We’re always looking for awesome mountain views when out on the trail. But can you really find fantastic overlooks when you’re close to home? If you live in Johnson City, Tennessee or near the Tri-Cities area you’re in luck, because there are some amazing sights to take in! Johnson City flies under the radar compared to Appalachian cities in the same area like Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in Tennessee, and Bryson City, Banner Elk, and Asheville in North Carolina. It’s usually overlooked when it comes to outdoor tourist activities like hiking. Why don’t we let other people’s loss be your gain, because I’m here to tell you that the hiking trails near Johnson City can rival the best views in all of the Appalachian Mountains! Let’s take a look at 8 of the best overlooks below, with a bonus thrown in for fun.
1. Roan Mountain
Roan Mountain has so many amazing views it was the obvious choice for the top spot on our best scenic overlooks near Johnson City list. Although there are incredible views throughout all of Roan Mountain, if you want the absolute best views the mountain has to offer, you’ll want to head to Carver’s Gap on the Tennessee / North Carolina border. From here with a short .4 mile hike to Round Bald, you can see near 360 degree views that have been compared to those of the Swiss Alps. And if that’s not enough for you, take the storied Appalachian Trail out to Grassy Ridge Bald, which is a 4.7 mile out and back hike with beautiful vistas throughout.
You can also hike west from Carver’s Gap for just over 2 miles on the Appalachian Trail to find Roan High Knob. At 6,286 feet above sea level, Roan High Knob is the highest point on Roan Mountain, the tallest mountain in Tennessee outside the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Roan High Knob also boasts the highest elevation shelter on the Appalachian Trail.
After getting your fill at Carver’s Gap, jump back in the car for 15 more minutes and head up to the world famous Rhododendron Gardens where you can hike to Roan High Bluff. Here you will see the largest rhododendron garden in the world, dense forest akin to those in the Pacific Northwest, and more outstanding mountain views.
At 52 minutes away from Johnson City, Carver’s Gap is one of the furthest drives on our list. But we think the incredible views and ease of access on the trail more than makes up for the travel time.
Some of the best views in the Appalachian Mountains
360 degree mountain views
Great place to view both sunrise and sunset
Easy access with a short hike
Great for beginner hikers or those who can’t hike long distances
Many hiking options
Very diverse ecosystem
You get to hike on the storied Appalachian Trail
Great place to take professional pictures
Carver’s Gap parking area fills up fast, especially on weekends
Round Bald can get busy
Due to high elevation, weather is very unpredictable
A bit of a drive from Johnson City (52 minutes)
2. Unaka Mountain
Unaka Mountain has a whole lot to offer. It has multiple amazing scenic overlooks, but also has three waterfalls that are definitely worth checking out as well. But the incredible overlooks and ease of access is what lands Unaka Mountain at the number two spot on our list.
The easiest views to access on Unaka Mountain are at the appropriately named Beauty Spot. Similar to Round Bald on Roan Mountain, the hike from the parking area to Beauty Spot is very short and easy. Also similar is the fact that to access beauty spot you will be hiking on the Appalachian Trail. The ease of access is both a blessing and a curse, as you get to see incredible views without much work, but so does everyone else, and for this reason Beauty Spot can get very busy with both those there simply to take in the stunning views, as well as many photographers trying to get that perfect shot of the landscape or that newly engaged couple.
If you’re not a huge fan of crowds, then Unaka Mountain Overlook (also known as Pleasant Garden) may be the spot for you. To access, simply drive past Beauty Spot going east on Beauty Spot Gap Rd until it turns into Unaka Mountain Rd. Follow it for about 3 miles until you reach Red Fork Rd. Take a left and you’re there. Of course you can always hike there as well. From the Beauty Spot parking area it’s about a 6.6 mile out and back hike up to the Unaka Mountain Overlook and back. The Emerald Forest in between Beauty Spot and Unaka Mountain Overlook is also worth a visit, as it’s famous for it’s ferns and wildflowers.
In the same area as Unaka Mountain Overlook you can also access Stamping Ground Ridge and Horseback Ridge. They are lesser known overlooks in comparison with Beauty Spot, but still worth a look. While Beauty Spot faces west, Stamping Ground Ridge and Horseback Ridge face east toward Johnson City and Buffalo Mountain.
The overlooks on Unaka Mountain can be accessed from Johnson City in about 35-45 minutes depending on where you go, making them very accessible for a day trip.
Multiple places to see incredible panoramic views
Great place to view sunset
Easy access with a short hike
Great for beginner hikers or those who can’t hike long distances
Many hiking options
Close access to multiple overlooks and waterfalls
You get to hike the storied Appalachian Trail
Great place to take professional pictures
Beauty Spot can get extremely busy at times
The access road can be difficult to traverse for some vehicles
Access gate is closed during winter preventing easy access
The Whitehouse Cliffs Overlook is located in Rocky Fork State Park near Flag Pond, Tennessee. The incredible 360 degree views of the Rocky Fork watershed and Sam’s Gap are the reason the Whitehouse Cliffs landed at number three on our list of the most incredible overlooks near Johnson City. For the reward, you must hike 1 mile up the newly constructed Whitehouse Cliffs Trail which leaves right out of the Rocky Fork Trail parking area. While a mile may seem easy enough, believe me when I say this is a grueling (but well worth it) climb to the top of the mountain.
On your way up (right around the .6 mile mark) don’t forget to look up to get an amazing view of the Whitehouse Cliffs cliff-face, which seems to be staring down the Black Stack Cliffs just across the beautiful Rocky Fork. Once you get to the top, take your well deserved break while taking in the outstanding mountain vistas and listening for the rushing of Rocky Fork below. At your highest point you’ll be just over 3,300 feet above sea level, but the scenery around you will have you feeling like you’re on top of the world.
While the Whitehouse Cliffs Overlook is the best mountain view in Rocky Fork State Park, the overall beauty of the park matches anything you’ll find in East Tennessee or Western North Carolina, and it’s worth exploring further after you are done taking in the breathtaking views at the top of the mountain. Rocky Fork State Park is just about 30 minutes from Johnson City.
360 degree mountain views
Great views throughout the 1 mile hike to the top
Usually not very busy
Well maintained trail
Park offers many other beautiful hiking options
Within 30 minutes of Johnson City
Parking lot can get full during busy times, but there is additional parking (with a slight walk)
Trail can be tough for beginners due to steep elevation
4. Flint Mill Rock
The Flint Mill trailhead on Holston Mountain is located about 50 minutes from Johnson City. Similar to the Whitehouse Cliffs Trail, the Flint Mill Trail is a short but extremely steep climb up to incredible views of the South Holston Lake. It’s not very often you can look down on the whole of a 2.5 square mile lake, and it’s for this view alone that Flint Mill Rock gets the fourth spot on our list.
The Flint Mill trail is physically the most difficult trail on our list. Although this out and back trail is only around 2.5 miles long, it covers a whopping 1,375 feet of elevation gain! That’s 550 feet of elevation per mile. That’s over 100 feet of elevation gain more per mile than the second hardest trail on our list, the Whitehouse Cliffs Trail. Make sure to bring plenty of water for this trail, and give yourself a nice, long, well deserved rest when you reach the top. The views from the top are outstanding. In fact, if not for the difficulty of the hike itself, the Flint Mill Rock overlook would be higher on our list! While the views from Flint Mill are better than those from the Whitehouse Cliffs, and potentially rival those from Unaka Mountain, the sheer difficulty of the hike is what dropped Flint Mill to our fourth spot.
Views rivaling the best you will find anywhere in Northeast Tennessee
Options to extend the hike and make it longer
Not a heavily trafficked trail
Extremely difficult hike
Snakes have been known to hang out near Flint Mill Rock
Buffalo Mountain is by far the closest mountain views to Johnson City, TN. The main access area of Buffalo Mountain is Buffalo Mountain Park, which is only about 5 minutes from downtown. But it’s not only the close proximity, but also the astounding views that helped Buffalo Mountain net the number five spot on our list.
Buffalo Mountain has a few nice overlooks, but the one that will really have you catching your breath is the White Rock Overlook. It’s an awe-inspiring rock-face cliff that has you staring down on Johnson City on one side, and the towering mountains of the Cherokee National Forest on the other. The shortest way to get to White Rock is by hiking an approximately 2.5 mile out and back trail along a steep service road called Highridge Road (foot traffic only, a gate blocks any unauthorized vehicle traffic). But in my opinion, the best way to view the overlooks on Buffalo Mountain is by hiking the White Rock Loop trail. It’s a 5 mile loop that hits both the White Rock Overlook as well as another nice overlook, Huckleberry Knob, and gives you the option for a third overlook (with about a mile of extra hiking) out to Tip Top. The White Rock Loop also offers other incredible views throughout the duration of the hike.
Multiple places to see great views
Many different hiking trails / options
Great place to see the elusive lady slipper wildflowers
Multiple parking areas
5 minutes from downtown Johnson City
The best views do take a bit of a hike to get to
Some trails can get very steep and muddy in places
Grandfather Mountain is an experience unlike anything else in the Appalachian Mountains. If the most important thing to you are the best mountain views possible, this is the place you want to be. The bare rock face that covers much of the almost 6,000 foot tall mountain makes it feel more like you’re in Colorado instead of western North Carolina. Grandfather Mountain also has one of the most diverse ecosystems in the United States, as well as the most unpredictable weather in all of the Appalachian Mountains. But the fact that it’s over an hour from Johnson City and has an expensive entry cost is what dropped it to number six on our list.
Grandfather Mountain does have multiple overlooks, but in my opinion it’s more like multiple perspectives, because after you pay the $22 per adult entry fee and start driving up the mountain, you quickly realize you’re somewhere special. Grandfather Mountain towers over everything around it, and offers close to 360 degree views from just about anywhere you stand near the top of the mountain. From the famous ‘Mile High Bridge’ to the daunting Grandfather Mountain Trail, there is plenty to do on this mountain.
If you’re up for hiking while at Grandfather Mountain, the best places to check out are MacRae Peak, Grandfather Calloway Peak, and Black Rock. The best way to access the first two is from the Grandfather Mountain Trail. While the Grandfather Mountain Trail is less than 4 miles out and back, be aware that this trail is one of the most technical mountain hikes without climbing equipment east of the Mississippi River, and is not for the inexperienced or those who are afraid of heights. There are multiple cable sections and multiple ladders that you climb mounted right to the side of cliffs with extreme drops. But if you can make it up to both MacRae and Grandfather Calloway Peaks, prepare to be overwhelmed with sites and beauty unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. On a clear day it feels like your line of site never ends!
Another great trail that offers amazing views is the Black Rock Nature Trail. While not as intense as the Grandfather Mountain Trail, the Black Rock Nature Trail offers its own set of challenges. The 1.7 mile out and back trail feels longer due to very rocky terrain demanding your constant attention and some technical footwork. Sturdy boots are highly recommended on this trail. To experience the best views the trail has to offer you will have to pull yourself up using cables on top of boulders, as well as scale a ladder to the top of Black Rock.
If you’re not up for challenging hiking but don’t mind heights, then the famous Mile High Swinging Bridge is a very short, easy trail that leads to incredible 360 degree views of the surrounding landscape and mountains. Sugar Mountain and Beech Mountain can easily be seen from here.
At just over an hour (not including the 10-15 minute drive to the top of the mountain), Grandfather Mountain is the furthest drive from Johnson City on our list. It’s also the only one with an entry cost ($22 per adult). The only way to avoid the entry cost is to hike the 11 mile Profile Trail up to Grandfather Calloway and MacRae Peaks, which covers over 3,000 feet of elevation gain.
Potentially the best views in all of the Appalachian Mountains
A few different hiking trails to choose from
One of the most diverse ecosystems in the United States
More than enough parking with multiple parking areas
Some very unique hiking opportunities that you can’t get elsewhere
Park offers many other amenities, like a nature museum and wildlife exhibits
Great place to plan a full day trip
Very near to the famous Blue Ridge Parkway
Expensive entry fee
Very unpredictable weather (bring a jacket, even if it’s 85 degrees at the base of the mountain)
Almost constant high winds at the top of the mountain
The Mile High Bridge can get extremely crowded
Very touristy in spots, but busy areas are easy to avoid
The trails with the best views are not pet friendly
7. Pinnacle Mountain Fire Tower
The Pinnacle Mountain Firetower lookout on Buffalo Mountain offers amazing mountain views with a few caveats, and it’s landed at number seven on our list. Although also on Buffalo Mountain, the Pinnacle Mountain Firetower is further away from Johnson City than Buffalo Mountain Park, and depending on your access point, the drive is between 10 and 35 minutes.
There are two ways to access the renovated firetower lookout. The shortest hiking route takes about 35 minutes of driving from Johnson City. Take Dry Creek Rd to FSR #188. Note that this road is meant for high-clearance vehicles only and is closed from mid-January to mid-March. On FSR #188 drive until you reach the gate. From here there is a .5 mile steep hike up to the firetower. If you’re like me and more into hiking, take the second route. It’s only about a 10 minute drive from Johnson City, but there is about a 9 mile out and back hike. The trail has about 1,860 feet of steady elevation gain throughout. If you want to make your hike a bit shorter, you can go left when you reach the firetower road instead of crossing it. Hiking to the firetower this way, and the same way on the return will remove about 2 miles from the hike, making it about a 7 mile hike out and back.
Once you reach the tower, the views are quite good, but there are a few caveats. While the 360 degree views are impressive, you are looking right down on the town of Unicoi, TN, which does take away from the natural beauty somewhat. Also, there is a large communications tower right by the firetower lookout, which can be distracting. But overall this is just another of many impressive overlooks near Johnson City that you should definitely take advantage of.
Great 360 degree mountain views
Close to Johnson City
Multiple options when it comes to hiking distance
Very heavily trafficked hike, can get very busy
The town of Unicoi and the communications tower take away from the beautiful views somewhat
8. Erwin Scenic Overlook
It may seem like a bit of an oddball choice for a pull-off interstate overlook to make this list, but trust me when I tell you the views here are really good. I specifically remember stopping at this overlook with my wife the first time we visited Johnson City in fall of 2016, and remember it being much better than I could have imagined.
Accessing the scenic overlook from Johnson City can be a bit awkward, as it’s on the opposite side of I-26 / James H. Quillen Parkway. Because you have to drive down to the Flag Pond exit (50) and turn around to go back toward Johnson City, getting to the overlook takes about 35 minutes, but will only take about 25 to get back home. Personally, I would recommend visiting this overlook on the way back to Johnson City from Asheville, Flag Pond, or another area south of Erwin, TN.
For the best views, there is a short hike up from the parking area. If you’re not careful, this short (but relatively steep) hike will catch you off guard and may just take your breath away. Once you reach the top (just over 2,500 feet in elevation) you will be able to enjoy awesome mountain views. On your way back, feel free to stop at the Tennessee Welcome Center which sports some nice views of its own.
Very pretty for a interstate scenic overlook
Easy access from I-26 going N toward Johnson City
Nice little hike helps to stretch your legs after a long drive
Hard to access from I-26 going S away from Johnson City
There is some traffic noise since it’s right on the interstate
Bonus: Devil’s Backbone Overlook
Here is a nice little bonus overlook for you. I don’t think this overlook has a specific name, but it’s on the Devil’s Backbone Trail in Warrior’s Path State Park right outside of Kingsport, TN. If you park at the Devil’s Backbone trailhead, you don’t have to go far for this beautiful view that overlooks the South Holston River, Bays Mountain, and the Warrior’s Path State Park campground.
There are a few different nice areas to take in the beautiful sunset. Just be aware that although it’s only about .5 miles from the parking area to the overlook, the climb is pretty steep. Continuing on past the overlook will take you down the mountain for a nice hike along an inlet of the South Holston River and along Fall Creek. The total Devil’s Backbone / Fall Creek hike is an out and back trail that is around 3.3 miles long.
The Devil’s Backbone parking area is 25 minutes from Johnson City.
Less than 30 minutes from Johnson City
Great place to watch the sunset
Trail is usually not very busy
Hike has a few nice water features
Hike is quite steep up to the overlook
Loud boats on the river can kill the peaceful vibes