Nestled in a curve of the wide and winding Tennessee River, Chattanooga lies between the misty Appalachian Mountains and the lushly forested Cumberland Plateau. With such a stunning natural location, it shouldn't be a surprise that this small city has become a major hot spot for outdoor- and adventure-minded visitors.
From kayaking to rock climbing to family fun in the city's many parks, the outdoors beckon in Chattanooga © traveler1116 / Getty Images
But it wasn’t always this way. In the late 1960s, Chattanooga was infamous as the 'dirtiest city in America', home to the worst air pollution in the nation thanks to unchecked industry. The city has cleaned up its act since, and then some. Today, Chattanooga makes headlines for being one of the greenest towns around. With a fleet of electric buses, miles of riverfront parks and one of the region’s largest bikeshare programs, it’s now a model of sustainability for other cities – and one of the best places in the US to enjoy the great outdoors.
Rolling down the river
Get the lay of the land by biking the 13 miles of the Tennessee Riverpark, stretching from the Chickamauga Dam northeast of downtown to the foot of Lookout Mountain in the city’s southwest. You’ll roll through wetlands and deciduous forest, past parks full of sunbathers and the hulking remains of industrial buildings. If you don’t have your own wheels, rent a bike at one of Bike Chattanooga’s multiple riverfront stations.
Many of the city’s best-loved attractions are riverside. Lock up your bike and explore the vast Tennessee Aquarium, considered one of the country’s best. Here, the 12-story-high River Journey exhibit traces the path of a raindrop from the Appalachians to the Gulf of Mexico. You’ll see otters and baby alligators, primitive-looking sturgeon and huge snapping turtles. Other highlights include a mini forest full of big-eyed lemurs and a chilly penguin habitat. If you plan in advance, you can join one of the aquarium’s periodic river cruises or a tour of the adjacent Conservation Institute, a freshwater research facility for scientists.
Coolidge Park is one of the many green spaces that line Chattanooga's riverfront © Shutterstitch / Getty Images
If you’ve got little ones in tow, head for the Creative Discovery Museum. The whole family can learn about nature and sustainability, with a full-size honeybee observation hive, a splashable river exhibit complete with toy boats, and regular cooking lessons using ingredients from the museum’s rooftop garden.
Kids (and adults) also love the downtown river parks. On the south side, near the Tennessee Aquarium, is Ross’s Landing, with a pier, a playground and riverfront strolling trails. Then head across the restored, pedestrian-only Walnut Street Bridge to Renaissance Park, 23 acres of urban wetlands with signposted nature trails. Adjacent Coolidge Park features a wonderful 1894 carousel with 52 hand-carved animals. On fair weather weekends the parks are filled with lounging couples, picnicking families and Frisbee-playing teens, providing a pretty darn good advertisement for Chattanooga’s renewal.
Paddle down the Tennessee River, right through downtown Chattanooga © Andrew Kornylack / Getty Images
You can also splash into the river yourself, renting a kayak from L2 Outside and paddling out to Maclellan Island, a sanctuary owned by the Chattanooga Audubon Society. Here, smack in the middle of downtown Chattanooga, wade ashore to observe colonies of great blue herons, nesting ducks and the occasional playful otter. Bring your own gear and camp overnight, watching the city lights over the water as crickets chirp.
Climbs, hikes and more
Just outside Chattanooga proper, mountains and gorges make for some of Tennessee’s finest hiking. For adventure newbies, the city’s Outdoor Chattanooga program offers events aimed at getting locals and visitors outside. Their 'Mountain to Town' guided bike trip shuttles riders to the top of Lookout Mountain, then leads them through the forest trails back to the city.
The more experienced can dive in on their own. To the city’s south is the southern end of the Cumberland Trail, a footpath stretching more than 200 miles along the eastern escarpment of the Cumberland Plateau. The Signal and Edwards Point sections of the trail make for a rugged 8.4-mile day hike, traversing gorges and hemlock groves, passing by waterfalls and over swinging bridges. You’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the Tennessee River Gorge and, in spring, plentiful blooms of trillium, honeysuckle, mountain laurel and azalea.
You can see seven states from Lover's Leap on Lookout Mountain © joe daniel price / Getty Images
Lookout Mountain, which straddles Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, has been a popular attraction for more than 100 years. Fun (though undeniably kitschy) sights and activities include purple-lit Ruby Falls, the world’s longest indoor waterfall, a family-friendly inclined railroad, and the fairy-tale-themed gardens of Rock City, from where it is claimed you can see seven states on a clear day.
Rock climbing is another popular pastime in these parts, thanks to the abundance of sandstone crags within a short drive of the city. If you don’t have your own gear, several local climbing gyms, including High Point Climbing, offer guide services. Or, if you’re really not scared of heights, try paragliding over the green patchwork quilt of the Sequatchie Valley. It’s a top spot with paragliders, hang gliders and sky divers.
More outdoor opportunities await in Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, with more than 40 miles of trails. The truly adventurous can even hike to the park along Lookout Mountain's Guild-Hardy Trail, an old railway bed. Key Civil War battles took place here in 1863, and the 11-mile Historical Trail winds past markers and monuments explaining the fight for control of Chattanooga, which was considered the 'gateway to the Deep South.'
Rest and refuel
After all that activity, you’re bound to be tired. Catering to climbers and other outdoors-people is the Crash Pad, a 'boutique hostel' with rustic-chic bunks as well as private rooms, and tons of communal areas to chill and recount the day’s adventures. The staff know all the inside dirt on the best hiking, climbing, kayaking and more, so just ask. Their nearby restaurant and bar, the Flying Squirrel, offers locally sourced international pub grub, like tacos made with beer-braised chicken thighs from a Blue Ridge Mountain farm. Or hit the Terminal Brewhouse for microbrewed copper ales and weissbiers.
Housed in an old flatiron building, the Terminal Brewhouse serves up local brews © csfotoimages / Getty Images
On Wednesdays, the downtown Main Street Farmer’s Market sells a cornucopia of local produce, food products and crafts, from organic strawberries to small-batch kimchee to biodynamic honey to raw milk cheese. It’s a good place to get a sense of the city’s funky, eco-oriented vibe.
If visiting Chattanooga has inspired you to get more clean and green yourself, give back a little. The nonprofit Wild Trails has opportunities for trail maintenance, creation and cleanup, so go on and lend a hand. You’ll meet sustainability minded locals, and maybe even get a few ideas to bring back to your own hometown.
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