton is than Jonesborough. Someone suggested we visit here, and we couldn’t help but wonder why.
Most of the downtown area has yet to be revitalized, and it looks like it was more or less abandoned in the 1970s. Including a lot of the architecture.
We also walked over to the famed covered bridge that still stands in town here, and found a little 4th of July festival in the works.
That was pretty nifty, as we always like to run into things like this.
While we weren’t at all impressed with the town itself – sorry, folks! – we do have high hopes for it. Elizabethton is clearly behind other towns in the area as far as getting its downtown in order, which is not only easy to see by walking around there, but also by driving around the outskirts of town and seeing all the strip malls, gas stations, and fast food joints.
However, there are businesses that are thriving downtown, and we hope it’ll bring more people down to shop and hang out. It’s got potential, but it needs a lot of tender loving care and support from the community. While it’s going to take a while, we do hope investment will continue to be put into this area and that Elizabethton residents and visitors will enjoy what could very well be quite a charming place.
Is it worth a visit? Sure, why not? Nothing isn’t worth at least one visit, in our minds. But, we also think that it can go places, and we hope it does.
For us, this is really the jewel of the area. We drove up to Watauga Lake from Johnson City and were immediately excited and impressed at what we saw. The roads started to wind more, the elevation started to tick up, and the mountain peaks started to appear.
Sitting in the middle of the Cherokee National Forest, this reservoir was dammed by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1948. And it created quite a spectacular place for the people who live in and visit northeastern Tennessee. More than half of the land around the lake is protected and cannot be developed, so there’s a green space explosion along all 105 miles (169 km) of its shoreline.
I mean, come on!
As it was the weekend of July 4th, a whole lot of people were out for the lake’s parade of boats. They didn’t just come to watch other people’s fancy boats go by, though, as thousands of people were out lounging, jet-skiing, swimming, and barbecuing.
For us, we really just couldn’t do anything except walk, stop, look, rinse, repeat. This place is drop-dead gorgeous.
If it wasn’t so far from services out here, we might have stayed forever. Phew!
So yeah, that’s our visit to northeastern Tennessee! There’s a whole lot to do and see in this region, and we sadly only gave it a couple of days. If you’re ever around here, do it a favor and stop by some of these places. Great people, interesting sights, and plenty of good eats and drinks that you can devour in our next post.
We most definitely look forward to going back. Thanks to everyone and everything in Johnson City and the surrounding area for helping us have a great time!
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Have you ever been to this area of Tennessee? If so, what’d you think? If not, what say ye? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!