It's no secret that the Chattanooga area offers stunning panoramic views, miles of scenic ridgeline and lush valleys. Its beauty is at the center of the city's tourism and marketing strategies, and has been featured prominently in national publications such as Outside Magazine, The New York Times and others.
We don’t suggest waiting, but you can explore the Sequatchie Valley by bike as part of the Cycle Sequatchie Outdoor Expo Oct. 5. The expo will feature four scenic routes (16-, 37-, 63- and 78-mile options) followed by a farm-to-table feast and outdoor expo in Dunlap, Tennessee. While celebrating the cycling opportunities that exist in the Sequatchie Valley, it will also help to create more. Proceeds will benefit conservation efforts in the Sequatchie Valley and South Cumberland Plateau by the Land Trust for Tennessee. Learn more at CycleSequatchie.com.
But the area is also home to lesser-known quiet country roads with miles of pavement and low traffic through beautiful farmland. And a group of Chattanooga transplants, a regional tourism association, and city and county leaders across the Tennessee Valley believe that could make Chattanooga one of the top cycling destinations in the country.
The groups launched a new online database earlier this year called Bikeways of the Scenic South, mapping more than 30 scenic bike routes — and counting — in the valley. Most routes total between 30 and 50 miles, with several longer and shorter options.
In total, there are more than 1,100 miles of scenic, cycling-friendly roads currently mapped on the site.
The database lists turn-by-turn directions that can be uploaded to a bike computer; short write-ups about each route; and recommendations for food along the way, historical sites and tourist stops.
"The Chattanooga Tri-State Region is home to some of the best cycling in the country, but without a guide or local insight it's not always apparent where to ride," the site says. "Bikeways of the Scenic South makes it easy to find the best backroads in the region, as well as hidden gems along the way!"
The site will eventually map routes through at least five regions: Sequatchie Valley; Tennessee River Basin in Hamilton, Rhea and Meigs counties; Three Rivers Way in Bradley, Polk and McMinn counties; Alabama Canyonland in Northeast Alabama; and Georgia Highlands through Northwest Georgia.
The Sequatchie Valley and Three Rivers Way sections are currently complete. The developers will focus on the Tennessee River Basin and Georgia Highlands sections next, hoping to capitalize on Hamilton County's effort to look at the future of its parks system and North Georgia's "Walker Rocks" initiative.
Route and site developer Shannon Burke, and Jim Johnson — who was, "as usual the instigator," Burke says on the site — both operate bike touring companies in Chattanooga, with Johnson's touring Europe and Burke's the Tennessee Valley. They both moved to the city after seeing its potential for cycling.
Johnson has long been a visionary and active community member outspoken on development and other issues. He was instrumental in protecting Stringer's Ridge and turning it into a recreational trail system. He also developed a plan that has since been adopted to expand the Tennessee Riverwalk.
The Bikeways of the Scenic South idea came after seeing a similar network in Oregon.
"They promote themselves as America's first and best scenic bikeway system, and maybe with a little bit of arrogance, I said, 'In a few years, they'll only be the first,'" Johnson says.
Burke and the Southeast Tennessee Tourism Association took Johnson's vision and created the online database of carefully crafted and tested road cycling routes. SETTA, part of the Southeast Tennessee Development District, teamed up the local cycling advocates with county officials to determine the best routes through the scenic landscape and small towns in the area.
County and city representatives were interested in the idea as an easy way to promote tourism.
"It's more than just bike routes," says Burke. "It's about those points of interest."
The Sequatchie Valley network promotes stretches of backroads crisscrossing farmland with massive ridges. The Three Rivers Way routes stretch from the mountain of the Cherokee Forest to the Tennessee River basin, with road and some gravel options.
Here are five of our favorite routes with descriptions from the Bikeways of the Scenic South network. More detailed descriptions are available at scenicbikeways.com.
1. Cherohala Skyway Challenge
Where: Tellico Plains, Tennessee
Distance: 59 miles
Elevation: 7,400 feet of climbing
Description: "Take on one of the longest and most challenging climbs east of Colorado and be rewarded with breathtaking views and an exhilarating descent!"
Overview: This ride offers sustained climbing of more than 20 miles before turning around and descending. The route has incredible views, overviews and light traffic.
Don't miss: The Turkey Creek Overlook 12 miles into the route gives cyclists a good place to rest, enjoy the views and use the restroom before ascending further up the climb. The next break will be around mile 17.5, where another overlook offers photo opportunities.
2. Upper Sequatchie Valley Loop 1
Where: Dunlap, Tennessee
Distance: 42 miles
Elevation: 1,700 feet of climbing
Description: "Take in the beautiful scenery of the upper Sequatchie Valley on this 42-mile ride between Dunlap and Pikeville!"
Overview: Starts and ends at the Cookie Jar Cafe to set up a post-ride meal of Southern cooking overlooking the dairy farm that has been in the family for 150 years. The cafe also has a petting zoo. As for the ride, McWilliams Road has views of the valley in all directions, with a few short climbs.
Don't miss: Downtown Pikeville is centered around the county courthouse built in 1911. The courthouse sits across from the city's historic commercial row on Main Street.
3. Madisonville Loop
Where: Madisonville, Tennessee
Distance: 35 miles
Elevation: 2,300 feet of climbing
Description: "Challenge yourself on rolling terrain that will take you through hilly farmland and backwoods hollows before delivering you to a hilltop winery with panoramic mountain views!"
Overview: The description says it all. But did we mention the hilltop winery with panoramic mountain views?
Don't miss: Tsali Notch Vineyard is a vineyard and tasting room specializing in wine from the muscadine wild grape native to the Southeast. It's located at 140 Harrison Road in Madisonville.
4. Sweetens Cove Out & Back
Where: South Pittsburg, Tennessee
Distance: 22 miles
Elevation: 800 feet of climbing
Description: "Enjoy stellar scenery just around the corner from South Pittsburg in this quiet cove surrounded by mountains and full of beautiful farmland and rich history."
Overview: As always, a good ride starts and ends with food. This route starts at Dragging Canoe Coffee Traders, where cyclists can get some caffeine before the ride and pastries after. The route gives cyclists views of the mountains in the distance and the landmark blue bridge spanning the Tennessee River into South Pittsburg.
Don't miss: An airplane sticks out of a parking lot just before you reach Sweetens Cove Road. The owner of the one-time restaurant thought it would be good for marketing. The restaurant ultimately closed but the airplane remained.
5. Nickajack Lake Out & Back
Where: Haletown, Tennessee
Distance: 53 miles
Elevation: 2,900 feet of climbing
Description: "Explore the history and beauty of Nickajack Lake and the Tennessee River on this scenic riverside ride!"
Overview: This route also comes with a warning — "This ride has a few sections of very rough pavement and where riding with traffic could be uncomfortable. It also includes a great deal of climbing and is recommended for experienced cyclists only." However, it rewards riders with sweeping views of Nickajack Lake and follows the Tennessee River for the majority of the ride. Nearby food options include wood fired pizza, drinks and panoramic views at Lookout Winery.
Don't miss: The purportedly haunted Hales Bar Dam powerhouse juts out into the Tennessee River near Hales Bar Marina and Resort. The powerhouse was built in 1912 and is all that remains of the old lock and dam. It was eventually replaced with the Nickajack Dam due to leakage.