During the summer, people of all ages search for memorable activities to take part in. When I was younger, I always wanted to venture outside of East Tennessee; however, with age, I’ve come to realize that some of the best summer activities out there exist locally in the Tri-Cities region. As kids, teens, parents, and college students rush to make those final summer memories before school picks back up in mid-August, I thought I’d share my 12 must-do summer activities within the Tri-Cities area.
For all my non-residential readers, the Tri-Cities region is composed of the East Tennessee cities Kingsport, Johnson City, and Bristol. Locals also consider many small towns such as Elizabethton (my hometown) and Jonesborough part of the region as well. Because all of the towns in the Tri-Cities region are within close proximity to each other, you can complete at least a couple of my must-do summer activities in a single day! That said, I strongly encourage any non-residents to book a stay at one of the many hotels in the area (I recommend the Historic Eureka Inn, Carnegie Hotel, or Meredith Valley Cabins) and explore for an entire weekend. What’s more, the Tri-Cities area offers an array of outdoor and indoor activities for parents and their young children, solo travelers, married couples, and those older but young at heart. Trust me, there is at least one activity in the Tri-Cities area that will fit your needs and meet your wants.
Get Active Outdoors
1. Enjoy Watauga Lake!
A popular destination for Elizabethton residents, Watauga Lake is the Tennessee Valley Authority’s highest-elevated reservoir in Tennessee. Surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains, Watauga Lake offers visitors and locals many water-based activities such as swimming, canoeing, paddle boarding, kayaking, power boating, water skiing, jet skiing, fishing, and wakeboarding. It also offers some of the BEST VIEWS!
If you have a boat, bring it and launch it for a small fee! If you don’t though, no worries! You can rent a pontoon or ski boat for a reasonable price at Lakeshore Resort and Marina! If you’re interested, check out Lakeshore Mariana’s active resort webcam! Moreover, if you’re into fishing, Watauga Lake stocks a variety of fish – Black and White Crappie, Bluegill, Brown Trout, and an assortment of Bass! Just make sure you purchase a license. At the least, take a picnic and enjoy your surroundings. Check out the beaver dams, and watch for black bears!
Fun Fact: My husband and I love the area so much we got married there (see the picture below!), and we visit Watauga Lake regularly throughout the year. It may just take the cake for my favorite place in the entire world!
2. Visit Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium!
Designed for people of all ages, Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium offers a wide range of activities, some of which are indoor! Located in Kingsport, Tennessee, the 3,500 acre nature preserve features acres of lake, hiking trails, and animal habitats! Most notably, the place has a Nature Center with a state-of-the-art Planetarium Theater.
Summer Hours and Fees: From June until August, the Park is open Monday through Saturday from 8:30 AM to 8:00 PM and Sunday from 11:00 AM to 8:00 PM. There is a small entrance fee of $5 per vehicle, but I promise it is well worth the money! Note: There are additional fees for some of the “special programs” such as the Planetarium Theater Shows, Barge Rides (a personal favorite of mine!), and even a zip line. Still, the prices for these special programs only range from $3 to $10 per person. What a deal, especially for a family on a budget!
Growing up, my parents always took my sisters and me to Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium in the summer, and even though I’ve moved out and gotten married, I still schedule a trip to Bays Mountain at least once during the summer. Usually, I pick up fast food or pack a lunch, eat at one of the many picnic tables (most of the times squirrels or even deer come around), take a Barge ride, hike a mile or so, then check out the animal habitats (I always love the wolves!).
3. Catch an Appalachian League Baseball Game!
While I catch as many Appalachian League Baseball games as possible in the summer, I would encourage anybody to go to at least one game at any stadium located in the Tri-Cities. The Bristol Pirates, Elizabethton Twins, Kingsport Mets, and Johnson City Cardinals are just a few of the teams all located in the Tri-Cities region! If you don’t have an affiliate team preference (I always recommend the Elizabethton Twins. I may be biased, but the team hasn’t had a losing season in 30 years!), then check out the different schedules and select a game based on their nightly events. Most stadiums have $1 nights and some even have fireworks or live music!
One of reasons I love going to Appalachian League Baseball games is because it’s a Rookie League. This means, there’s no telling what you’ll witness! I’ve seen everything from a SportsCenter Top 10-worthy play to a fight among players from both teams and even extra inning games lasting well beyond midnight. What’s more, the players usually make a point both before and after games to take pictures and sign autographs.
Beat the Heat with these Indoor Activities
4. Listen to a live storyteller at Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall!
Although I haven’t yet had the opportunity to go to the Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall in Jonesborough, TN, to hear a professional storyteller live, I have visited the Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall on a different occasion and heard one of their regular storytellers at a separate event. See their Teller-In-Residence schedule here. The Tri-Cities region is locally known as a storytelling country. Even the local public university East Tennessee State University located in Johnson City, TN, has one of the only Storytelling Programs in the country. Everyone tells stories, and to me, it’s always amazing to hear someone who has made telling stories their profession. The way they set their narratives and alter their voices to communicate sometimes gives me goosebumps. If you’re thinking about visiting the Storytelling Center, check out their virtual tour. Side note: If you have to push one of these activities to the fall, make it this one! Every fall the Storytelling Center hosts the National Storytelling Festival, a three day event that celebrates storytelling.
5. Take a ride on the Kingsport Carousel!
A totally renovated version of the 1956 Allen Herschell Carousel, the carousel is located Kingsport, TN, in a temperature controlled room, and what’s more all rides are only $1! That’s right a dollar! Operating hours for the summer months are Wednesday 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Thursday and Friday 11:00 AM to 7:00 PM, and Saturday and Sunday 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM. Note: All riders under 42 inches must be accompanied by a paying adult.
Recently, my younger sister Kat and her husband David took a ride on the Kingsport Carousel and had a blast (see above)! Aren’t they just the cutest?! The Kingsport Carousel really is a summer activity for the young and young at heart.
6. Tour the Birthplace of Country Music Museum!
For all of you country music lovers out there, and I’m talking The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers type country music, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum is for you! An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum tells the story of the Bristol Sessions recordings. It also uses texts, artifacts, collections of records, theater experiences, and interaction displays to show just how far country music has come. From time to time, the Museum even switches up its exhibits. Admission to the Museum is free for children under five, $13.00 for adults and $11.00 for college students, seniors, and various other groups. As for its hours, the Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM and Sundays from 1:00 PM until 5:00 PM. Even though I’ve yet to make it to the Museum, it’s on my list of must-dos!
Eating is an Activity in the Tri-Cities
7. Eat Family-Style at Shirley’s Home Cooking!
Located near Watauga Lake in Hampton TN, Shirley’s Home Cooking is locally known as one of the best restaurants in the Tri-Cities area.
In fact, people drive from hours just to eat this place! Although they do offer a buffet breakfast on Saturday and Sunday from 8:00 AM to 11:00 AM, I’ve only ever had their dinner which is offered Friday and Saturday from 4:00 PM to 8:00 PM and Sunday 12:00 PM to 4:00 PM. If you go for dinner during the evenings, you’ll probably encounter some live bluegrass or country music. What’s more, attached to Shirley’s is a little country store. Recommendation: The earlier you get there the better. Sometimes the wait can be up to an hour, especially when Shirley’s opens for the summer season or has a popular local band scheduled.
Their variety of meat and vegetable selections at dinner will leave you speechless, and don’t blame me when you have to loosen your belt before dessert. Shirley’s is my husband’s personal favorite, and we always find ourselves eating dinner at Shirley’s at least a couple times throughout the summer. My husband always gets family-style which consists of biscuits, a drink, a dessert, two meats, and unlimited vegetables. ALWAYS get the fried chicken! The second meat choice is up to you! Tip: If you’re like me and you don’t eat a lot, you can purchase individual meats and vegetables for a couple bucks each. I usually get one piece of fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, and creamed corn for around $8!
8. Grab a bbq sandwich at Ridgewood Barbecue!
Located on a little backroad in Bluff City, TN, Ridgewood Barbecue is often reviewed as the best BBQ restaurant in the area (and that’s saying something since there’s like a bbq restaurant on every corner!). Like Shirley’s, the earlier you get there, the better. The restaurant is open Monday through Thursday from 11:00 AM until 7:30 PM, Friday from 11:00 AM until 8:30 PM, and Saturday from 11:00 AM to 2:30 PM and 4:30 PM to 8:30 PM. Note: Parking can get tricky at times, especially during peak hours. Usually my husband and I will either go before church on Wednesdays around 5:00 or Friday around 5:00. If you wait too long after that, the wait can be up to 90 minutes. Fun Fact: A lot of celebrities come to Ridgewood when they’re in the area, and during the Bristol NASCAR races, it’s not unusual to see a couple race-car drivers chowing down.
While my husband loves their bbq pork sandwich (always no slaw), I normally fill up on their blue cheese dip with crackers! I dip everything in that blue cheese – crackers, my fries, pieces of bbq… and Don’t knock it until you try it! There truly isn’t anything like it, at least not in the Tri-Cities region! If you have picky eaters in your family, don’t worry! There’s other items on their menu besides bbq and baked beans!
9. Order a Sweet Tea and Frenchie Fry from Pal’s Sudden Service!
Unlike the previous two restaurants, Pal’s Sudden Service is a local quick-service chain with lightning fast drive thrus all throughout the Tri-Cities. Initially, people are either drawn to its thought of the day sign or the building’s massive hotdog replica (see photo above). While my husband prefers their breakfast (he just loves their cheddar rounds), I prefer their lunch/dinner items. Burgers, frenchie fries, hotdogs, chipped ham and cheeses, and even the seasonal bar-b-dog are all possible options. If you’ve never been to a Pal’s, I recommend you at least go to one and order a sweet tea and frenchie fry (two of their staple items). When I was younger, I’d always ask for that as an after-school snack, and even years later, it’s just as yummy!
Bring your Furry Friend Along
10. Walk, Bike, or Run the Tweetsie Trail!
While I haven’t yet conquered the whole Tweetsie Trail (it runs roughly 9.5 miles from Johnson City, TN, to Elizabethton, TN), I have ran and walked multiple portions of it with my dog.
A fairly new trail to the area, it’s located in and around some beautiful, natural Tri-Cities settings. Plus, it’s on a relatively flat grade! Many families will take the day to back back and forth stopping for lunch in between ridges. Because I’m not much of a biker, I love starting the trail in Johnson City on foot because it has a bridge that goes over the entire highway, and my dog gets to enjoy some of the more shady parts of the trail. Check out the Trail’s new interactive map with includes information on parking, mile markers, and historical sites along the trail! Keep in mind that trail hours are from dawn until dusk. Personally, I prefer taking my dog during the mornings in the summer. It’s a lot less crowded, and we don’t have to fight too many bikers! Recommendation: As a woman, I always walk with a friend on this trail! It’s just a precaution, but I would always encourage anyone to walk with a buddy.
11. Watch an outdoor movie at either the Twin-City Drive-In Theatre or Stateline Drive-In!
Every summer, my husband and I try to watch at least one outdoor movie, most of the time at Stateline Drive-In. Fun Fact: One of our first dates actually took place at the Stateline Drive-In. Costs are usually between $5 and $10 per person depending on your age. Note: Twin-City Drive-In Theatre shows double features while Stateline Drive-In typically only shows one movie. If you’ve never done the outdoor movie thing before, it is awesome. The movies are recent releases, not the old stuff! For example, this weekend, Stateline Drive-In is showing Incredibles 2. There are bathrooms and the sound is digital. You get the classic American drive-in movie experience but with completely modern amenities.
The best part though is because you sit in or around your car (kind of like college football tailgating), you can take your dog(s)! We always love taking our dog Zazzy, and we’re not the only ones!
Every time we go to an outdoor movie, there are dogs aplenty, and as long as you have a fairly well-behaved dog, this is a great opportunity to get a date-night in without having to feel guilty about leaving your pet at home. Most of the time we’ll back my husband’s Escalade in a slot, pop the trunk, and spread out blankets (we always take a couple of the back seats out for more room). You can bring your own food – plenty of people do – but to me, there’s just nothing like that movie theatre popcorn! Sometimes, I’ll even sneak a piece or two to our pup during the movie! Recommendation: Check the weather before going! A lot of drive-ins won’t show their movies in bad weather conditions.
12. Buy some local goodies for you and fido at the Johnson City Farmers Market!
The Johnson City Farmers Market is almost a weekly Saturday summer visit for my husband, dog, and me. We don’t go because of all the healthy homegrown, homemade vegetables, fruits, and sauces they have. Although those items are nice, we go for the locally made dog treats and Auntie Ruth’s Amish doughnuts. Tip: Go early to avoid a massive doughnut line! Even if there’s a line though, WAIT! It is worth it, and you’ll see what I mean the moment you bite in to one of those doughnuts! Aside from having food and live music, the Farmers Market also has everything from fresh flowers to homemade soaps and crafts.
In 2016, the Johnson City Farmers Market moved to The Pavilion at Founders Park – a dog-friendly walking area that hosts yoga as well! The Market is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 7:00 AM until 2:00 PM from mid-April through October.
The Tri-Cities truly is a region full of summer activities, and while I only shared 12 activities, there are plenty more options out there depending on what Tri-Cities town you find yourself in. Although many of these activities can be combined into a single day, I encourage you to take your time at these locations. Feel free to share some of your must-do summer activities in a comment below or connect with me on Instagram! I’d love to hear how your spending your last days of the summer.
Until next time my darlin’,