JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — It’s an early Thursday morning 10 minutes from Johnson City, but Larry Miller could be miles away from any signs of civilization.
Miller is emerging from the forest on the flanks of Buffalo Mountain, on his way down from White Rock overlook in one of the most undisturbed city parks in East Tennessee — and he’s only 10 minutes from home.
“Ten minutes from the front door, that’s why I’m here today,” said Miller, who was finishing a trail run.
That’s the allure of Buffalo Mountain Park, 722 acres of trails, trees, wildlife, flowers, natural features and little else. Johnson City’s Park Naturalist Connie Deegan calls it a “baby Appalachian Trail.”
“There’s just trails,” Deegan said as morning sun crept over steep ridges on its way to penetrating the mountain’s deep coves. “It’s a park for hikers. There’s a lot of elevation change, there’s four beautiful vistas but I think they like the fact that it’s not more developed beyond trails in so many ways that our parks are developed now.”
- Getting there: Turn off University Parkway (US 321N) onto Cherokee Road. In 300 feet, turn left onto Buffalo Road. In 0.6 miles, turn left onto Rolling Hills Drive. In 0.7 miles, turn right onto Highridge Road. Travel another 0.5 miles to the park entrance.
All one finds up here is a smattering of parking spots, some picnic tables, a small simple pavilion and about 12 miles of trails that generally gain close to 1,000 feet in elevation over a fairly short distance.
But it’s a favorite place for thousands of people like Miller or Rob and Laura Cozzolino, a retired couple who moved to Johnson City from upstate New York eight years ago. They’re further up the mountain on this random Thursday morning.
“We love coming up here at the overlook, you get to see Johnson City,” Laura Cozzolino said. “Especially this time of year. Some mornings you could walk out there and you can’t see your hand in front of your face but there’s some mornings you walk out there and it’s … like a postcard.”
She said the pair threw their hiking poles in the car and kept coming back for two main reasons.
“First the convenience that it’s close to where we live, second the trails. We love being on the trails and coming out here, and this time of the year – this is beautiful.”
The Cozzolinos find themselves drawn to the mountain less than 15 minutes from home up to five times a week. Laura Cozzolino said she’s very happy Johnson City has such a wilderness-based park.
“You have Alan who comes here all the time, I call him the keeper,” she said, referring to Alan Dearstone, a local citizen who’s at the park basically every day. “He’s the keeper of Buffalo Mountain. He’s always working to make improvements here on the trails and in the park itself.”
“Everybody we’ve met here has been really, really nice people. There’s no downside to it.”
Deegan said she remembers the first time she saw the view from White Rock, which at 3,100 feet is about 1,500 feet above the valley below. The rocky ledge provides largely unimpeded views east, northeast and southeast, taking in everything from Mount Rogers, Va. to Roan Mountain on a clear day.
Laura Cozzolino said they chat with many of the fellow trekkers they run into, and while most live nearby, a great number of them are transplants.
“Hawaii, Wisconsin, Nevada, Texas, California, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania,” she and her husband say, rattling off some fellow park users’ native places.
Deegan is convinced Buffalo Mountain Park is one of many reasons the Johnson City metro is growing. She said she’s glad it’s a haven largely for hikers, trail runners, nature photographers, and wildlife and botanist types.
“This is an amazing asset for the city. People love this park. We make national publications all the time. They’ll have an article on Johnson City but they always mention Buffalo Mountain Park because it’s such a standout park.”
Becoming Buffalo Mountain Park
How did this looming chunk of terrain visible from nearly everywhere in Johnson City become a nature reserve and park in the first place? For that story, you have to go back to the mid-1980s. The land at the time was owned by the United States Forest Service, but traversed often by intrepid hikers and nature lovers who enjoyed the ability to get away from town so quickly.
But it was subject to the limits of federal ownership, not that easy to get to and unmaintained. It so happened that Johnson City owned about 1,100 acres near its water source in Unicoi County and the Forest Service had its eye on that property, so the two entities began talking about a land swap.
By 1986 the city had obtained a special use permit from the Forest Service and was leasing most of the Buffalo Mountain acreage and operating it as a park.
An advisory board was formed and in 1990 — with the official land swap supposedly imminent — that board wrote in an executive summary that it “feels strongly that any future use and development of the park should be a continuation of the present course, that is, as a nature park.”
A proposed resolution spelled that out further and included a master plan. It called for paving the access road, establishing a loop road and completely marking all trails that same year. The plan also envisioned, all by 1997, a picnic area with kitchen, restrooms and a nature/information center, a natural amphitheater, primitive tent camping sites, cross-country ski and horse trails and an observatory for East Tennessee State University.
Most of those visions still haven’t come to fruition, but that hasn’t kept the park from being a popular spot.
Deegan arrived in Johnson City in 2007 having sought a new place to live that had to be beautiful and have a lot of outdoor opportunities. It didn’t take her long to find Buffalo Mountain Park and immediately fell in love with the place where she now oversees trail maintenance and programming.
Deegan still remembers popping out of the rhododendron cover and walking out onto White Rock, one of the park’s four vistas she now helps keep clear for people to enjoy the views.
“When I came down that path and I saw that,” she said, sweeping her arm out toward the vista behind her. “This is a city park, that’s the kind of view you get I don’t know where – in the Smoky Mountains. And it’s right here in Johnson City.”
Hikers can follow several routes from two main parking areas to reach White Rock, High Ridge and Tip Top, the park’s highest point at 3,300 feet elevation. A lower one heads up Hartsell Hollow, while the upper parking area is on a loop road featuring a couple dozen picnic tables and a small covered pavilion. That and trail signs on a map at a kiosk constitute most of the park’s infrastructure.
That level of development is plenty for the many vehicles driving the steep access road into the park. On an October day, that road reveals a world of color as the yellows and reds of fall have begun showing out. In the spring it’s mountain laurel and flame azalea, while the summer shade offers a slight respite from the heat.
“I like the people that this park attracts and I like the fact that it’s a mountain and people forget it’s a mountain. Every way up from bottom to top is gonna pretty much kick your butt unless you’re in somewhat decent shape. I like that.”