Where To Stay, Our Favorite Restaurants, And Things To Do In Johnson City, TN For A Fun Family Weekend!

If you’ve traveled on I-81 between Tennessee and Virginia, you’ve likely seen the turnoff for Johnson City, Tennessee. Johnson City is a small college town (East Tennessee State University) in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and its logo aptly states “Start Your Adventure Here.”

It’s a great hub for outdoor adventures minus the crowds (and prices) of other outdoor hot spots like nearby Asheville, NC.

Over the years, Johnson City’s downtown has been revitalized and offers a nice selection of restaurants and breweries in a quaint downtown setting.

It’s a place where you can spend a day hiking the Appalachian Trail over numerous mountain balds with amazing 360 degree views, bike a local family-friendly bike path, or tour the nearby Gray Fossil Site and Hands On! Discovery Center.

Downtown Johnson City, TN
Downtown Johnson City, TN

Weekend Overview- Things To Do In Johnson City, TN

  • Day 1- Welcome to Johnson City! Visit Gray’s Fossil & Hands On! Museum and enjoy dinner downtown. Afterwards, take a stroll through downtown’s Founders Park.
  • Day 2- Grab a quick bite for an early start, pack a picnic and take an easy hike on the Appalachian Trail northbound from Carvers Gap to Round Bald and Jane Bald. Afterwards, stop by a local farm for apples (seasonal of course). Finish off the day at White Duck Taco and Yeehaw Brewing in Johnson City.
  • Day 3- Have brunch and hike or bike the easy and flat Tweetsie Trail.
Map showing fun activities during a weekend in Johnson City, TN
Overview of Activities

The Best Time To Visit Johnson City, TN

Spring, summer, and fall are the best times to visit Johnson City, TN. For this itinerary, I recommend visiting in the fall or early summer. In the fall, the leaf color along on the Tweetsie Trail is particularly beautiful and you have the added bonus of visiting the apple orchards.

In early summer, it’s a treat to experience the blooming rhododendron on nearby Roan Mountain. Bloom time is generally in mid-June but obviously varies from year to year.

Where To Stay In Johnson City, TN

You’ll find your usual suspects of chain hotels and a handful of vacation rentals in Johnson City as you get a lot of visitors to ETSU (East Tennessee State University).

My first choice of lodging in Johnson City is the Carnegie Hotel, a boutique hotel located about 1.5 miles from downtown shops and restaurants. My second choice would be vacation rentals located in or near downtown (see below), so you can leave your car parked and walk to shops, restaurants, and breweries after your day’s activities.

Heads up: We are not sponsored in any way and have never received compensation at the behest of any organization or company. If you book one of our recommended properties from our VRBO or booking.com links, you won’t pay a penny more but we may get a small commission which helps support this website. Thanks! Disclosure Statement.

Recommended Hotels in Johnson City, TN

  • Carnegie Hotel- This classic and elegant hotel is considered the most luxurious stay in Johnson City but is priced reasonably on weekends. It has an outdoor pool as well as a restaurant and bar on site. Good location to downtown dining (1 mile away) and across from East Tennessee State University (ETSU). You could walk to restaurants, but it would be along a busy road, so car travel is recommended. (Uber is available here too.) This hotel would be my first choice. 1216 West State of Franklin Road.
  • Doubletree Hotel– Indoor and outdoor pool located a 10 minute drive away from downtown. Prices average about $100 night. 211 Mockingbird Lane
  • Hampton Inn also averages about $100 night and offers free breakfast and an outdoor pool. A 6 minute drive to downtown. 508 N. State of Franklin.
  • Courtyard by Marriott. Has an outdoor pool and is located near Mellow Mushroom Pizza, one of my faves!

Vacation Rentals Near Downtown Johnson City

Redesigned Family/Pet Friendly- Carriage House Minutes walk to Downtown. VRBO 2823716. 2 bedroom, 1.5 bath, sleeps 4. Has everything you need and is located in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood within walking distance of restaurants downtown.

Cozy 2br/1ba home in downtown Johnson City, TN! VRBO 2948076. 2 bedroom, 1 bath, sleeps 4. Nice, clean cottage located a bit on the outskirts of downtown but within walking distance.

The Vault Loft downtown– (AirBnB) Sleeps 4 in 1 King bed and 1 Queen bed. Terrific location but could be loud in the main room from street noise. One bed is actually located in the vault. Averages $150 night. Her description: “Downtown loft in an old bank building from the days of Capone. Secured with code access to the building and unique code to loft. One of the rooms is inside the bank vault. It is an open floor plan with large windows over looking Spring St, YeeHaw Brewery, the train tracks, and on the backdrop of Buffalo Mountain.” Located on Spring Street. 

Camping Near Johnson City, TN

Roan Mountain State Park– If your main agenda is to find lodging close to the Appalachian Trail at Carvers Gap, find a campsite or rent a cabin at Roan Mountain State Park. It’s a nicely maintained state park and is located on TN Hwy 143 at the base of Roan Mountain.

Roan Mountain State Park is just a 15 minute drive to the parking area for the Appalachian Trail (AT) at Carvers Gap and a 40 minute drive to Johnson City.

Tent set up at Roan Mountain State Park
Site 31 at Roan Mountain State Park

It has multiple hiking and biking trails, ranger programs, a playground, and even a pool. The Doe River, stocked with trout, runs through the park and campground. 

I’m usually deterred by any campground with a pool because, for me, it takes away from the nature aspect of the camping experience and almost certainly implies “crowded campground.” But I was pleasantly surprised here.

Their tent section offers large sites surrounded by rhododendron offering privacy and shade. I would definitely return here with a tent, but I found the RV sites unbearably close to each other with the exception of site #52, #68, and #72.  Reservations for campsites.

Cabin Rentals At Roan Mountain State Park: Tip: Not a camper? Consider renting a cabin at Roan Mountain State Park. Reserve in advance as they go quickly though. The cabins have one private bedroom with queen size bed, and an open loft with a set of twin beds.

Each cabin is completely furnished with all linens and cooking utensils. All of the cabins have a wood-burning stove, AC, and rocking chairs on the front porch. Sounds heavenly! Reservations for cabins.

Day 1- Visit Gray Fossil Site & Hands On! Museum

Before checking in to your lodging, visit the Gray Fossil Site and Museum and the adjoining Hands On! Discovery Center. The 5-million year old Gray Fossil Site was discovered in 2000 by TDOT highway crews. It now offers tours of an ongoing fossil dig, exhibits, and educational programs. Per their website: The Gray Fossil Site & Museum “is the only Miocene era fossil dig site in the Appalachian Mountains.”

It was fascinating to learn about the prehistoric animals that roamed this area. The site contains well-preserved plant and animal remains dating from 4 million to 8 million years old. You can pay extra for a tour of the actual dig site or simply observe it from an outdoor viewing deck.

Afterwards, walk through the educational exhibits of their findings and peer through the glass of the fossil lab where scientists and volunteers are busy at work cleaning and categorizing the fossils.

Featured fossil displays include replicas of a saber tooth cat, tapir, mastodon and many other plants and animals. The museum is very hands on and tells the story of the find and of the dig site well.

It’s a really interesting visit, and it’s super fun for kids who will also enjoy the creative Hands On! Science Museum. We spent as much time in the interactive Hands On! Museum as we did the fossil exhibits. Pack some snacks to enjoy on the outside picnic tables and take your time here. Plan to spend at least 2 hours total but more likely 3 hours.

Tip: Don’t miss the Nicholas Tesla’s Coil Experience ($2 extra). Our kids loved the musical lightening!

Note: The museum is located in Gray, TN which is about a 15 minute drive from Johnson City. If driving from Knoxville, it will be on your way to Johnson City. We stopped to visit the museum for a few hours and then continued on to Johnson City to check into our hotel.

FYI: Johnson City is located about 1.5 hours from Knoxville, TN, 1 hour from Asheville, NC, and less than 3 hours from Roanoke, VA.

Day 1 – Dinner Downtown

You’ll find a great selection of restaurants in downtown Johnson City including Main Street Pizza, Watauga Brewery, and Freibergs (German food).

If you’re in the mood for a good schnitzel, we highly recommend Freibergs and its cozy indoor vibe. Our kiddos enjoyed the mini-brats and pretzels, and the pork schnitzel and mashed potatoes were fantastic. Park in the free city lot across from the restaurant or along the street if you can find a space. See the city’s parking map.

Tip: See more restaurant recommendations near the end of this post.

Day 1 – An After Dinner (or before) Stroll In Founders Park

Time to work off that schnitzel! Founders Park is a beautiful green space right in the heart of Johnson City’s downtown. After dinner, let the kids get their wiggles out as you stroll along the paved paths admiring the variety of art sculptures featured throughout the park. It’s an inviting place to relax with a creek running through it and lots of families and their dogs enjoying the day.

Day 2 – Hike One of the Most Beautiful Sections of the Appalachian Trail

Day 2 – Breakfast in Johnson City, TN

The key today is to get up early enough to be at Carvers Gap parking area no later than 10am, but the earlier the better! The hike today on the Appalachian Trail (AT) is a crowd-pleaser, and believe me that it’s worth it to get here early to find parking and solitude before the crowds arrive en masse around noon. 

So grab a quick bite at your hotel or other lodging and hit the road! Pack water, jackets (it’s colder at 5000+ elevation!), sunscreen, and picnic food for the trail.

If you have time for breakfast in Johnson City, First Watch, opening at 7am daily, offers one of the best in town. Pancakes, omelettes, hash, etc. and a kids menu. Iced coffee and healthier breakfast options like avocado toast are available as well. You can also order online for takeout.

Dos Gatos Coffee Bar located downtown would be another good “grab and go” option. They open at 8am.

Hike to Round Bald and Jane Bald On The Appalachian Trail

Just one hour’s drive from Johnson City, you can hike the one of the most beautiful stretches of the famous Appalachian Trail (AT) northbound from Carvers Gap near Roan Mountain across Round Bald and Jane Bald. This amazing 3 mile round trip hike to Jane Bald is a crowd-pleaser.

With stunning views, this hike is one of the easiest, most accessible family hikes in the Appalachian mountains. Bring a kite, pack a picnic, and relax in your nature bath here.

I find this hike to be one of the easiest, most accessible family hikes to one of the most beautiful views in the Appalachian mountains. Take time to enjoy the vistas, watch the changing cloud formations, and listen to the wind.

If you are here in June, you will probably catch the rhododendrons and flame azaleas blooming, adding even more splendor to your views.

Two people surrounded by clouds on top of Round Mountain near Johnson City, TN
Atop Round Bald Near Johnson City, TN

Round Bald– From the Carvers Gap Parking lot, you can access the Appalachian Trail heading in either direction (north or south). You can hike northbound across Round Bald, Jane Bald and Grassy Ridge or follow the AT south to Roan High Knob and Roan High Knob shelter.  (Roan High Knob shelter is the highest backcountry shelter on the Appalachian Trail.)

The hike to Round Bald and Jane Bald is a steady but not so steep incline, especially to Round Bald (0.7 miles from Carvers Gap). You could easily stop at Round Bald for 1.5 mile roundtrip hike and just explore the bald without continuing to the steeper Jane Bald.

AT Trailhead At Carvers Gap– Beginning at an elevation of 5512 feet at Carvers Gap, cross the road from the parking area to the trailhead to walk northbound on the Appalachian Trail (white blaze).

The trail climbs gently before entering a short walk through a shaded pine forest, or “tree tunnel” as my girls called it, lined with fun boulder rocks for the kids to climb.

Arrow showing AT trailhead at Carvers Gap near Johnson City, TN
AT trailhead at Carvers Gap

Once you exit the forest, you have a slight climb to the top of Round Bald for a total distance of 0.7 miles and 300’ elevation gain. Stay a while and explore here or continue on to Jane Bald for a 3 mile roundtrip hike from Carvers Gap.

Jane Bald

From Round Bald, you can look north along the trail and see a rocky patch at the top of the next “hill.” That’s Jane Bald. To get to Jane Bald, you’ll continue walking northbound on the AT.

You will walk down the backside of Round Bald before beginning your 0.7 mile climb up to Jane Bald. The final approach to Jane’s Bald is rocky and steep but not terribly long.

However, it requires a bit of huffing and puffing unlike the walk to Round Bald.

You will eventually arrive at a rocky, open area made for 360 degree photos. See photos atop Jane Bald below.

Jane Bald near Johnson City, TN
Taking a rest at Jane Bald

Tip: Jane Bald is a perfect place to enjoy sunrise or sunset.  Also note that the weather here can shift quickly, so it’s a good idea to pack a jacket/rain gear.

Grassy Ridge

If you still haven’t had enough, you can continue yet again northbound on the AT from Jane Bald to Grassy Ridge (elevation 6,189). Go all the way to Grassy Ridge Bald for a five-mile roundtrip hike from Carvers Gap (with a total of about 1,200 feet in elevation gain as you ascend and descend the balds.)

We turned around at Jane Bald, perfectly happy with the hike and the amazing views but plan to hike to Grassy Ridge when the kids are a bit older.

Here’s a great overview of the trail from Carvers Gap to Grassy Ridge, written by Romantic Asheville.

Map showing directions to Carvers Gap from Johnson City, TN
Map showing directions to Carvers Gap from Johnson City, TN. Openstreetmaps.org and annotated.

Directions to Carvers Gap from Johnson City:

Carvers Gap is roughly 15 minutes from Roan Mountain Campground and one hour from Johnson City.

  • Follow I-26 E to exit 24 Elizabethton (Highway 321) and follow 321 N towards Elizabethton.
  • Turn right on TN 362 which eventually turns into TN 361. Follow to the end.
  • Turn right on 19 E S and follow roughly 10 miles.
  • Turn right on TN 143 S and follow it through Roan State Park until you arrive at the TN/NC border at Carvers Gap.
  • Park in the parking lot on the right at Carvers Gap

Parking at Carvers Gap

Park in the parking lot on the right at Carvers Gap if there is a spot. Otherwise, continue toward North Carolina (You’ll see the big “Welcome to NC” sign) and park on the side of the road or the NC parking lot roughly 25 yards past the “Welcome to NC” sign. Tip: You will find bathrooms at the parking lot on the TN side.

Day 2 Afternoon- Berry or Apple Picking

Not far from Carvers Gap (15 minutes) and on your way back to town from your hike, consider a stop at Jarrett’s Apple Orchard. (Depending on the season of course).

Jarrett’s Apple Orchard does not offer pick-your own until the end of the season (the end of October), but you can pick up a bag of your favorite apples and taste test to make sure! Peak season is September and October.  161 Jess Jarrett Rd. Mon – Sat: 9 am – 5 pm.

Directions to Jarrett’s from Carvers Gap: Drive North on 143 (Roan Rd) going towards Roan Mountain State Park. Turn right on Burbank Rd. and drive just over one mile before turning left onto Jess Jarrett Rd. You will see the Orchard Store on the right.

Day 2 Dinner- White Duck Taco and Yeehaw Brewery

A favorite stop after an amazing hike is the patio at White Duck Taco and the adjoining taproom of Yeehaw Brewery. Housed in the historic Tweetsie Railroad Depot, kids are welcome and can enjoy a kid’s menu (quesadilla, BLT Chicken Sandwich, etc.) and free popcorn from Yeehaw.

We always visit White Duck Taco when we’re visiting Asheville, so we are delighted that they have a location in Johnson City. With quite the selection of unique and tasty tacos, I try to order something different each time but my “go-to’s” are the Bangkok Shrimp Taco and the Thai Chicken Curry Taco. Counter service is quick, but sometimes has a bit of line to order.

Don’t let the line deter you as it moves quickly. After getting your food, head to the attached Yeehaw Brewing Taproom where you can order one of their craft beers from the bar. Address: 126 Buffalo Street

Enjoy Your White Duck Taco in the adjoining Yeehaw Brewery Taproom

Day 3- Bike Or Walk The Tweetsie Trail In Johnson City, TN

Breakfast

If you haven’t tried First Watch for breakfast, this is your chance. Other good breakfast options in Johnson City include downtown’s Dos Gatos Coffee Bar for a quick breakfast or Eggs Up Grill for more of a sit down and linger. And Watauga Brewing offers brunch starting at 11am on weekends.

Bike or Walk the Tweetsie Trail

The Tweetsie Trail is a rails-to-trails project traversing the former East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad right-of-way between the towns of Johnson City and Elizabethton, TN.

The well-maintained gravel path is perfect for a family bike ride with a relatively flat grade in a beautiful setting. You’ll cross trestles and bike past a quarry, and you can stop at various historical placards along the trail explaining its history and geology.

The length of the trail is a total of 9.6 miles, but I recommend starting from Johnson City and biking about 4.4 miles to the Lions Park area and turning back at this point. This section is mostly shaded and has only a few quiet street crossings. As you get closer to Elizabethton, it is less tranquil as you’ll parallel a busy road and lose the shade from the trees.

Parking: The Tweetsie Trail begins at 116 Van Brocklin Way in Johnson City. This trailhead includes paved parking, benches, water fountains, a bike repair station, and a portable restroom. Overflow parking can be found nearby at the TVA Credit Union Ballpark or the large asphalt lot on the corner of East State of Franklin Road and Legion Street.

See their website for access points and an interactive trail map.

Bike Rentals: Local Motion Cyclery provides bike rentals for adults and kids as well as pull-behinds for the younger kiddos.

Map showing the trailhead for the Tweetsie Trail in Johnson City
Map showing trailed to Tweetsie Trail. Openstreetmaps.org and annotated.

Mountain Biking In Johnson City, TN

Located nearby the Tweetsie Trail, you’ll find more biking adventures at Tannery Knobs Mountain Biking Park. It is riding distance from downtown and covers over 40 acres of terrain along with a pump park. See MTB Project’s trail descriptions here.

Where To Eat In Johnson City, TN

Downtown Johnson City Restaurants

Downtown has a good selection of restaurants and the dining scene continues to expand. We’ve tried all of these, and they were terrific. For a complete listing of downtown restaurants, see Downtown JC’s website.

Yeehaw Brewery & White Duck Taco Shop– A favorite stop is the patio at White Duck Taco and the adjoining taproom of Yeehaw Brewery. Fun atmosphere with great tacos and beer. Service is quick, but sometimes has a bit of a line to order. Opens at 11:30am. Address: 126 Buffalo Street        

Freibergs-If you’re in the mood for a good schnitzel, Friebergs is your place. It has a cosy indoor vibe. Your kiddos will enjoy the mini-brats and pretzels, and the pork schnitzel and mashed potatoes are yummy. Park in the city lot across from the restaurant or along the street if you can find a space.
203 E. Main St.

Main Street Pizza- Pizza seems to please everyone. Another great stop downtown for pizza. Open 7 days a week.  300 E Main St.

Southern Craft BBQ– Great food with cool vibe inside. 601 Spring St.

Dos Gatos Coffee Bar– Great coffee, breakfast grab and go fare. 238 E Main St.

Watauga Brewing Company– Enjoy the rooftop views with a cold beer or dine in the 2nd floor restaurant of this tri-level eatery. Good pub food and a weekend brunch. Closed on Mondays. 142 W Market St.

Label Restaurant also looks like a winner with terrific drink specials and a variety of food options ranging from sushi to burgers. It’s on our list but we have yet to try it. They do recommend reservations for lunch and dinner. 112 Tipton St.

PALS– Although not located downtown, another food institution in Johnson City is PALS. If you see a fast-food joint with a giant hot dog sculpture, you’ve found the right place!

This locally beloved fast-food restaurant is known for their sweet tea, burgers, and fast service. It’s an East Tennessee food institution originating from the 1950‘s and has a number of locations throughout the area. 1200 W State Of Franklin Rd

Exterior of the PALS fast food in Johnson City, TN
The can’t miss PALS restaurant. Photo from their website.

* Pro-Tip- If you really want to go for the full Johnson City experience, get a Dr. Enuf with your PALS burger and fries. A locally bottled soda, Dr. Enuf is lemon-lime flavored with almost a full day’s worth of B vitamins– the original fortified energy drink. The company originally also bottled Mountain Dew but later sold that drink to Pepsi. Dr. Enuf is definitely an acquired taste though, so you might want to order a water as well, just in case.

Firehouse BBQ, occupying the old Walnut Street Fire Station, is a local landmark for BBQ dining. They have been a presence in Johnson City for what seems like forever. Plenty of locals and visitors here. 627 W. Walnut St.

More Things To Do Near Johnson City, TN

Visit Jonesborough, TN

Located about 20 minutes from Johnson City, Jonesborough, TN is Tennessee’s oldest town and is listed on the state’s National Register of Historic Places. Take a peak at the Visitors Center and museum, then stroll through the restored downtown with its quaint shops and restaurants. The Crafty Peddler, once a saloon, sells local crafts and antiques. You can also tour the Old Jonesborough Cemetery.

The International Storytelling Center is also located in Jonesborough and offers live storytelling sessions every day. Sit down and watch skillful performers tell a story using words, music, and acting. Matinee performances are available daily between May and October. 

For something much less historic but always a crowd-pleaser for the kids, Wetlands Water Park, open seasonally, will be a hit with several flume slides and a lazy river.

Happy Trails! You May Also Like Our Book Now Available on Amazon!

North Carolina Mountain Towns–Family Weekend Adventures: Asheville, Brevard, and Bryson City, NC

Need a change of scenery from the hustle and bustle of life? Want the kids to unplug from their devices for a while and connect together as a family?

A family weekend getaway in the great outdoors can do wonders for everyone, kids and adults alike.

Enjoy easy scenic hikes, float a river, try apple picking or antiquing, go mountain biking, pitch a tent, or explore the local shops along a charming Main Street.

By Simply Awesome Trips

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