Bays Mountain: Kingsport’s mountaintop gem

Tri-Cities Original

Most cities have parks but few, if any, have a park like the one perched high above the city of Kingsport.

Getting to Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium involves a bit of climb. Once you get passed the gate, it’s all uphill along a narrow, winding two-lane road that clings to the mountainside.

And once you come to the bend in the road at the top, you know you have arrived.

“When you drive up here and you go up our entrance and you come into the park it does take you to a different location,” said Megan Krager, Bays Mountain Park senior naturalist. “It does take you to a different place when you get to the park.”

But before there was a 3,663-acre city park here — with a nature center, animal sanctuary, planetarium, and miles of hiking trails — Bays Mountain was home to families who spent their days working hard and trying to survive.

A Bays Mountain family. (Photo contributed)

“A hundred years ago this place looks completely different from how it looks today,” said Krager.

J. Fred Johnson (Photo contributed)

Then, in 1907, Kingsport founding father J. Fred Johnson purchased 1,200 acres of land atop the mountain.

“J. Fred Johnson, when he came in, happened to stand in the middle looking around and going, ‘This is an interesting location. I want to do something here,’” said Krager. “J. Fred had a vision. And you can see it today.”

The picturesque 44-acre mountain reservoir didn’t exist until 1916, when the City of Kingsport built the now-iconic dam that greets visitors as they approach the nature center and planetarium. Engineers used native limestone to dam mountain streams and create a water source for the city below.

“Some of the limestone pieces in our dam came from different areas throughout the park,” Krager said.

The now-iconic dam at Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium. (Photo contributed)

But by the 1940s, Kingsport had expanded and the Model City’s demand for water had surpassed what the small Bays Mountain lake could provide. So, the city started getting its water from somewhere else.

However, interest in preserving the mountain grew in the following years.

“Individuals back during the 40s and 50s knew we had something special here,” Krager said.

Years of planning culminated in the opening of Kingsport’s Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium on May 24, 1971.

“The vision at that time was bringing the world to Kingsport,” Krager said.

Kingsport’s new Bays Mountain Park was featured in a bonus section of the Kingsport-Times News on Sunday, May 23, 1971.

Kingsport’s school teachers quickly discovered that the park was a great educational resource, from the animal habitats to the planetarium. Routine field trips to the city park became a part of growing up in the Model City.

“Bays Mountain Park means so many things to so many people,” Krager said.

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An average of 200,000 people visit the park each year…traveling up the winding, steep road that leads to a mountaintop gem.

“There’s something different here,” Krager said. “There are things here you won’t find at another city park.”

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Born and raised in the Tri-Cities, Josh Smith has been a member of the WJHL team since 1999. His family roots go deep in the region, and he’s traveled through almost every part of it covering news on local TV since 1995. When he’s not on the job, he’s with his wife, two sons, and daughter.   “They’re the best part of me,” he said.   You may run into them biking on the Tweetsie Trail, hiking around Bays Mountain Lake, or browsing the shelves at the local public libraries.

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