North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy past President Taft Sibley feels a bit like Leslie Knope from the NBC sitcom "Parks and Recreation" as he anticipates the opening of Walden's Ridge Park, scheduled for late summer or early fall of 2022.
In the show, which ran from 2009 to 2015, Knope, portrayed by actor Amy Poehler, spent much of the seven seasons in a never-ending quest to build a park in Pawnee, Indiana. Similarly, Sibley and local groups and individuals have worked tirelessly over the past several years to envision, develop and construct the 200-acre Walden's Ridge Park, which will serve mountain bikers, climbers and other outdoor enthusiasts in a publicly owned park just minutes from downtown Chattanooga.
The park is the result of years of collaborative work by the conservancy, Land Trust for Tennessee, Hamilton County Parks and Recreation, the Chattanooga chapter of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association, the Southeastern Climbers Coalition, the International Mountain Bicycling Association and hundreds of volunteers.
What's the status of Walden's Ridge Park, Chattanooga's most anticipated new park for hiking, biking and climbing?
With the opening in sight, Sibley is excited to see his dream finally become reality.
"I'll be honest — it's really crazy that this is actually happening," Sibley says. "We have gotten to build a park in six years. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and our partnerships have been so incredible."
Located just minutes from downtown Chattanooga, Walden's Ridge Park will feature more than 12 miles of cycling and multiuse trails plus expanded areas for rock climbing and other uses on a heavily sloped area near W and Mountain Creek roads.
While an official opening date has not been set, Sibley and other stakeholders say work is nearing completion and everyone involved with the project is excited to introduce Chattanooga to its newest park.
"It's been a very unique experience bringing in multiple user groups and identifying new areas for people to get into the outdoors and feel more comfortable and welcome," says Gaston Farmer, project manager for the Land Trust for Tennessee. "For us at the Land Trust, it's about uniting people with these spaces and making sure that they understand their importance."
Much of the land that will become Walden's Ridge Park was initially owned by North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy. The land featured heavily sloped and wooded terrain, leaving Sibley and others at the conservancy unclear about how to use the property.
Over time, discussions with the local mountain biking and climbing communities led to the idea of a park that could take advantage of the topography that makes the site unique.
With several existing bouldering areas on the site, climbing was an obvious use, and the steepness of the terrain opened up the possibilities for bringing gravity-based biking trails to the area.
"From a Chattanooga perspective, this brings us something completely different," says Les Warnock, president of the Chattanooga chapter of the Southern Off-Road Bicycling Association (SORBA). "It's a completely different type of trail system. We have 100 miles of trails within 30 minutes of downtown, which is incredible, but the vast majority of those are bi-directional, multiuse, single-track trails. Walden's Ridge Park brings us four top-to-bottom downhill-only runs that are akin to ski-resort type experiences for riders."
For Kate Hanes, stewardship director for the Southeastern Climbers Coalition, opening up new climbing options was a big draw for the climbing community she represents.
"It's always an advantage to add more climbing areas," she says. "It just gives people more areas to go, and it will increase the draw and allow people to spread out."
With a vision in place, the park organizers began working to develop a plan to make the dream of Walden's Ridge Park a reality. Construction on the trail system began in 2021.
"It's been amazing watching the community come together, watching these partners come together and work tirelessly," Sibley says. "Watching people in town and out of town start to understand this park and seeing the excitement has been fantastic."
BUILDING A TRAIL
Gravity-based mountain biking can be a technically challenging discipline, and the need for well-constructed trails was crucial to the success of the park. To ensure the highest quality of trails, local park organizers partnered with the International Mountain Bicycling Association for trail construction.
"Chattanooga has good mountain biking all around, but they wanted to introduce a gravity-based park that would service all user groups," says Josh Olson, IMBA's director of construction and operations. "There's hiking on the perimeter trails, and we built trails out to the bouldering areas of the site. But our main focus was to provide a high-level, gravity-based biking experience."
Olson says that gravity-based mountain biking — which features downhill runs and trail features such as banked turns and jumps — is a growing area of mountain biking. The privately owned Windrock Bike Park in Oliver Springs, Tennessee, is the closest downhill bike park to Chattanooga and has proven to be popular with riders looking for those types of trails.
"There's been a push in Tennessee and across the country for directional gravity trails that are mountain-bike optimized, and this is going to be Chattanooga's offering," Olson says. "It definitely fills a gap in Chattanooga's mountain biking trail network."
IMBA served as more than just a contractor on the Walden's Ridge Park project. The organization provided advice in the planning stages of the project and also helped with financing via matching funds through its Trail Accelerator Grants program.
"(IMBA) stepped in not just as trail builders, but really as consultants and guides through the entire process," Sibley says. "They helped us with thinking through safety issues and how we do conveyance and long-term maintenance issues that we need to think through."
Olson says one highlight of this park is the fact that it will be owned by Hamilton County and open to the public, unlike most mountain bike parks which are privately owned and charge riders for trail access.
"IMBA Trail Solutions is proud to be involved in a project that has given us the opportunity to plan, design and build one of the nation's leading gravity mountain bike parks while accommodating so many other user groups," he says. "This is going to be free to the public in a municipal park, and there are probably one or two other parks like this in the nation. So to us, this is a highlight project."
With bike trail construction nearing completion, it is anticipated that the trails at Walden's Ridge will be a game-changer for the Chattanooga cycling community, bringing the excitement of downhill cycling to the Chattanooga area for the first time.
"I try to suppress my enthusiasm, but I really think that this is going to create a huge shift in the mountain biking culture," Warnock says. "I think it's going to put Chattanooga on the map for mountain biking. You're going to have folks traveling from all over the country to ride here. It's going to be really good, and I'm very excited."
Hanes first saw the Walden's Ridge property several years ago on a cleanup with the Access Fund. Now working with Southeastern Climbers Coalition, she's been involved in planning and developing the bouldering areas at Walden's Ridge.
While the climbing sites will require a short hike from the parking areas, the potential for climbing enthusiasts is worth the effort put in to develop the area.
"There are about 30 and maybe more boulders on the property, and they are clustered in a way that you can easily access," she says. "Some of them have been climbed before, but there's still a lot of potential for development of new and different bouldering problems."
Hanes says that the climbing at Walden's Ridge Park will be suitable for climbers of all ability levels, with many beginner and intermediate boulder problems but the potential for more advanced problems to be developed as the site gets more use. The main value according to Hanes is that this will open up more opportunities for bouldering just minutes from Chattanooga.
"What I see as its greatest value to the community is the convenience," she says. "It's close to town, so you can pop over there in an afternoon and get a couple of climbs in after work. Having another spot that locals can get to quickly is a big asset."
The location of the bouldering areas on the property made it easy for the climbing community to work with the mountain biking organizations to create a great experience for all users.
"It's been awesome working with SORBA and the Land Trust for Tennessee folks, along with everyone who's involved in the project," Hanes says. "We can all bring different skills and different resources, and we haven't had to compromise much because of the topography and the way that the boulders are all deposited on the upper shelf of the property with the gravity trails going off down below that. It naturally was a good partnership to be able to utilize these different user groups."
A PARK FOR ALL
While much of the focus of Walden's Ridge Park has been on the climbing and biking aspects of the park, the park is intended to serve a much wider group of outdoor enthusiasts.
Sibley says 70% of the trails at the park can be accessed by foot, with only 30% being reserved solely for mountain biking. He says he hopes that many people will come out to hike the perimeter trails, and future plans could include developing a hiking trail to access Reed's Creek near the bottom of the property.
"Our goal is to make it a park for everybody," he says. "We believe that it's a park that can be for everybody, but what we have to remember is that we didn't start with 100 acres of grass. We have 200 acres of rocky hillside. It will be a bit more difficult for some people to access, but it's going to be awesome for everyone."
In addition to the recreational uses by local residents, Walden's Ridge Park also has the opportunity to attract visitors from around the country to boost the local economy. Farmer cites a recent study done by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga which found that in 2020, mountain biking brought in $6.9 million to the Chattanooga region.
While the main downhill cycling trails are geared for intermediate and advanced riders, Warnock says the trails are designed to help riders progress as their skill level increases. Additionally, SORBA also hopes to offer instructional sessions to help introduce gravity riding to those new to the discipline in a safe way.
"We want people to be utilizing the park while being safe out there," Warnock says. "We want people to be riding in a well-thought-out manner and building up their skills."
WAITING FOR OPENING DAY
While 90% of the park construction has been completed, as of now there is not a firm opening date for Walden's Ridge Park. Sibley says the delays are the result of so many moving parts to the project, the final land transfers of some small parcels for parking areas at the top and bottom of the property, and finalizing the official transfer of the property to Hamilton County.
Once everything has been completed and the park is ready to open, Sibley says he hopes for a big formal event to introduce residents to its newest public park so that everyone can begin using and enjoying this unique area for outdoor recreation.
"We are handing over a $2 million asset (to Hamilton County)," he says. "It's something that's so unique that I think it probably deserves a little bit of hype. It really deserves to be celebrated, because what it's bringing to this county and this town and our people is next level."