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Contributed photo by Nathalie Dupre' / Andrew Miller on Cobra Pimp.

It's been four years since climbers, conservation partners and community leaders celebrated the opening of Denny Cove, a 685-acre addition to South Cumberland State Park in Marion County, Tennessee. At the time, many knew Denny Cove had the resources to become a premier rock climbing destination. And conservationists were eager to protect its mighty views, 70-foot waterfall and significant wildlife habitat.

Still, looking back it would have been nearly impossible to imagine just how important Denny Cove, and all of Tennessee's open spaces, would become during a global pandemic.

"Climbers know the importance of protecting places like Denny Cove. We build our lives around them. But this past year really opened our eyes," says Zachary Lesch-Huie of the Access Fund, a national partner on the project. "Open, accessible outdoor places are more important than ever to climbers, hikers, hunters — everyone. When times are tough, we go outside."

Protecting Denny Cove took more than six years of work from dozens of partners, including the Southeastern Climbers Coalition, The Conservation Fund, the Access Fund, Tennessee State Parks, The Land Trust for Tennessee and the Open Space Institute. Not to mention, hundreds of individual donors and small businesses who donated to pay off loans that made the acquisition possible.

"Denny Cove demonstrated the profound impact that climbers can play as conservationists," says Andrea Hassler, director of the Southeastern Climbers Coalition. "It created a model for climbing-area conservation that takes into consideration the overlapping values of protecting wildlife habitat, connected forests and climate-resilient landscapes."

It is perhaps fitting that in December 2020 — during a year in which many parks across the nation saw increased visitors — the SCC submitted its final loan payment for Denny Cove.

In 2020, Tennessee's 56 state parks had 34 million visits, including 10,000 to Denny Cove, contributing an impact of $1.8 billion to the Volunteer State. As South Cumberland State Park Manager Bill Knapp explains, the addition of Denny Cove has not only given more opportunities to those seeking safely distanced outdoor opportunities, it has been important to the local economy.

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Contributed photo by Nathalie Dupre' / Murti Nauth on One Legged Red.

"Last year, Denny Cove provided the communities of Monteagle, Tracy City, Kimball and Jasper with over 10,000 potential customers to gas stations, overnight lodging, restaurants, other stores and local events. And it has also added a new user group to the area that is full of great volunteers and environmental activists that want to protect the area," he says. "It has been an excellent addition to the many areas of South Cumberland State Park, allowing more avenues for climbers and hikers alike."

As trailheads and campgrounds continue to explode in popularity, Chattanooga climbers like John Dorough hope Denny Cove will inspire the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts to continue the work of expanding access to open spaces.

"Denny Cove was a project that literally started out as discovery and a 'what if' and ended as a state park," says Dorough. "We have amazing resources in our region and a commitment to help protect our outdoor resources for current and future generations."

To that end, a new coalition of partners, including The Land Trust for Tennessee and the SCC, are setting their sights on creating a new 200-acre park on the eastern flank of Signal Mountain. It will be called Walden's Ridge Park.

With progress underway, there is hope that the new park may be open for biking, climbing and hiking as early as this fall.

"With vision, collaboration and hard work, we can continue to increase public access to open space and save places we can't afford to lose," says Emily Parish, vice president of The Land Trust for Tennessee. "And that's what we plan to do."

Interested in supporting the creation of Walden's Ridge Park? Partners are seeking financial donations to underwrite the final park development costs. To get involved and learn more, visit waldensridgepark.com.

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