Guide to the East Tennessee Road Trip Adventure:
BRING: Mountain bike, water shoes, courage
HIGHLIGHT: Scrambling the Chimney Tops
SOUVENIR: Handcrafted beer mugs from Moccasin Bend Brewing (bendbrewingbeer.com)
Start at the Sugarlands Visitor Center on the western edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and head up Newfound Gap Road to the Chimney Tops Trail parking lot. This is a four-mile out and back that takes you to the rocky spine of a 4,840-foot knob with stellar views stretching deep into the park. Out of 900 miles of trail inside the park, Chimney Tops is one of the most stunning short hikes. Start by following and crossing Walker Prong for a mile as it makes its way into the West Fork of the Pigeon River, then ditch the creek and start climbing the mountain in earnest. You’ll gain 1,335 feet on your way to the ridge. The trail gets rootier and rockier the higher you climb, until eventually you’re scrambling hand over hand on solid rock with vertigo-inducing exposure. Hop and scramble your way across the spine of the mountain, pausing for a sack lunch with impeccable views.
Post-hike, set up your tent in Elkmont Campground ($17), then drive just west of the park to Townsend, where you’ll splurge on one of the finest meals in East Tennessee at Dancing Bear Lodge. The menu changes nightly depending on what the chef pulls from his partner farms, but expect something to the tune of cornmeal-dusted rainbow trout over grits.
Head south along US 411, skirting the edge of the Smokies to the Ocoee River Gorge, where the Ocoee offers class IV whitewater winding through steep and green mountains. The Ocoee is dam-released, so check tva.gov for the recreational release schedule. If you can, go on a weekend when the Upper Ocoee is flowing, allowing you to do the Upper/Middle combo trip for 8.5 miles of class III-IV that includes the ’96 Olympic canoe and kayak course as well as big-hit rapids like Grumpy’s and Humongous. And keep an eye out for the new breed of whitewater SUP paddlers who test the limits of SUP on the Ocoee all summer long.
Pitch a tent at the Thunder Rock Campground, inside the gorge on the banks of the river ($12). And bring your mountain bike. The Thunder Rock Express is the highlight of the Tanasi trail system, which begins and ends at the campground. The screaming 1.5-mile downhill is well worth the sweat equity it takes to climb out of the gorge.
Keep the bike lubed for your final day, when you’ll hit the ever-expanding Raccoon Mountain Trail System just outside of Chattanooga. SORBA Chattanooga has built 22 miles of singletrack on TVA land above downtown, with more to come in the future. The Chunky Freeride area offers steep downhills, big jumps and overhead drops over natural boulders. The Small Intestine Trail is the exact opposite, with smooth, flowing singletrack cut through a tight forest. Bust out a couple of loops, then drop into downtown Chattanooga for a mini brewery tour that includes the Chattanooga Brewing Company in the hip North Shore neighborhood, the inventive Moccasin Bend Brewing at the base of Lookout Mountain, and Terminal Brewhouse in the up and coming Southside neighborhood. Grab a dog or two at Good Dog, where the meat and all the fixings are harvested within 100 miles of the shop. After the beer tour, settle down for the night at The Crash Pad, a boutique hostel that caters to adventure-minded travelers (bunks start at $27).