The number of trails in the Tennessee Valley is seemingly infinite. So how do you pick where to hike?
Easy — let the Hawkins pick for you.
In late December, the recent Chattanooga transplants kicked off a yearlong hiking project, in which, every week, they will choose a different trail to hike and review. These trails will vary in length and difficulty and all be located within one hour of Chattanooga, so there's no excuse not to join them.
Every month, we will share their write-ups, helping you to rediscover the region's endless outdoor opportunities alongside the Hawkins.
First up? A classic: Signal Point to Rainbow Lake dam, a short but moderately challenging hike.
SIGNAL POINT TO RAINBOW LAKE DAM
Distance: ~3 miles
Time: 1.5-2 hours
Traffic level: High
Highlights: Panoramic views, Julia Falls overlook, Rainbow Falls overlook, rad suspension bridge
Rating: 4/5 stars
Signal Mountain offers a variety of trails for hikers of all ages and experience levels. Located approximately 20 minutes from downtown Chattanooga, it's the perfect spot to get some easy exercise with rewarding views.
Last week, to kick off the new year, we hiked from Signal Point to the Rainbow Lake dam with our two dogs, Winston and River. This hike is best done during fall or winter to allow for more panoramic views without foliage cover.
Start at the Signal Point parking lot toward the Julia Falls overlook using the Cumberland Trail. There is a map at the trailhead — take a photo for reference!
The first leg includes steep stairs and cable rails for support, which may not be suited for small children unless you are able to carry them. Winston, the 10-pound mutt, managed the steep descent well, but I'm also fairly certain he is part goat.
After the built-in stairs, there is little elevation change on your way to the dam.
At 0.4 miles in, you will reach the Julia Falls overlook. This point provides amazing panoramic views of the Tennessee River Valley and, of course, Julia Falls. Stop here for some great photos and a quick rest.
From Julia Falls, continue northwest on the Cumberland Trail toward Rainbow Falls and the Rainbow Lake dam. At this point, the trail is more densely forested and travels along Middle Creek. Along this portion there are a few downed trees and several rocky areas, so make sure to wear proper hiking shoes with good support. It was rather dry the day we hiked, but I imagine the rocks get pretty slick and muddy after rainy days. I also want to note that the trail is well marked with painted white rectangles on the trees at regular intervals.
Around 0.9 miles into the trail, you will see lovely views of Rainbow Falls. There are multiple signs indicating steep slopes toward the falls, so we advise you stay on the trail and admire the falls from above. The only negative part of this portion is that Alexian Village looms above you right by the trail. It is an unfortunate reminder that you are still, in fact, near civilization.
Continue northwest another 0.5 miles to reach the Rainbow Lake dam. The junction at Rainbow Lake provides a large, flat area perfect for picnicking or even swimming in the creek during summer months. Our black Lab, River, enjoyed the water even in the cold. You can also take sweet photos on the long suspension bridge that heads toward Edward's Point.
If you want to venture on a longer excursion, follow signage for the Bee Branch Trail loop around Rainbow Lake, or continue on the Cumberland Trail toward Edward's Point and Mushroom Rock. Otherwise, head back toward Signal Point to complete this pleasant 3-mile out-and-back. Just remember, those stairs are waiting at the end for a difficult but rewarding final push.
Bryant and Elise Hawkins spent the past two years living a nomadic lifestyle. For their honeymoon, they backpacked through Southeast Asia. When they returned stateside, they purchased a 1976 Airstream trailer and traveled cross-country, from the Pacific Northwest to Tennessee.
Bryant is a photographer who cut his teeth as a photojournalist. His work has been published in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press, and featured in the National Institutes of Health's special exhibit about First Nation healing practices. Elise studied linguistics at New Orleans' Tulane University and is now working on a Master's of Education at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Together, the Hawkins enjoy hiking, paddling and rock climbing.
"Chattanooga is the perfect fit for us," Elise says.
"The sheer amount of easily accessible trails within an hour drive of this town is something special," adds Bryant.
Have a trail suggestion for the Hawkins? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.