Chattanooga: A Little City That’s Big on Outdoor Adventure

Chattanooga is a premier outdoor destination

Located at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains along the beautiful Tennessee River, Chattanooga is one of America’s most spectacular cities. The so-called “Scenic City” offers stunning natural landscapes including Ruby Falls, the largest underground waterfall in the US, and Rock City, a mountaintop vista dotted with massive, ancient rock formations and over 400 native plant species.

The city was a major railway hub throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, hence the Chattanooga Choo-Choo which was originally a reference to the Cincinnati Southern Railroad’s passenger service from Cincinnati to Chattanooga and later the title of a 1941 Glen Miller tune. The walkable downtown is a maze of historic stone and brick buildings featuring gourmet kitchens, craft breweries, and distilleries. It’s easy to love the ‘Noog!

Chattanooga and the Tennessee River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chattanooga is one of the country’s premier outdoor destinations starting with the hiking trails that are just a stone’s throw away from downtown. If you want an urban hike that leads you to unique city views and doesn’t require a walking pole, check out Stringers Ridge, 92-acre park located 2 miles from downtown Chattanooga. Okay fine…you can still bring a walking stick if you really want to. The highlight for hikers is the view from the observation deck.

This particularly postcard worthy ridge-top view can be reached by accessing the Cherokee Trail (a double-track path that used to be an old road traversing the ridge). It’s a great spot to snap a photo, hang out for a while with a book in hand, or catch a sunrise or sunset. Though Sunset Rock at Lookout Mountain might offer a higher vantage point, the view from Stringers easily offers a better view of the actual downtown district and provides an “outside-looking-in” kind of experience where you can see cars driving over the bridges but barely hear their motors’ roar.

Lookout Mountain © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The hike from Lookout Mountain’s historic Cravens House to Sunset Rock is another option when seeking a Chattanooga hiking experience. One of the best things about Cravens House is that it serves as a gateway to a number of Lookout’s greatest trails. From it, hikers and trail runners can string together a route that suits whatever mood they’re feeling on a given day—whether it’s a 4-mile loop with a major climb up the burly Gum Springs Trail, a less strenuous 4.5-mile loop that works its way up to Point Park before zig-zagging down the front of the mountain or even a 10-mile loop that links together seven of Lookout Mountain’s trails to create one of the crown jewel trail running experiences in the city.

>> Related article: The Chattanooga Choo-Choo, More Than a Hotel

The most straightforward route you can choose is the 1.5-mile (3-mile round trip) hike to Sunset Rock offering the best seat in the house to…yep, you guessed it—the sunset.

Lookout Mountain Incline Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winding wooded lanes, dazzling panoramas, and a labyrinth of diverse trails make Signal Mountain a nature lover’s heaven. Just a 20-minute drive from downtown Chattanooga, Signal Mountain offers unlimited outdoor adventures and views that stretch on for miles. While even a drive around the densely forested mountain town is a more-than-satisfying way to spend an afternoon, taking a stroll (long or short) on some of Signal’s beautiful trails is the best way to experience its wide variety of spectacular natural offerings.

If you’re looking for a trail with views that make you stop and ponder the meaning of life, you need to hike the 5.1-mile out and back trail at Signal Point. You can even stop for a swim in Rainbow Lake but don’t expect a lake filled with rainbows. The lake features a dam built in 1916 that creates a short but powerful waterfall and a swinging bridge that spans the creek. You can terminate your hike here or opt to take a two-mile tour around the lake.

Lookout Mountain © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Descend 260 feet by elevator into Lookout Mountain and hike the cavern trail on a guided tour to Ruby Falls, the tallest and deepest cave waterfall open to the public in the United States. Visitors can also opt for an after-hours tour guided by the glow of hand-held lanterns. Outside the cavern, visitors are invited to soar through the treetops on 700 feet of zipline at Ruby Falls’ High Point ZIP Adventure.

Set off on a self-guided tour through Rock City Gardens for a bird’s eye view from high atop Lookout Mountain. Climb the wall at Lover’s Leap where you can “See Seven States.” Kids will enjoy a visit to Fairyland Caverns, natural caves that have been transformed into blacklight dioramas of classic fairy tales. 

Chattanooga Choo-Choo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chattanooga has long been famous as a transportation hub―this is the city, after all, made famous when Glenn Miller and His Orchestra wrote The Chattanooga Choo Choo about the city’s train station for the 1941 movie musical Sun Valley Serenade

But even though the Choo Choo is now a hotel and hasn’t hosted a locomotive in decades, Chattanooga is still an easy-to-access travel destination thanks to its expanding airport and its location at the crossroads of several state and federal highways. 

Chattanooga Choo-Choo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Indeed, Chattanooga was the headquarters of one of the early auto clubs dedicated to building one of the country’s first Interstates―the historic Dixie Highway which ran from Chicago to Miami. It’s still easy to get around by car but the free electric shuttles that connect Chattanooga’s busiest tourist districts as well as a slowly expanding bus network makes public transit a snap.

Chattanooga is right on the Georgia border, two hours from Atlanta as well as Nashville, Knoxville, and Birmingham―and it’s at the intersection of Interstates 75, 24, and 59 as well as US Route 27, and State Routes 153 and 319 (known locally as DuPont Parkway).

Lookout Mountain Incline Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sitting astride the Tennessee River and wedged within the hilltops of the Cumberland Plateau, Chattanooga is one of the South’s prettiest cities. And thanks to its ultra-fast public internet, the so-called Gig City has become a tech hub supporting a bustling community of startups, software companies, and venture capital firms. Combine that with the down-to-earth charisma of the region’s top rock climbing, cycling, and hiking activities and you have one of the most interesting destinations in the South.

>> Related article: Death Knell of the Confederacy: Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

You don’t have to break the bank, either, to get a little taste of everything Chattanooga has on deck. From public sculpture gardens to city parks, from historic sites to quirky craft markets, there’s a lot you can do in the Scenic City for free.

Sugar’s Ribs BBQ, Chattanooga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Worth Pondering…

Chattanooga Choo Choo

Hi there Tex, what you say
Step aside partner, it’s my day
Bend an ear and listen to my version
Of a really solid Tennessee excursion

Pardon me, boy
Is that the Chattanooga choo choo? (yes yes)
Track twenty-nine
Boy, you can gimme a shine
Can you afford To board a Chattanooga choo choo
Then you know that Tennessee is not very far
Shovel all the coal in
Gotta keep it rollin’
Woo, woo, Chattanooga there you are

—Songwriters Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, first recorded 1941 by Glenn Miller