Lookout Mountain Overlooks the South’s Best Outdoor City.
From battlefield to coal mine to tourist trap and the birthplace of mini-golf, the Lookout saga has more twists and turns than the Tennessee River it overlooks. These days, the greater Chattanooga, Tenn. area is rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the best outdoor cities in the United States, and Lookout Mountain is a major factor in this standing.
Lookout Mountain is actually a skinny plateau that runs 92 miles through Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. Lookout towers almost 2,000 feet above the river valley below, the primary reason for its early development as a resort and retreat for the industrial magnates that inhabited Chattanooga in the early 1900s. For the past few decades, the region has taken great pains to shake its coal industry past, with its reputation for environmental destruction, and transform itself into a bastion for those seeking adventure in the outdoors.
Mike Pollock is on the forefront of the effort. As a longtime resident on Lookout and trustee of the Lula Lake Land Trust, he has seen the area undergo an amazing metamorphosis from environmental scourge of the South to a model for dynamic reinvention.
Although he moved to Lookout as a pre-teen, Pollock did not have an appreciation for all the mountain had to offer until a decade later, when he discovered mountain biking and began penning an outdoor column for a local paper.
Pollock’s memories from those early days include some of the most well-known haunts on Lookout: learning to climb at Sunset Rock, teaching tykes to rappel at Eagles Nest, catching trout on Rock Creek, and getting kidnapped in high school by a couple of knife-wielding bikers who threatened to toss him off Insurance Bluff.
“They drew some knives on us and forced my friend to drive. I was put in the back with another guy who was keeping watch over me,” he said. “As we started to drive back toward Chattanooga, they made us get out of the truck at Insurance Bluff and essentially wrap our toes around the edge. He said, ‘You know I could push you [preppies] off the edge right now and nobody would know about you until your bodies began to stink.’ I was kind of scared and I whispered to the guy, ‘Don’t do this man, don’t do this,’ and I was really pondering my next move. But fortunately he laughed and he pulled us back and told us to get back in the truck. Eventually, I was made to jump off the tailgate of the truck moving at about 30 miles per hour going down Lookout Mountain and rolled a couple times in the road.”
Luckily, Pollock survived that incident and went on to create a consulting firm based out of Chattanooga concentrating on corporate team building through outdoor adventures like ropes courses and backcountry excursions. He also dove into the immerging conservation effort, becoming project manager for the development of Five Points Recreation Area, one of the best singletrack trail systems on the mountain.
“I have a lot of personal equity in this area called Five Points,” he said. “This is really where I cut my teeth mountain biking, as did many of my contemporaries. We loved this area deeply and rode till it was closed around 1997.”
The Lula Lake Land Trust bought much of the area and deeded it to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, where the master plan got stalled due to a lack of funds. Pollock got involved as project manager and pulled together people and money to build the trail network.
Beginning with the development of the Tennessee Aquarium in 1992, and culminating in a $120 million downtown waterfront rehabilitation project finished in 2005, Chattanooga is leading the way into the 21st century.
“It’s a massive transformation since the development of the aquarium,” Pollock said. “The aquarium just ushered in a whole new era of livability, sustainability, and attractiveness to this entire area with a focus on water and a lot greater focus on the conservation and preservation of land.”
Perhaps no other area of the country needed this rehab more. The federal government declared that Chattanooga had the country’s dirtiest air in 1969, a result of decades of unregulated coal mining and buildup of pollutants in the Tennessee River. Now, Pollock sees people from all over the South moving to Chattanooga solely for the recreation opportunities that exist here.
“I chose to live in a place where I practically don’t need to get in a car ever to go out and climb, road bike, mountain bike, swim in a lake, trail run,” he said. “I can do all my favorite activities out my back door. I’m getting to realize my outdoor dream right here.”
Mike Pollock has been exploring Lookout Mountain since he was 12 years old. Here are his picks for getting down and dirty on Lookout.
The hike from Point Park at the tip of the mountain to Sunset Rock is a classic, beautiful trek with outstanding views.
Bear Creek and Rock Creek can’t be beat. There are a number of waterfalls on both sides that boaters love playing in.
Five Points is the highlight of Lookout Mountain.
Route 157 on Lookout Mountain goes all the way to Mentone, Ala. and you can connect another 50 miles to Gadsden. That’s 200 miles of road biking opportunities with nary a stop sign or traffic light.
Hang-gliding is very popular in Chattanooga. Lookout Mountain Flight Park takes people on tandem rides as well as teaching lessons.
“Trail running is massive up here,” says Pollock. “Just on Lookout Mountain alone you could run 100 miles in a day on trails you could connect. There are a couple different Wild Trails races every year.”