Up on Doe Mountain

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| Originally Published: June 7, 2015

Doe Mountain

Larry Potter was exploring a trail on Doe Mountain one sun-dappled afternoon when he spotted something that even he, a lifelong outdoorsman, never expected to see.

“The owl flew over my left shoulder and I thought, ‘What in the world is that?’” recalls Potter, mayor of Johnson County, as he describes how the bird swooped past him and into the top of a dead tree. “I turned off the ATV I was riding, and I just sat there and watched it, and it watched me. I’d never seen an owl-like that out in the wild. I couldn’t believe how huge it was.”

Visitors to Doe Mountain, a range that runs 8 miles between Mountain City and the headwaters of Watauga Lake, the highest lake in the TVA system, are also apt to spot black bears, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, coyotes and entire families of hawks scouting for dinner. In summer, rhododendrons and mountain laurels punctuate the lush, green landscape; in autumn, the sourwoods, maples, and oaks show off their fiery reds and warm golds.

The 8,600-acre recreation site officially opened to the public in November 2013, thanks to a major crusade led by Potter, Johnson County Economic Development and Tourism Director Karla Prudhomme, the Nature Conservancy, lawmakers and outdoor adventure groups. In late 2010, news surfaced that a real estate developer who’d bought the property with the intention of building a high-end, gated residential community was about to sell it to a timber company instead.

“It would have ruined the entire county because they weren’t going to select-cut. They were going to clear-cut an entire 8,600-acre mountain,” Prudhomme says. “It would have been devastating beyond belief.”

Doe Mountain

For a small rural county with limited resources, saving an entire mountain was like, well, moving mountains, but those involved in the effort were determined. In 2012, the state of Tennessee purchased the land and established the Doe Mountain Recreation Authority to manage it. Grants were secured, and volunteers from several mountain biking and OHV (off-highway vehicle) associations in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina helped blaze new trails with directional signs.

So far, more than 40 miles of OHV trails have been built through a densely forested terrain where riders often come across clearings with stunning views and natural formations, such as the monoliths jutting skyward at Chimney Rock at the southern end of the ridge. A half-mile mountain biking stretch has been completed, and all roads are open to hikers, with options for everyone from beginners to experienced thrill-seekers.

Future projects include trails connecting Doe Mountain to shopping areas in Mountain City, among other things. Plans are in the works to restore the Doe Fire Tower, a former Forest Service landmark from the 1930s that offers a beautiful, 360-degree view of Watauga Lake, Grandfather Mountain and more.

Doe Mountain

Travelers often fall in love with the area’s unspoiled beauty and end up moving here, and Prudhomme is one of them. She hails from south Louisiana, which she jokingly refers to as the flattest part of the world.

“I’ll never forget driving in the first time,” she says. “I’ve traveled all over the U.S., and six or seven countries, and I will tell you that Johnson County is breathtakingly beautiful.”

Potter, who grew up in Johnson County, spends most weekends at Doe Mountain, selling guest passes, maintaining trails and scouting new paths.

“I think anywhere in America now, everybody loves to be outside,” he says. “With all the gadgets we have now, the iPad, the iPhone, all that stuff, I think outdoors might be an escape from some of that. If I’d had something like this mountain when I was growing up, you couldn’t keep me off of it.”

Doe Mountain

While You're In Town...

Purchase a day or annual pass at one of two locations:

Doe Mountain Visitor Center
1203 Harbin Hill Rd.
Mountain City, TN 37683
(423) 460-1295

Mountain City Cycle
341 S. Shady St.
Mountain City, TN 37683
(423) 727-8475


Rent a pontoon, canoe or kayak at Fish Springs Marina on Watauga Lake.

191 Fish Springs Rd.
Hampton, TN 37658
(423) 768-2336


Dine where the locals do:

Farmers Barbeque & Grill
424 S. Church St.
Mountain City, TN 37683
(423) 727-8999


2736 S. Shady St.

Mountain City, TN 37683

(423) 727-5657


La Cucina Italian Kitchen
6811 Hwy. 67 W.

Mountain City, TN 37683


(423) 727-0205


Monsoons Thai and Exotic Foods
10630 Hwy. 67 W.

Butler, TN 37640


(423) 768-3327

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