Chattanooga has a lion's share of wonderful outdoor play areas and venues, from downtown Riverwalk stages to majestic bluff views to the quiet lush of the Cumberland Trail. But for pure woodsy family fun with a little something for everyone, it's hard to beat the 300-acre Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center.
And Reflection Riding is on its way to getting even better, thanks to a historic conservation easement through the American Battlefield Trust, a nonprofit organization that preserves battlefield grounds from the American Civil War, the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
As part of the preservation easement and funding process, Reflection Riding developed a broad vision for the future of the organization, which already focuses on plant and wildlife conservation, including a breeding program for the endangered red wolf, habitat restoration and nature educational programs.
That vision doesn't stray far from the early aims of Chattanooga attorney John Chambliss who in 1925 bought the first piece of property that eventually would become Reflection Riding — a 300-acre arboretum and botanical garden for the study and conserving of native plant life. Chambliss and his wife Margaret established it as a drive-through attraction in 1956.
Ridings were a typical English creation of the mid-18th century to encompass the progression of scenery in a place as seen from a carriage or by horseback.
The term "riding" was chosen by Chambliss to define the type of place he wanted to establish, according to his family. Mrs. Chambliss added the word "reflection" to draw attention to the natural beauty in the surrounding ponds and creek, but also to emphasize the area as a place for reflection.
Within the last decade, Reflection Riding merged with the Chattanooga Nature Center.
Like much of the Chattanooga area, Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center has a deep sense of "place."
"One of the things that makes this area so interesting is that our entire landscape is shaped by geology and by the water," says Executive Director Mark McKnight. "What happens when you end up with this kind of interesting confluence is you have all these different species, both terrestrial and avian species, that are all occurring in this one place."
The Appalachian Mountains run north to south, with somewhat different terrestrial species to the east and west. But Reflection Riding sits on the edge of one of a few gaps in the mountain range that runs east to west, resulting in an amazing number of species on the property, he said. In addition, the property is home to a large amount of mixed mesophytic forest, one of the region's most endangered types of ecosystems.
Yet is also has served as a cultural crossroads for human history, including Native Americans, who in 1838 were forcibly removed from the area on the Trail of Tears. Later it was a choke point for supplies in the Civil War, which enabled the historic conservation agreement that will preserve the land.
The spot is equally busy today with youngsters regularly onsite in a forest kindergarten program, as well as students visiting from local schools. And it remains an adult favorite for hiking, paddling and buying native plants from its commercial nursery.
But the campus needs repairs and revisioning, and that's where the battlefield conservation easement and donor funding will come in handy — to bring a "Framework for the Future" vision to reality on the property.
A low point in the Lookout Creek watershed, Reflection Riding's boardwalk and treehouse sit underwater for one or two months of the year. In the framework vision, the boardwalk will be removed and replaced with a canopy walk perched higher in the trees and accessible year-round.
The Wildlife Center also sits in a floodplain, and a newer, larger center — designed to allow wildlife to be viewed even when the center is closed — will move to the area behind Humphreys House, the old log cabin above the pond.
The native plant nursery, a key program and major revenue source, will expand with surrounding demonstration gardens and amphitheater-style seating for events.
The former driving loop, which only people who are unable to walk are allowed to drive, will be resurfaced to become a multimodal, Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant accessible path.
Candy Flats, the area where horses often pasture, will become a restored prairie filled with native pollinating plants. The boarded horses will be moved to a non-Reflection Riding location.
McKnight says the overall cost of all this work, to be completed in stages by 2030, will be about $10 million, with funding coming from donors and local foundations.
It's a good plan for a beautiful, useful and busy educational site in our community.
After all, no one is making land anymore. And the more help we have to preserving this particular piece of land, the better. John and Margaret Chambliss set us on this road, envisioning Reflection Riding as "a modified arboretum demonstrating the need for conserving animal life, forests, water, soil, a love of nature and its beauty and acquainting the public with the history of the area."
We are fortunate now to still have this place, preserved even more, and sustained for the future with careful and thoughtful improvements.