Hamilton County, Chattanooga and private organizations have worked for years to complete a trail system connecting Georgia's Pinhoti Trail to the Cumberland Trail. The segment would be a crucial piece of the Great Eastern Trail: one of the largest ongoing trail projects in the U.S.
When completed, it will stretch from Alabama to New York.
The city council adopted a plan in the late 1980s to create a greenway that would eventually become part of the roughly 1,600-mile trail, but it has yet to be completed. Now, a trails organization is putting the plan back in the spotlight, hoping it becomes part of Hamilton County's first comprehensive parks master plan.
The Great Eastern Trail through Hamilton County lies in long, disconnected pieces.
There's a segment here, a segment there, and several crucial connectors are missing. Some of the most-traveled paths in the Chattanooga area are incorporated into this larger trail system: Guild Trail, Tennessee Riverwalk, North Chattanooga Creek Greenway and others.
But there are incomplete sections, largely north of the Tennessee River where the long-planned North Chickamauga Creek Greenway has yet to be completed.
A plan adopted by the city of Chattanooga in the late 1980s would have the current two-mile trail extended. It would stretch to Hixson High School, North Chickamauga Creek Gorge State Natural Area and south, to the next missing segment: a pedestrian lane on the C.B. Robinson Bridge where Dupont Parkway crosses the river near the Hubert Fry Center.
"It was anticipated that the North Chickamauga Creek Greenway would be the first greenway that the city completed, but you know, there were changes in political offices and all," said Linda Hixon, of Hixson, and the current chairwoman of the Cumberland Trails Conference's Great Eastern Trail Chattanooga committee. "Developing the riverfront in Chattanooga took priority for awhile. And then different things."
A temporary route has been constructed while the group waits. It takes walkers through town, across the Walnut Street Bridge, up Dayton Boulevard and away from natural areas until it reaches the Cumberland Trail north of town. The preferred route would incorporate more of the riverwalk, go across the now non-existent pedestrian lane on the C.B. Robinson Bridge and directly to natural areas in the North Chickamauga Creek gorge.
"Almost all of the trail has been well-defined by Linda and others," former Great Eastern Trail Association president Tom Johnson said. "The one problem is the C.B. Robinson Bridge. We're still wrestling with that. There's other bridges, but how do you connect to the other natural areas? You can go across the walking bridge and use city streets to the Cumberland Trail, but we really want to go to the natural areas connected to C.B. Robinson."
The project is definitely possible, county parks and recreation director Tom Lamb said, but it would involve the city and county making a cooperative effort to prioritize the project and dedicate funding to the plan, he added.
Trail advocates worry the work will never be done in a town that's supposed to be a jewel of the Great Eastern Trail. The city was named the path's first trailhead in 2013 and will be the largest city on its route — and one of the largest cities in the country on the direct route of a major long-distance trail.
The entire system is largely complete, at nearly 80%, with major sections missing in the coal country of West Virginia and Kentucky.
"Chattanooga is one of the key locations for the trail," Johnson, who helped form the Great Eastern Trail Association, said.
Parks master plan
Cumberland Trail Conference members are asking Lamb and other county leaders to include the project in a Hamilton County Parks & Recreation master plan now being drafted.
The plan will be the first comprehensive overview of the park system. It will be used to determine how to best manage the park system and will decide how funding should be used, where future projects should be conducted, the state of current equipment, where repairs are needed and give parks leaders a full inventory of park equipment.
"It would be nice to have attention redirected to completing that plan and working on the extension of it all the way to the gorge," Hixon, who has been working on the issue for 30 years, said.
Other residents seem to agree.
Greenplay, the Colorado-based company creating the master plan, held a public meeting earlier this month to discuss its initial findings after completing focus groups, community surveys and inventory. The survey found residents believe adding trail and pathway connectivity is the most important need for the future of county parks.
"The connectivity of trails and pathways are big throughout this," Greenplay project consultant Dave Peterson said. "And so [the question becomes] what exists and how can we connect those with other trails?"
However, the group has yet to focus publicly on individual projects.
That's the next step.
"This was kind of that 50,000-foot look. What we'll do now is come down to more like 10,000 feet and put some specific projects in there, some specific needs," Peterson said. "We'll look at those opportunities and make some recommendations."
Much of the plan's success may come down to how active the county's municipalities are in contributing to the report.
Projects — like the Great Eastern Trail, which stretches across Hixson and other municipalities in Hamilton County — cross through multiple jurisdictions and would involve cooperation among the county, private groups and local leaders. So far, there has been little input from municipalities in the creation of the plan. East Ridge was the only municipality not unincorporated with a representative at the public meeting.
"These changes, as with most everything else we heard, will require cooperative efforts with municipalities across the county," Lamb wrote in an email. "Following adoption of the final master plan, one of our first steps should be to convene a meeting with all of our community partners throughout the county."
A team constructing the plan — consisting of Greenplay, the county parks and recreation department, and consultants — met after the pubic meeting. Greenplay will take that information and create a drafted plan. It will be presented to the group in September or October and eventually sent to the Hamilton County Commission.