Cherokee National Forest, on a whim.

Laurel Falls

Labor Day was coming and Katrin and I both had to work Friday through Sunday. Monday (Labor Day) we decided we would clean our carpets with a rented Rug Doctor from Home Depot. I had Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday off while she had Monday and Tuesday off.

It dawned on me last minute, that being Sunday that we really should get out and do something. We didn’t want to be home while the carpets dried anyway. So, Cherokee National Forest seemed like a great idea. I brought it up and convinced Katrin that we could clean the carpets and leave them to dry while we went to Tennessee. Honestly, we almost went back to Shenandoah.

Monday came and after we returned the Rug Doctor much later than anticipated, and then road rolled out before us. I had chosen the Northern most section of Cherokee for us to see but first we had to get there. Coming from Roanoke, VA and going right to the Bristol State Street Sign took a couple hours.

Our dog Ellie loves to swim

Once in Bristol, VA we took a photo with the sign and cruised down State Street. There are typical tourist trap features, boutique shopping, food and beer, etc.. Since we had already left late, we didn’t stop for much. If you didn’t know, Bristol is centered on the state line between Virginia and Tennessee.

Getting into the meat of the adventure, we drove South deeper into Tennessee. Taking 421 to South Holston Lake. The lake is beautiful, but we decided that is was so late in the day that we needed to push on without stopping. Cleaning up at home took much longer that we thought it would. Still, the lake gleamed in the afternoon sun beckoning us to jump in.

Taking 421 from the lake through to the Shady Valley Country store, you’re going to twist and turn the whole way. Motorcycles were all over every inch of the route. Even a group of sports cars were parked on the side for some kind of event. Given the tight turns and steep terrain, I can easily see why the sport bikes were there.

Due to our time constraints we pushed on past the County Store without stopping, making the left turn to Backbone Falls. The store’s parking area was full of bikes anyway.

This area was somewhat disappointing. It is very clear that many people frequent this spot, despite the limited parking area. There were some sign boards up, but they had nothing on them. Luckily for us other travelers provided the information we needed.

Katrin on top of the rock wall

There are two trails out of the paved parking area, one follows the creek and accesses it along the Northern side, the other heads right up the stairs. If you follow the creek, there isn’t much but the water itself down the trail with a few spots for cooling off. Heading up the stair case, you can either make a left or a right. Left leads up to the Appalachian Trail while right will take you on top of a large rock wall over the road to the camp sites.

This rock wall was blasted through by the railway long before it was a road. The rock feature itself is somewhat of an anomaly. The rock wall, is only by my best guess, 10 feet across in the middle. Which is directly over the road. It was cool to walk across it for the novelty of it. Once across the path takes you down to the camping area. From the campsite we walked up the road oriented South and found the trail head for the falls on the Southeast side of the parking area. There appeared to be 2 routes to the falls.

One that travels directly uphill and loops to the top of the falls and one right to the bottom from the road. Both trails connect to create a loop. We opted to see the top then the bottom and the whole trip took 15 minutes.

Backbone falls was not my favorite part of the trip as the falls are very underwhelming. Also, this late in the year not too much water was running through it.

Once we had our fill of each trail and walked around as much as possible to stretch our legs, back into the truck we went.

Parked at Backbone Falls

Turning back South into the park, we passed the country store again, but went right through the intersection towards Roan Creek Campground. By now it was getting late in the day and I knew our camp lights on the truck’s bed rack were not working. I wasn’t sure why yet. All this meant we needed to set up camp before dark. I like my headlamp, but those lights make things much easier.

Arriving at the campground we discovered that Roan Creek is sizable enough for us to cool off in. Most importantly, only one other camper occupied the entire campground. We opted for a spot intended for trailers and RVs. Each site had hook ups for water and power, a fire pit, and a picnic table.

This monster was on the tire in the morning

Katrin made dinner while I set up the tent and fed our doggo. Dinner tonight was Fajitas!

The next morning, we loitered in camp a while because there was plenty of coffee and the other campers had dogs as well. Affording us an opportunity to let Ellie get worn out before hitting any trails.

Doe Mountain fire tower would be our first destination, which didn’t work out because it is in the OHV area and cannot be accessed by truck/jeep. Fire Tower Road is also closed to the public. Thanks Google Maps.

With a heavy sigh, we opted for Laurel Falls. Fingers crossed that our luck would be better here. These falls did NOT disappoint! There is plenty of parking at the trail head. Shade too. Even a spot to camp for the night if desired.

Laurel Falls should be on your things to do list if you travel the area. There was a couple there fishing when we arrived, and they were indeed having great luck. They were also kind enough to let us take the sunny side of the falls to swim. It probably worked in their favor anyway.

Laurel Falls is deep enough to swim and jump into at the base of the falls. The water was crisp and cold but not so much that we couldn’t stay a while.

Katrin jumping in, much to Ellie’s disapproval

For our next spot, we skirted Johnson City and drove up the dirt roads to Pinnacle Mountain Fire Tower. This may have been a redemption trip, but I really wanted to try for a good view of the park. The road up is dirt but can be done in most cars. You’ll be parking just shy of the fire tower, so plan for a hike. It was not far via the road. Which we walked up to get to the tower. Beware, it is very steep.

Arriving at the tower, a little winded, we took a moment to see if Ellie would walk up the stairs or not. She went up after a little confusion at the base of the staircase, where there is a large concrete block. With her making it up we finally enjoyed a 360-degree view of the area.

On our way down, we used Google Maps to find a trail that meandered back to the parking area, instead of the direct road route we took up. If you’re here, take the trail going at least one direction. It’s not too long and the shade was much appreciated.

Back at the truck, we headed back down the hill and past Johnson City to return to the forest. At this point camp was on our minds once more and a place to stay had to be found. I opted to search for something along the route home. This landed us at Cardens Bluff Campground. Which almost turned into a mistake.

We had to head back to town to grab cash to pay the host but once we returned, looking for a spot proved to be a challenge. We had the same problem last year while traveling across the country. Most camp sites are designed for a ground tent, not a roof top tent. Parking and opening the tent was going to be an issue, but after circling around 3 times we settled for a spot that had a large area to park. Initially, we didn’t think there would be a spot for us.

This afforded us enough space to be well off the road and to open the tent. Needless to say we didn’t use the provided camping site. Just the pull through parking area. At this camp ground, most of the tent sites are off the road and down the hill near the water anyway. Being that we parked on a paved area and the night was still young I repaired the lights on the trucks rack. This type of thing is why I always bring tools and supplies to fix almost anything. Dinner tonight was Mountain House.

In the morning, camp was packed up quick. There was no sense in hanging out and the camp host appeared to not like dogs. (The host complained about other dogs and warned us to keep a close eye on ours). It was our last day out anyway, we had to make the most of it.

Mt. Rogers was my next intended target, but a SNAFU with Google Maps combined with a waning desire to see it changed our mind. Instead, we found that Grayson Highlands State Park nearby. This was indeed a turn for the best. The highlands may not be the highest point in VA but the wild horses were worth it.

Pulling into the park, we paid and headed right for the visitor center. A standard practice for us. Where else can you find all the park information without backing up traffic?

The nice people at the counter drew on a map for us and told us where we would see the horses. Our course plotted, we parked at Massey Gap and hiked up Rhododendron trail to the North Horse trail. It wasn’t long before we found a few horses! Katrin LOVES horses. She geeked out and took a card full of photos. I kept Ellie away and thankfully she didn’t freak out or bark.

We also saw the wild horses out on the coast at Assateague and again at Currituck last summer.

After standing in the sun and dust for a bit, the nearby waterfall on the Cabin Creek trail sounded like a nice way to put a bow on the last of the trip.

Initially, we thought we were lost but looking at the map and making an educated guess, we found the trail head for the falls. A short hike later and much to our relief we found that the falls were there, and water was flowing! On our way down to the falls the other stream beds were dry, leading us to believe that the falls might be dust. I got in first but only after discovering that this stream was very cold! Katrin shot some action photos then it was her turn.

Not much of a waterfall, but we’ll take it!

Returning to the truck meant it was time to go. There were a couple hours between us and home. Not to mention we would have to put all of our furniture back into place since the carpets should be dry by now.

I hope these trip reports are fun and slightly informative. Trips like these really show that you can get out on a last minute trip and still have a blast.

Are you prepared to get out of town in 30 minutes? How do you sort and store your camping gear?

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