Hampton, Tennessee, is not known as a beauty spot. It’s a wide place in the road, a rough and tumble mountain intersection near Watauga Lake where U.S. 321 meets U.S. 19E — a place to buy beer and a bag of chips before passing on to more attractive surroundings.
Yet barely a mile away, just past a lumber yard piled high with logs, the Doe River Gorge Scenic Area lies hidden, and that indeed is a beauty spot. Highly accessible but rarely found.
How to describe this grand and unexpected gash in the earth, when even people growing up within shouting distance would hardly know how to find it. Hundreds of feet of sheer striation. A vertical world, on one side the Doe River churning far below, on the other side the juicy drip of water soaking through moss just inches away.
A cliff, a rail bed, and twin tracks running uphill through the forest.
Even from a few hundred yards away, on Doe River Gorge Road, this wonderland is invisible. And closer still to its very mouth there’s barely a hint, just the laughably incongruous sight of a summer camp before it: the unnaturally turquoise man-made lake with white trucked-in sand, the horse paddocks, the shower rooms and the sturdy Native American Teepees where campers sleep. And a train waiting at the little play-size station.
Step right up to the Doe River Gorge. The treasures strung along the 2 1/2-mile gorge endure despite the unlikely entrance, and its kind and thoughtful caretakers welcome nature lovers to come enjoy the scenery during more than half the year, when the campers are gone. Partly private property, partly contained in the Cherokee National Forest, the gorge is well worth getting to know.
Come in early spring, for instance, and see a profusion of exquisite wildflowers and native trees in bloom, from the tiny, hard-to-find purple-brown blossom of the wild Canada ginger underfoot to the creamy froth of witch hazel flowers just out of reach overhead: red Trillium erectum, bloodroot, redbud, firepink, crested dwarf iris, miniature white and purple orchids without name, Alleghany serviceberry or “sarvis,” dogwood, bleeding heart, bergamot ready to burst into pastel glory and the fiddlehead ferns unrolling.
Come a different week and see a different seasonal selection, but always the thickets of dog-hobble cascading over boulders, the spectral limbs of sycamore, the backdrop of dark green hemlocks and heavy gray stone, against which, in the first part of April, the tender lime-green shoots of new vegetation make such a quiet, spectacular show.
And there’s the rail history, which is every bit as gripping as the plant life. Once upon a time the hamlet of Cranberry, N.C., was a source of high-grade iron ore, but the location — hard by Little Yellow Mountain — created severe challenges in transporting ore to the railhead in Johnson City, Tenn.
According to a written account of the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad, the steep, narrow Doe River Gorge was chosen for part of the route, and after heavy blasting through the cliffside and then filling and bridge-building operations, a narrow gauge track opened in 1882, “hugging narrow ledges, squeezing through tight tunnels and crossing the river several times.”
Not only iron ore, but passengers and freight traveled on this route, which eventually was lengthened to serve Boone, N.C., as the Tweetsie RR. Passengers got a treat as the little train would stop at Pardee Point “in the heart of the gorge” for a look at the immense drop to the river below. That same thrilling view is available now for visitors who ride today’s train — more of that later.
The advent of trucking contributed to the demise of ore-hauling by rail in the 1920s, but the line continued to function in a minor way until 1950; much of the track was removed within a year. Then, in the 1960s, owners of an amusement park near the bottom of the gorge re-laid two-and-a-half miles of track and ran an excursion train up the gorge. That lasted on and off until the late 1970s.
Next, in 1997, a Christian outreach group called Doe River Gorge Ministries bought property that included the camp and the rail right-of-way, and began using the rail bed for hiking access and adventure activities. Although Doe River Gorge Ministries tried to develop the use of light recreational rail cars, the cross ties and track foundation — not to mention the bridges — had deteriorated severely, and after 1996 the track could no longer be used.
Enter some angels, volunteers and friends of Doe River Gorge Ministries who helped to re-lay more than a mile of track and to acquire and repair several narrow gauge rail cars and a steam locomotive, “Rachel,” the workhorse of camp excursions and private functions.
“Hiking on the rail bed and fishing are generally available to the public from mid-August to late May or early June,” says owner Mark Milbourne. “Best to call a few days in advance to be sure we don’t have something going on that would exclude visitors, as we often host private parties.”
In addition, there will be several public excursions along the rail line this summer (dates are announced on www.doerivergorge.com) and a fall color expedition on Saturday, Oct. 19. Visitors are asked to sign in at the office.
“We do offer horseback riding to groups except in the colder months when the horses get too frisky,” Milbourne says. “They usually go on some trails up on the mounatin behind the office.”
An interesting side note, according to Phil Raynes, an Ohio native who helps out with rail improvements at Doe River Gorge, is that the whole place might have been underwater today.
“The railroad had originally thought of damming the river and developing hydroelectric power and needed the full width and height to fill it with water,” Raynes says.
“Fortunately for us, the hydroelectric plan never was followed up, but the river is now owned by the camp. Since it is surrounded by National Forest land, it can never be spoiled and hopefully will remain that way. The railroad now provides a hiking trial and train ride without stressing the wilderness any further.”
The fishing that Milbourne refers to consists mostly of rainbow and brown trout, and people do regularly wander in to fish. Usually running clear and strong, the Doe River does run muddy after heavy rains, and that in turn can affect the quality of fishing just below where the Doe enters the Watauga River at Elizabethton, Tenn., according to fishing guide Ollie Smith of Foscoe Fishing Company in Boone.
Both Milbourne and Smith agree that such silting can exist all the way to the Doe’s source, at Roan Mountain, and at least in Smith’s eyes can be laid at poor land use practices along tributary creeks. In such steep terrain it doesn’t take much to have an impact on the water. Nonetheless, Doe River Gorge Scenic Area is Appalachian wilderness at its best, lush and untamed.
For more info, Doe River Gorge, 423-725-4010 or www.doerivergorge.com.