Our area is a hiker’s paradise. Get out your daypack and sturdy shoes.
Looking for a hike in or around the Chattanooga area? Three words:
Oh. My. God.
Selecting a hike around here is like finding a loaf of bread at Publix: You may have a psychotic episode from too many choices. Outdoor Chattanooga, the outdoor-recreation arm of the city government, estimates there are 150 miles of hiking trails within 15 miles of town, and that’s not counting the urban greenways, which add 100 more.
There are walks on federal, state, county, city and private property. Enterprise South has 25 miles of hiking trails, Chickamauga Battlefield 50. There are 40 trail miles on Lookout Mountain, and the 33.8-mile Tennessee River Gorge segment of Tennessee’s “linear state park,” the Cumberland Trail, begins on Signal. The new 1,800-mile Great Eastern Trail from southern Alabama to upstate New York runs smack through Chattanooga and has proclaimed it GET’s first official “trail town.”
That development did not come out of the blue. Chattanooga has for years been batting its metaphorical eyelashes at the bronzed outdoorsman, capitalizing on the beauty of its mountains, forests and rivers to transform itself into a dream destination for the Gore-Tex crowd. Why else staff a city department called Outdoor Chattanooga?
“We act like an outdoor visitor center where people can come and ask questions about hiking, biking, kayaking and hang gliding areas,” said Outdoor Chattanooga’s Zach Bopp. OC also brings outdoors events like Ironman and U.S Pro Cycling to town. “We’re under the Department of Community and Economic Development,” explained Bopp.
But if the job of Outdoor Chattanooga is to promote tourism, it also encourages locals to visit its website, outdoorchattanooga.com, to find hikes. Please do, because, frankly, there are way too many to list here. Instead, let’s focus on a few newer ones.
But first, what is a hike? How does it differ from a walk? I asked my hiking expert, Greg “Sourdough” Foster (Sourdough is Greg’s official “thru-hiker” name, which he earned by hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, but he also answers to “His Royal Hikerness”) and he said it was probably just distance. “I can give you a definition of backpacking,” he offered instead.
But I already knew that one: “Strap 45 pounds of s—t on your back and walk straight up a mountain.” HRH does that without breaking a sweat, while eating a hot dog, but it’s too extreme for most of us. So let’s stick instead to day-hiking, and let’s define that as walking long enough to carry a daypack.
HRH and my other experts agreed about daypacks. They are in favor. Outdoor Chattanooga’s Ruth Thompson recommends carrying one stocked with water, whistle, cellphone, food and appropriate clothing should the weather change. HRH added: “A major thing is a first-aid kit with Benadryl, in case a dog gets bit by a snake.”
Don’t let Greg alarm you about snakes. I hiked with bear spray for a year after one of his throwaway comments, and never saw one of those, either—but bring a first-aid kit if you like, and definitely your dog. My dogs love walks so much that hiking without them would be like going to Disneyland and leaving the kids locked in the basement. (Dog friendliness is a consideration here.)
Let’s begin our list with an essential function of journalism, pointing out the obvious: The Tennessee Riverwalk, Chattanooga’s own “linear park,” is the coolest thing in town. It’s got protected pathways, stunning river vistas, art gardens, and above all, accessibility.
One definition of a hike I considered was “a walk you drive to.” Not on the Riverwalk. Multiple access points all over town mean you can saunter off straight from work or a dinner out on as short or long a walk as you like. Expansion continues but as of today you can walk 10 uninterrupted miles from the Chickamauga Dam into and around downtown.
My experts used words like “walkability” and “connectivity” to describe hikes. Let’s add “peeability” for the Riverwalk because its conveniently spaced restrooms make it a perfect hike for the dry-bush-challenged. It is also wheelchair-accessible.
Not all sections are open to dogs, though. For which ones are, plus access points, check hamiltontn.gov/tnriverpark.
The next site on our list, Stringer’s Ridge, has plenty of “dogability.” Though this 92-acre “urban wilderness” is right in town, humans were sparse on the gorgeous April Sunday I visited and the ones I saw were walking multiple dogs.
Rick Wood, Tennessee director of the Trust For Public Land, says Stringer’s Ridge sat undeveloped for 100 years as downtown exploded around it due to “a complicated ownership situation.” Then developers proposed to buy it, whack 30 feet off the ridge, and build houses. Citizens screamed and Chattanooga bought it instead, opening it just last year as a city park.
Stringer’s seven-to-eight trail miles consist of an easy paved main path with steeper dirt loops going off. You walk through woods with periwinkle and wisteria attesting earlier habitation. It’s all very charming but the highlight is a spectacular overlook of the city.
To get there, drive past it three times like I did, or be smart and pull into Nikki’s Drive-Inn at 899 Cherokee, where you can see the Bell Avenue entrance from the parking lot.
For our next hike, drive down Manufacturers Road west to Moccasin Bend Road and take a left: That takes you straight to the Moccasin Bend acreage now included in Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park, a place simply eat up with history.
Here you walk on a 19th-century “corduroy” (log) road, over a stretch of the Trail of Tears, along the Cracker Line that supplied hardtack to stranded Union soldiers during the Civil War, and down to Brown’s Ferry where Yankees stormed the riverbanks in October 1863 to break the siege.
All that is an easy mile or so, pretty and so deserted you can probably let your dog off the leash with no one the wiser. (I confess nothing.) The one drawback is a distinct odor; the Moccasin Bend wastewater facility is just down the road. But dogs like that sort of thing.
The dogs weren’t with me when I walked the 3.5-mile Sterchi Farm section of the South Chickamauga Greenway, but they would have loved it, too. South Chick, as my experts called it, is an ambitious project that when completed will run from Camp Jordan along the old creek levee system to connect with the Riverwalk. For now, though, Sterchi is one of only two sections finished and mine was one of only two cars in the parking lot on Harrison Pike off Highway 153.
The parking lot features a picturesque old barn, and from there you walk between the creek on one side and power-line brambles on the other. I made a Note to Self: “Dog-friendly but not as pretty as Stringer’s Ridge.” And then…
Then the trail crosses the creek, takes off through the woods and suddenly becomes so spectacular you can’t imagine anything better, at which point you reach a graceful boardwalk that lifts you up into the trees, and your jaw hits the ground.
The water sparkles, the leaves quiver and everything is so green one thinks not just of the urban term “greenway” but of the fairy-tale word “greenwoods.” I wished I had the dogs so I’d have somebody to tell, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
Now let’s venture up Lookout Mountain on Highway 136 East, where Greg Foster has been waiting patiently to show us what’s new at Georgia’s Cloudland Canyon State Park.
“We have 63 miles of trail today,” says HRH, who heads the trails section of nonprofit Friends of Cloudland Canyon State Park. “About 45 miles of those have been added since 2005.”
CCSP has expanded its “hikeability” exponentially, through partnership with private conservancy Lula Lake Land Trust and through thousands of volunteer hours. So many trails have been added that HRH says 15 are not yet on the newest map.
And nobody’s on them. Visitation on older CCSP trails like West Rim is at 250,000 a year, but HRH never sees a hiker on the new ones—not even on the long-awaited Cloudland Canyon Connector Trail, which links the park to the Lula Lake property, and which was completed amid much pageantry just last June.
“Here’s a 20-mile trail that’s beautiful, historic, going through old mining villages, with remnants of mine camps and mines themselves, and it’s totally underutilized as far as hikers,” said HRH.
We access the CCCT from its trailhead inside the park and hike two or three miles. It is in fact as breathtaking as any other trail I’ve described, and we do in fact see nobody but a lone mountain biker who upon closer inspection proves to be Greg’s son.
So. Are you ready for a hike? Come on down, says HRH; hiking is the human condition:
“I mean, our ancestors have done this for 40 million years, and only in the last few hundred did we even ride horses.”