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Autumn Reflections at Bays Mountain Park in Kingsport, Tennessee

Every year, millions of tourists are drawn to the abundant hardwood forests of the Appalachian Mountains in search of the best foliage colors of autumn. The range of the Appalachians straddling the North Carolina and Tennessee border is particularly popular with its higher elevations, including the highest point east of the Mississippi, providing a longer window of foliage viewing as colors appear first at higher elevations and work their way down. One of the easiest ways to double up on the colors is to include a visit to a mountain lake in your itinerary. The mirror reflections will provide some of the best photographic opportunities, and there's no lack of options to choose from along the NC/TN border. There's the larger lakes like Douglas, Fontana, Watauga, Hiwassee, and Holston to name just a handful. However, the best reflections I've captured were at Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium in Kingsport, Tennessee.

Kingsport Reservoir

Autumn reflections in Kingsport Reservoir at Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium.
The heavily-wooded banks of the Kingsport Reservoir make for excellent fall reflections in the water.

The Kingsport Reservoir was originally built to supply drinking water for the city of Kingsport. Completed in 1916, it served the city until 1944 when the needs of the population eventually outgrew the reservoir's capacity and the Holston River was subsequently chosen as the new water supply for the city. The reservoir was later converted into a nature preserve as part of the Bays Mountain Park. Today it offers 40 miles of hiking and biking trails, a nature center, planetarium, and adventure course.

Lily pads and fall-colored foliage reflecting in the lake at Bays Mountain Park.
There's a diversity of aquatic plants and overhanging foliage around the lakeside that make for some interesting framing options for autumn photos.

The mix of hardwood and evergreen forests around the reservoir provides great contrast in color for autumn photography. Even the blue of the lake's water is contrasted by lily pads along the banks, some of which also contribute little spots of red. This creates a variety of framing options for both background and foreground color.

Hardwood forests along the banks of the Kingsport Reservoir.
The color at Bays Mountain Park usually peaks around the 3rd week of October.

For a small fee, Bays Mountain Park offers a 45-minute barge ride around the lake during fair weather. The guide will discuss the park's history and you might be able to spot some of the local wildlife. Availablity changes with the season. In terms of photography, you'll probably get better shots from the shore.

Lakeside Trail

Narrow boardwalk through a swampy portion of the Lakeside Trail.
Boardwalk on the Lakeside Trail spanning one of the shallow inlets of Kingsport Reservoir.

The best way to enjoy all the views of the reservoir and to explore its many inlets is to follow the easy Lakeside Trail. It covers about 2.5 miles as it loops around the lake, partially tracing the shoreline and crossing the Bays Mountain dam and the occasional boardwalk at parts. If you walk quietly, you might be lucky enough to encounter river otters, beavers, or white-tail deer along the route.

If you want to extend your hiking time, the Lakeside Trail is well-connected to several other routes in the area. One option is the Fire Tower Trail. It's about 0.8 miles one-way and as the name implies it leads to a fire tower, now abandoned but still climbable.

Holston Army Ammunition Plant seen from Garden Mountain Lookout Tower.
View from Garden Mountain Lookout Tower. It probably looks nice in fall as well, but I was only there in spring during a different visit.

The Kingsport Fire Tower, also known as the Garden Mountain Lookout Tower, was built in 1937 and affords 360 degree views of the surrounding landscape. The Holston Army Ammunition Plant can be seen across the Holston River to the north, while the city of Kingsport, Tennessee can vaguely be seen in the distance to the northeast. The treetops hide the lake to the south.