When the rains come and rivers crest, Emily Marsh, a 33-year-old Tennessee Department of transportation road designer, keeps her creek boat close.
"It's in my car right now," Marsh said recently, "just in case the 'Bowling Alley' (on North Chickamauga Creek) is running."
Around downtown, it's becoming a familiar sight: The Litespeed strapped to the Mazda, the Jackson 4-Fun kayak stretched across a soccer-mom's minivan. Once called "America's Dirtiest City," Chattanooga has renovated its landscape, and its reputation.
Over the past 20-plus years, local sporting groups, governments, foundations and nonprofits have built miles of trails, bike lanes and major parks. Such landscape lovers as Outside magazine, National Geographic and RelocateAmerica, have recently applauded the effort. And, while the Chamber of Commerce hasn't noticed any major companies relocating here just for recreation, "we think it helps," says J.Ed. Marston, vice president of marketing and communications.
Two of the city's largest, and newest, companies have taken up the cause as well. Volkswagen supported the Southern Off-Road Bicycling Association's efforts to blaze hiking and biking trails through the newly opened Enterprise South Nature Center, which offers more than 1,300 acres of outdoor adventure right next door to the car plant. Downtown, Alstom is working alongside city and county leaders as well as local organizations to extend the Riverwalk from Ross's Landing along the plant's riverfront property as the popular path makes its way toward Lookout Mountain.
The easy access to trails and pocket wilderness is fueling a steady stream of city-bound urbanites who are now becoming unfettered bicyclists, hikers, paddlers, rock climbers, spelunkers, bird and wildflower watchers, horseback riders, water skiers and hang glider pilots. "The outdoor activities here are outstanding," says Cleveland, Ohio, transplant Brian Morgan, a 48-year-old system architect at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. "It's unbelievable for a town this size."
Morgan compares the city favorably to another outdoor mecca near where he once lived, Boulder, Colo., - minus the snowdrifts. What Chattanooga lacks in powder for skiing, he says it makes up for with an abundance of water sports. An avid mountain biker, Morgan says he can be on the trails with friends and family in a matter of minutes from either his Cameron Hill office or his Missionary Ridge home. He also appreciates the city's growing community of outdoor enthusiasts - bikers, hikers, boaters and runners - because he sees a shared interest in preserving the area's natural assets and working to add to the mix.
Chattanooga Bicycle Club president Tom Ingledew - a retired Los Angeles homicide detective - also draws parallels with his former home ground. "In Los Angeles you've got the beach, the desert and the mountains," he notes, "and in Chattanooga, within a short length of time, you can canoe, bicycle and rock climb - without the traffic or smog."
Surprisingly, though, the dual role of the live-play-work crew still surprises the uninitiated. Co-workers grind out the questions when he spins into work with a Litespeed Ghis strapped to a roof rack of his compact car, says Peter Woodrow, a 40-year-old business manager at Steward Advanced Materials. "'What's it made out of?" (titanium); "How much does it weigh?" (16 ½ pounds); "What's the fastest you've ever been on a bicycle?" (60 miles per hour)," he reports, laughing.
Dave Adkins, a 32-year-old Hamilton County teacher, says his special education students also become perplexed when he shows up ready to paddle the Ocoee River after the final school bell sounds. "Chattanooga offers amazing opportunities for outdoor recreation, but my students wonder - what is that weird thing on my truck?"
Looking for nature in all the wrong places? Chattanooga offers hundreds of paths into the outdoors.
But it helps to have a guide. Chatter has crafted a list of the city's 10 most popular recreation meccas within 20 minutes of downtown. For more ideas and details, visit or call Outdoor Chattanooga: www.outdoorchattanooga.com; 643-6888.
3370 LaFayette Road. Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. 706-866-9241
With its gentle terrain, light traffic and beautiful scenery, hikers, mountain bikers and road bikers love this free park for solo or family outings. Chattanooga Bicycle Club offers a 20- to-30-mile weekly road ride: www.chattbike.com
Hiking, caving, cycling
7854 Raccoon Mountain Road.
Hikers and mountain bikers enjoy free access to more than 20 miles of singletrack, with plenty of traffic-free spaces for road cyclists to spin. Wild Cave at Raccoon Mountain Caverns offers four-hour introductory tours at 319 W. Hills Ave., 821-2283, www.raccoonmountain.com
8015 Volkswagen Drive • 893-3500
Blaze down more than 25 miles of trails at Chattanooga's newest, free, dog-friendly 1,300-acre park. Hilly enough for a workout, but navigable even by those with limited technical skills, the new paths have proven popular with mountain and hybrid bikers. Picnic areas, historical areas, a visitor's center, paths for people with disabilities and a 7-mile driving loop are also open.
Prentice Cooper State Forest on Signal MTN.
Hundreds of free routes at all grades at one of the Sandstone Belt's best cliffs. The south-facing rock face broils in summer, but offers good climbs from September through June.
Montlake Golf Club. 9104 Brow Lake Road, Soddy-Daisy • 332-3111
World-class ropeless climbing in all seasons. $3 entrance fee. Clubhouse rents crash pads and sells tape, chalk and guidebooks.
7201 Scenic Hwy. Rising Fawn , Ga. 800-688-5637 OR 706-398-3541
A rare opportunity to soar with the eagles. Certified instructors teach and rate hang gliding pilots daily. Tandom rides also available.
Hiking, cycling, nature walks
A tangled skein of free, well-marked, beginner-friendly scenic paths covers Chattanooga's icon from valley to mountaintop. Road bikers burn off lunchtime calories by climbing straight up the hill.
Hiking, trail running, mountain biking
North Chattanooga and Red Bank
A spaghetti of six miles of old roadbeds and crisscrossed singletrack, this venue demands commonsense, a compass and caution. Signage and reorganization of the trail system are planned for future years. Touch base with The Boonies at wildtrails.org or the Southern Off-Road Bicycling Association at sorbachattanooga.org, before heading out.
Walking, hiking, flatwater kayaking, casual bicycling
5051 Gann Store Road, Hixson • 643-6888
Families, dog-walkers and cyclists walk, jog or peddle along the gentle trails and around the fields of Greenway Farms. Paddlers can enjoy a calm, two-mile peninsula loop, head upstream for creek boating or downstream into the Tennessee River for miles of flatwater kayaking.