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Watauga River Bluffs Class II Natural-Scientific State Natural Area

Watauga River Bluffs is a 50-acre natural area located in Carter County along the Watauga River. Its most conspicuous feature is the steep slope that drops more than 200 feet to the river's edge. The slope and the narrow bluffs make up most of the 50 acres. It is ecology noteworthy because Watauga River Bluff supports the largest known population of the state listed Carolina pink (Silene caroliniana). This population is mostly concentrated in an open dry chestnut oak forest occurring on the west to south facing upper slopes. This community has white ash as an associate canopy species and a sub-canopy comprised of bitternut hickory, eastern red cedar, and serviceberry. This community has a spare herbaceous layer. This is an early succession forest that is estimated to be approximately 60 or more years old.

The steep slopes are extremely fragile as shale fragments continuously slough off and results in talus that accumulates near the bottom. The chestnut oak extends down slope where more mesic conditions and deeper soils support white oak, eastern hemlock, tulip poplar, and yellow buckeye trees. There is an area adjacent to the bluff where hemlock is prevalent. This area, and much of the lower slopes are rich with spring wildflowers and ferns that include hepatica, trilliums, spring beauties, Jacobs ladder, and trout lily.

The river bluff natural area has been undeveloped and unoccupied since the 1950's. Today it remains a rugged landscape harboring a diverse plant community. Its varied mix of habitats, soil depth, and other geological features may yield more rare species upon further investigation. The surrounding area has been used for agriculture in the past and is now a residential area interspersed with old pastures. The area south of the bluffs has been scarred by coal and shale extraction and has been planted in clover and fescue. The spread of invasive exotic pest plants pose a serious problem because of past disturbance and a fragmented landscape.

Site Management

Division of Natural Areas, William R. Snodgrass Tennessee Tower, 312 Rosa L. Parks Avenue, 2nd Floor, Nashville, TN 37243, phone (615) 532-0431. Division of Natural Areas - East TN office, 3711 Middlebrook Pike, Knoxville, TN 37921, phone (865) 594-5601.

Public Access

Public access consists of a hiking trail to the Watauga River for hikers and anglers. Parking is available for about eight vehicles. The area is open from sunrise to sunset. No trash bins or other accommodations are provided. Please practice leave no trace ethics.


From Johnson City, take Route 400 (Watauga Road) toward the Watauga River. Pass the old Saint John’s Milling Company. Look for Woodlyn Road on the right and then Steam Plant Road on the left. Take Steam Plant Road, cross the railroad track and pass the church. The road bends 45 degrees to the left and the parking area is about 1/10th mile on the right. The hiking trail leaves from the back of the parking area. It is approximately 1/4 mile to the river and one mile to the terminus of the river trail.

Details & Map

  • Map to Watauga River Bluffs
  • Owned by the State of Tennessee
  • Johnson City 7.5-minute quadrangle
  • Ridge and Valley Physiographic Province
  • Designated in 1998