Chattanooga Is So Dirty (but in a good way)

The hottest mountain town below the Mason- Dixon? It’s not uber-hip Asheville, N.C., or trendy and athletic Charlottesville, Va. It’s not the dirt-bag paradise of Boone, or up-and-comer Fayetteville, W.Vva. It’s Chattanooga, Tennessee, a former industrial town that was once dubbed the “dirtiest city in America” by the federal government thanks to the city’s alarming levels of pollution emissions. Today, Chattanooga has eschewed its industrial image and emerged as a paradise of singletrack, rock, and rivers. Boaters, climbers, runners, and bikers are now flocking to the city for the world-class recreation that sits literally on the edge of town.

Randy Whorton moved to Chattanooga with his wife from Boulder, Colo., expecting to spend a year, maybe two, in the Southern town before heading back to the Rockies. Seven years later, the Whortons have no intentions of heading west.

“We had no idea that the recreation would be this good,” says Whorton, founder of Wild Trails, a nonprofit that distributes grants to clubs for local trail construction and maintenance. “There’s so much singletrack around this city, it’s unbelievable.”

Chattanooga sits on a dramatic bend in the Tennessee River, virtually surrounded by the short, but steep mountains that make up the Tennessee River Gorge.  Much of that land is a mix of state parks, forests, private conservancy, and Tennessee Valley Authority land that’s open to the public and, over the last few years, has been systematically developed for recreation by groups like Wild Trails and the Southern Off-Road Bikers Association (SORBA). The amount of trails close to town is off the charts. There are 56 trailheads within 30 minutes of downtown. Boulder has only 21.

It’s not just singletrack that Chattanooga offers. “Chattanooga is easily one of the top two or three climbing towns in the country,” says Dan Rose, a climber who opened the Crash Pad hostel in downtown Chattanooga in 2010. The fabled crags of Lookout Mountain are 10 minutes from downtown.

For mountain bikers and trail runners, Raccoon Mountain’s 22 miles of singletrack waits 10 minutes away. For hikers, the Cumberland Trail starts 20 minutes from town and continues to grow north. New trail projects are scattered throughout the gorge, including an inner city tract known as Stringer’s Ridge and Williams Island, a 20-acre hunk of land sitting in the middle of the Tennessee River close to downtown.

“It’s changed the lifestyle of the city,” Whorton says. “The outdoors isn’t just for the weekends here. It’s after work. It’s lunch break. You can blitz up to Raccoon Mountain, knock out a loop, and be back to work in an hour and a half.”

The growing “live to play” philosophy catapulted Chattanooga into the national spotlight this year when Outside Magazine readers declared the city the “Best Town Ever,” besting perennial favorites like Boulder, Portland, and Durango. It wasn’t always this way. Before former mayor-turned Senator Bob Corker declared Chattanooga was “the Boulder of the East” in 2003 and enacted key initiatives to make good on that claim, few locals were enjoying the outdoor adventure that was staring them in the face. Ben Friberg is a Chattanooga local and stand-up paddleboarder who says he had the rivers and mountains to himself as a kid.

“I was always surprised there weren’t more people out in the elements when I was growing up,” says Friberg. “In the ‘90s, it seemed like you had everything to yourself. If you ran into anyone on the river, they were probably a good friend.”

Today, the creeks that Friberg grew up paddling are widely recognized as some of the steepest and gnarliest in the South. Ditto the climbing on the sandstone walls that rise from the Tennessee River and its many tributaries. Some of the most storied climbing crags in the East (Tennessee Wall, Sunset) sit on the outskirts of downtown. The singletrack continues to grow as well, as mountain bikers and trail runners work together to build out Raccoon Mountain’s system and create brand new trail hubs, like the newly created Five Points system, which runs on top of Lookout Mountain not far from downtown. You could still call Chattanooga the dirtiest city in America. Only now, it’s a compliment.

Raccoon Mountain

22 miles of purpose-built singletrack overlooking downtown Chattanooga. The system was built by mountain bikers, but is beloved by all and hosts the Scenic City Trail Marathon and a leg of the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race.

Tennessee Wall
A 100-foot sandstone cliff on the edge of the Tennessee River Gorge in Prentice Cooper State Forest. The crack-heavy crag is one of the most beloved climbing areas in the East.

Tennessee River

The steep slopes surrounding Chattanooga are full of class IV-V creeks. For something more mellow, consider knocking out a piece of the 48-mile Tennessee River Blueway that runs from Chickamauga Dam to Nickajack Dam. The section that skirts the edge of downtown near the aquarium is popular with canoes, kayaks, swimmers, and SUP’s.

LAND AT The Crash Pad
The Crash Pad, a boutique hostel in downtown Chattanooga that caters to the adventure-set, is easily the nicest hostel you’ll ever stay in state-side. 

Gear Up AT Rock Creek 

Rock Creek Outfitters has been singing Chattanooga’s praises for two decades. Their popular race series helps fund the many trail projects around town. 

Places to Go, Things to See: