A Weekend in Erwin Tennessee: Hiking, History, and Ghost Towns

About two hours from Knoxville, Erwin is an ideal weekend getaway.
About two hours from Knoxville, Erwin is an ideal weekend getaway.
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Plenty of the small towns along the Appalachian Trail have their eccentricities, but Erwin, Tennessee has a weirdness all its own. Take, for example, the public execution of a circus elephant (by hanging, for those of you morbidly curious), or a horror web series inspired by them.

Indeed, quirks abound in Erwin. In this relatively unknown corner of East Tennessee, local lore is able to grow as free and untamed as the Cherokee Forest surrounding the town. Visitors with an eye for the unique beauty here can indulge in both a secluded hiking trip and a down-home experience—with a bit of a dark past. In addition to a beautiful trails, waterfalls, and a lovely section of the AT, Erwin's small-town vibe and its endearing, creepy, and just plain fascinating history will keep curious visitors you coming back. 

Erwin was named by accident—a postal error that apparently no one had enough interest to resolve—and similarly, many of those who happen upon Erwin do so by accident, or at least indirectly. AT thru-hikers and travelers between Asheville and the Tri-Cities all pass through Erwin. However you get here, it's worth a stop: for the hikes, the local flavor, history of the area, the culture of the town, and the age-old call of ancient mountains. Here, a guide on how to explore Erwin during a weekend getaway.

Venture Up the Appalachian Trail

Erwin, Tennessee seen from the Appalachian Trail.
Erwin, Tennessee seen from the Appalachian Trail. Wikimedia Commons

From Uncle Johnny's Nolichucky Hostel , you can hike either direction on the Appalachian Trail, but we suggest you cross the bridge and head northbound toward Indian Grave Gap. You can travel this section for eight miles (round-trip) for high elevation views of the Nolichucky River and Erwin. The trail is pretty level for 0.2 miles as it veers away from Jones Branch Road, but once you cross the (very active!) railroad track, you'll begin to ascend more steeply. You'll pass the Nolichucky Campground and outpost for USA Raft at 1.3 miles, then you'll climb for another couple of miles until you reach Curly Maple Gap and Indian Grave Gap beyond.

Hike to Rock Creek Falls

One of the most popular hikes in the area is a 4-mile round-trip, moderately difficult hike up to the side of Unaka Mountain. It's a bit of a wet one, with several stream crossings that vary in difficulty, depending on the time of year. But the hike is well worth it, terminating in the cascades of lower and upper Rock Creek Falls. The hike is a bit difficult to navigate and more treacherous than most of the hikes in the area, so there's a good chance you'll have the trail to yourself for much of your journey. A full guide and directions can be found on Mark Peacock's blog, Appalachian Treks .

Float the Nolichucky

A paddle down the Nolichucky is a fine adventure.
A paddle down the Nolichucky is a fine adventure. Ron B.

There's great hiking around Erwin, but to really experience his part of Tennessee, you need to see it from the water. The whitewater of the Nolichucky roars from Mt. Mitchell into and through Nolichucky River Gorge—the deepest river gorge in the South—and class III and IV rapids await over the 9 mile-stretch of river commercially toured by local companies. You can travel with one of the great whitewater companies on the ferocious Upper Nolichucky or gently float on the calmer waters of the Lower Nolichucky. Full- and half-day trips are available via Nantahala Outdoor Center and USA Raft .

Explore Lost Cove, NC

The Ghost Town of Lost Cove can only be reached on foot.
The Ghost Town of Lost Cove can only be reached on foot. Uncle Johnny's Nolichucky Hostel

Just a few minutes from Erwin is the ghost town of Lost Cove, NC. Not much is known about this town, but historians and surveyors estimate that it was established just before the Civil War and thrived as an agricultural community for nearly 100 years. 

Lost Cove is also said to have been famous for moonshine, its location at the edge of two counties making it difficult for authorities to penetrate or claim jurisdiction. However, the treacherous terrain made it tricky to maintain exports and imports, and when the train system took the town off its list of scheduled stops, residents were forced to pick up and move out. 

Only a few structures at Lost Cove remain, the others yielding to Mother Nature's reclamation.
Only a few structures at Lost Cove remain, the others yielding to Mother Nature's reclamation. Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy

If You Go:

  • The drive from Knoxville takes a little under two hours.

  • Uncle Johnny's Nolichucky Hostel has traditional bunk house accommodations as well as private rooms and cabins. Blackberry Blossom Farm is a great place to stay, too, and they offer therapeutic massage—perfect after a long day of hiking.

  • Head to the Hawg N Dawg for the best ribs in town.


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