Roaming Buffalo: Effort afoot to keep park gate open through winter


A pair of hikers approaches the Hartsell Hollow trailhead at Buffalo Mountain Park on a crowded Sunday afternoon, Jan. 12, 2020.

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Stacey Williams and her standard poodle, Maggie, were enjoying one of their favorite hiking spots Sunday — Buffalo Mountain Park — they just weren’t starting at their preferred trailhead.

Stacey Williams

“This is the perfect spot to come to get a shot of the woods,” said Williams, who lives about 10 minutes from the Hartsell Hollow trailhead — the only available place to park during the winter. “I was hoping to go to the upper level, but I see that it’s closed,” Williams said.

Since 2013, Buffalo Mountain Park’s upper parking area has been closed to vehicles between Dec. 15 and March 15 each year. If the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board’s newest member has his way, that could change. “That policy was put in by the advisory board that I’m now on,” Allan Dearstone said Sunday as hikers trooped by him after parking along the narrow road leading to the Hartsell Hollow trailhead.

“The only time that that gate needs to be closed is in slick weather conditions, and that’s what the city says.

“The reason they close it for that three months is because of slick and dangerous weather conditions, but with 30 cars parked along here you can imagine how dangerous it is down here. I was up here yesterday, at 3 o’clock there was 30 vehicles parked here.”

Allan Dearstone

Dearstone, who’s been an avid user of Buffalo Mountain’s trails for more than a decade, said Parks and Recreation Director James Ellis obliged his request that the gate stay open for the unseasonably warm Christmas week. The advisory board meets Jan. 23, and Ellis said Monday he is reviewing the proposal to change the gate policy for possible placement on the agenda.

Dearstone cited several reasons for opening the upper lot, which has significantly more parking, throughout the winter. He said parking can be dicey on warm days or weekends, when cars crowd the narrow road leading to the first trailhead. Additionally, some hikers are limited in their abilities and want to enjoy vistas, including Huckleberry Knob, that are more easily accessible from the top.

He said he spoke Sunday to a Johnson City couple who had visited the park for the first time. The wife has some health limitations, and though they made the trek to Huckleberry Knob, it was a struggle.

“If they had parked up there she could have accessed it a lot easier, so it does hinder people that’s coming up here for health reasons, to take short hikes,” Dearstone said.

Finally, he said with an increasing focus on outdoor recreation, Buffalo is becoming more popular year-round. He said people want the convenience of driving the very steep last section and the security of parking in a designated space. He gets no argument from Williams.

Stacey Williams and Maggie set out on Hartsell Hollow trail at Buffalo Mountain Park.

“It’s such a close by trail, so it’s a great resource and just stunningly beautiful, especially in the winter getting to see all the longer scenes,” Williams said.

She’s been a frequent user of the park since moving here in 2006, and said she would be in favor of access to the upper parking lot year-round. “I would absolutely be up there right now if it were open. It’s beautiful weather. I could see how if it were bad weather it should be blocked but I’d love to be able to use it.”

Dearstone said Ellis told him Parks and Rec would have to develop a plan in order to implement the proposal, which is similar to one he pushed last January, when he wasn’t on the board. Dearstone said he doesn’t see that as an insurmountable hurdle. For his part, Ellis said with the new Tannery Knobs bike park having a similarly steep entrance road, he would suggest both parks be considered for any policy change.

“Back years ago, before that policy went into effect … they closed it when it was slick and opened it back up when it was good,” Dearstone said.

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