In this corner of the country
, the timezone "situation" can be a bit confusing. The city of Chattanooga, located in the southeastern corner of Tennessee, is on the western edge of the Eastern Standard Time Zone. Half an hour to the west you find yourself an hour behind in the Central Time Zone. Times zones and state boundaries aren't often just plain old straight lines, so every now and then things can get a little funky when you're trying to schedule things... in life. I suppose the most important thing to note about this situation is that Chattanoogans get to enjoy sunsets late into the day comparatively speaking. That means they can ride in the light later in the day than most of us, which is just one of many reasons why this town has become one of the country's most sought-after adventure destinations.
The fourth largest city in the Volunteer State has become an outdoor darling in recent years, due in large part to it's prevailing rock climbing and paddling culture. With three prominent mountains (Signal, Raccoon, and Lookout) flanking the city from the northeast to the southeast, the Appalachian Mountains draped along the western border, and liquid assets that include the venerable Tennessee River flowing through town, and the whitewater staple known as the Ocoee to the east; it's easy to see just why a predominant outdoor publication such as Outside Magazine bestows a stream of prestige including it's annual "Best Town" award twice, the only place to ever win the contest multiple times.
Sun down in a city full of adventure is a special thing.
15 minutes from the Chattanooga Choo-Choo can feel like a world away.
Last fall I spent a week in Knoxville, which is about an hour and a half to the northeast of Chattanooga, and was blown away by the beauty and trails in eastern Tennessee. It was my first trip to the state and would prove to be eye-opening. While there, Chattanooga came up on a handful of occasions; with the two cities being so close both in term of geographical proximity and the many personal mountain bike friendships, those kinds of discussions made perfect sense. I was frequently asked whether or not I have had a chance to check out Raccoon Mountain, or the Trials Training Center just west of town. It didn't stop after leaving Knoxville either. When the story went live on this very newsfeed last October, Chattanoogans began to voice their own desire to share their goods with the rest of the world. The banter had been persistent, so I was ready to see for myself what the noise was all about.
The city presents a few interesting visual elements upon arrival. There's a really lovely amalgamation at work here; the aesthetic value of the mighty Tennessee River slicing through an ancient Appalachian landscape, coupled with the industrial and postmodern vibes that seem to showcase the varied identities of the "Gig City"
. Driving through town to my digs for the week, one thing was very apparent: this place really does hang its proverbial hat on its outdoor offerings. Every other car had a roof rack with some mode of adventure transport on top of it, I counted four bike shops within three-quarters of a mile from my lodging, the city's largest climbing gym has an exterior wall that scales the building for all of downtown to see, and even the fountains located throughout the plaza of the Tennessee Aquarium, normally the kind I would expect to have signs warning of some inherent risk that comes with decorative water displays, seemed to encourage kids of all ages to hop in for a splash. Believe me, I am not above such behavior.
Before unpacking anything, I decided to head to one of the city's most distinguished bike shops, Suck Creek Cycle, to meet up with Eric Pullen for an introductory tour of Raccoon Mountain. From the shop, I followed Eric by car for a 15-minute drive up to the top of Raccoon, which presented us with some arresting views of the city nearly 2,000ft. below us. Even though we were still a couple of days away from daylight savings and the extra hour of daylight that comes with it, we were so far west of where I call home that, despite still being in the same time zone, the sunset was already an hour later than what I was used to this time of year. This kind of delayed golden hour comes in handy when you're desperate for some time on the trails to shake the drive out of your legs.
The Raccoon introduction involved some sinewy flow, breathtaking overlooks, fast and chunky rock gardens, and a fun combination of purpose built and rustic trail design. Midway through the ride, we met up with Eric's wife Emily, their two sons, and a handful of other kids and adults before checking out the bike playground better known as "Upper Chunky", and heading down the mountain on our final trail of the day called "Live Wire". It was a perfect way to say hello to the city, its trails, and some of its riders, particularly the handful of kids who jumped in late. Seeing them share their excitement with their parents and among friends was great, and their encouragement of each other was refreshing, to say the least.
"I was kind of a problem child." Eric tells me later. "When I found cycling, it taught me self-discipline. I could have easily just stayed the course and stayed in trouble, but cycling helped me there. It helped me as an individual. I want to share that with kids. It’s a lifelong sport, and it’s a sport that they can share with their parents. A lot of the ball sports have parents just sitting on the sidelines watching their kids from a distance. With mountain biking, you can share the trails with your kids."
Eric is the owner of Cohutta Aventures
, are a mountain bike skills and instruction company. He spent some time as a stay at home father for a few years with his boys, and prior to that worked in the medical device industry. He would eventually find himself looking for something to occupy his time, but couldn’t fathom a return to the cubicle life.
"We were taking the kids to mountain bike races and I just saw that it could be done a bit better to draw more kids into the sport. I began to chat with bike shop owners here in town, and we developed a plan to start a youth series called T.Y.M.B.R., or Tennessee Youth Mountain Bike Races. We basically took the category model for most youth races and turned it upside down. We have applied all of the categories you find in adult mountain bike races and brought it to youth racing. Now they have a smaller group of competitors who are at the same maturity and skill level, for the most part, to race against. It ends up being a lot more fun for them."
Eric's work is largely responsible for the explosion of youth involvement in mountain biking for the region. This in turn not only ensures a growing community of young and passionate riders moving forward but also helps to involve the parents of these up and coming riders as well. In a city where climbing and kayaking occupy the top steps of the outdoor recreation world, this is the kind of thing that helps to lay the foundation for the growth of our sport and community in Chattanooga for years to come.
"We had 20 kids show up to our first race, and in a little over five years we’re now seeing over 100 kids regularly. We’re partnering up with Fall Fest in Knoxville now, and the Parks and Recreation department here in Chattanooga. We put on a lot of events on their property. We’ve been putting on a lot of camps as well, and helping the kids learn to ride with more confidence. We were initially going to teach kids how to ride properly, and give them a venue to go and use their skills and abilities to ride a bike on a regular basis, hence the racing league. Three days a year we would provide a free clinic for the county to help teach kids to ride without training wheels. I do some other things like helping out Lynskey, or at Suck Creek Cycles. Last year we were able to put four kids on Lynskey titanium frames due to their generosity and donating to category winners. I’d eventually like to see 200 kids out at our races. I think it can happen."
Chattanooga is home to Lynskey Bikes, America's premier titanium bicycle manufacturer and one of the city's proudest benefactors.
The future indeed is looking bright for mountain biking in and around the city, and it stems from a history of impassioned riders and players from various backgrounds all working towards a common goal of an anti-sedentary, pro adventure community. Eric mentioned Lynskey Bikes, the titanium, hand built operation that has been around for decades not only providing jobs for hundreds of individuals (including Eric himself) but donating money and products to the growth of mountain biking in Chattanooga.
There are also people such as Jasmine Rippon and Rick Wood who both represent the Trust for Public Land, a national non-profit devoted to conserving public land for people, whether it's a national park, your neighborhood playground, or in the case of Chattanooga, singletrack to ride on. In fact, the TPL is hard at work developing plans for a bike skills park in town that would utilize space underneath of an interstate overpass, a la Seattle's I-5 Colonnade.
People like Mike Pollock, the executive director of Lula Lake Land Trust, is in charge of an organization tasked with protecting the Rock Creek Watershed just to the south of downtown. While the objectives of this trust are primarily focused on protecting the "scenic beauty and abundant resources of the Rock Creek watershed for the benefit of present and future generations", Mike himself is a rider and is largely responsible for the miles and miles of singletrack available on these lands.
"We have a bit of a quid pro quo relationship with TVA." Kevin Smith remarks. "They’re in the energy business, so for them to be able to provide these outdoor experiences on their land is a win for them, and obviously a win for us. They are a vested partner with us. They truly shoulder a lot of the costs and expenses with us. We can just pick up the phone and call them as well. They see us as equals, which we all really appreciate."
Kevin, the president of SORBA Chattanooga, is expanding on the various relationships the local mountain bike community has with regional land managers and protection agencies, and the Tennessee Valley Authority is perhaps the most important as SORBA Chattanooga have an agreement with the TVA; federal agencies don't typically utilize mountain bike advocacy groups on federal
property, but this relationship has proven so strong that the partnership between SORBA and TVA actually won an award from American Trails just a few years back.
Kevin works in commercial finance by trade and is a few months into his first year as president of SORBA Chattanooga. Having been on the board for three years, he has a good idea of the steps needed to continue to move the mountain biking forward for the area. Kevin and his family moved to Chattanooga from Knoxville just over three years ago, and he didn't waste any time getting his feet wet.
"When I got here, I wanted to get involved right away. I met a few folks at races, and because of my background in finance, they invited me to help out. I stepped into the V.P. role. I sat back during that first year and watched. I filled in the gaps whenever needed. We experienced a lot of headwind in my second year on the board, and I began to anticipate that I was going to need to step into a bigger role in the near future. That’s where I am today."
The strong relationship between the TVA and local mountain bike community manifests itself in many ways, including the very names of the trails found at Raccoon, such as Live Wire (pictured), Mega Watt, and High Voltage.
"I would say that our chapter, SORBA Chattanooga, is in a mature state." Kevin is describing some of the challenges ahead for the region. "We’ve been around since 2004, so the golden years are behind us. That’s back when Barry (Smith) was involved and we were building singletrack like crazy. Now we’re in charge of nine trail systems, and we have a membership base close to 300. Now what? That’s what we have to ask ourselves. Being in a mature state is okay, but the next part you need to avoid is decline. It’s easy to slip into a false sense of security and go the opposite direction. We have a lot more than 300 riders in this community, so we need to get those people around the periphery involved and bring them into the fold so that maybe two years from now I’m ready to step down and there are 10 people that want my job."
Breakfast with two of Chattanooga's finest, Barry Smith and Kevin Smith. No, they're not related.
The aforementioned Barry Smith is the owner of Barry Smith Trails
, a trail building outfit born from his own contracting business right around the time of the recession nearly ten years ago. Barry is now one of the southeast's most highly regarded trail builders and is a member of the Professional Trail Builders Association. Barry is personally behind Raccoon's best trails and is currently seated next to Kevin at one of the city's many amazing breakfast (see: biscuit) spots while we discuss the riding scene here, and as the discussion turned towards the potential and future for Chattanooga mountain biking, his eyes light up.
"Raccoon is a tough piece of land to build on," he says between sips of coffee. "There is a lot of rock out there for sure. At the time the club had zero dollars, so volunteers powered that trail (Live Wire). I knew that once we had it wrapped up, it would be a catalyst for a lot more in the area. It really set a lot of things in motion, and it allowed us to get a lot more serious about expanding the trails here."
What you have in and just outside of town is a crazy amount of trails. Good, fun, well-marked trails that offer up almost everything you could want as a rider. Almost. If you're licking your gravity chops and are looking for something to bring the big bike for, you're going to need to drive about 30 miles west of town (and into the Central Timezone) to Sequatchie, home to the Tennessee Trials Training Center. A half hour drive is certainly no hardship, and it stands to reason that such a close proximity should absolutely be considered a notch on the city's belt. In fact, I would say that other than it's neighbor to the north, Windrock Bike Park, and the legend that is Plattekill Bike Park in the Catskill Mountains of New York, that the TTC offers up the rowdiest and most technical bit of downhill you'll find anywhere east of the Mississippi. But that doesn't mean Barry and others don't see a need for more gravity offerings in and around the city itself. These guys aren't about to rest on their laurels anytime soon.
"I definitely see a need for more gravity trails here," Barry says. "I also want to see the River Gorge Trail
go in. It would be a point-to-point trail that stretches 40–50 miles through the Tennessee River Gorge. I’d like to see it get done in my lifetime, and it will. All of the land managers are on board with it, but it’s just such a big project that I believe people are a little bit overwhelmed by the idea. But I keep it on their mind all of the time. People are already coming here to ride from all over, but if we can add a proper gravity trail and a big point-to-point trail, it would just take us to the next level."
I want you to forget about bikes for just a moment. Sure, that's an odd request given that you're reading this on the planet's largest mountain bike website, but there's a point to be made. With a general population that has seen growth over the past two decades, it doesn't seem as if the outdoor adventure superlatives are slowing down. In fact, Chattanooga is one of the very few east coast towns that I have seen buck the trend that often sees folks leaving areas east of the Appalachians for destinations west of the Rockies. Here, you have a large contingent of people who at one point or another stumbled across this place during their travels and decided to lay down some roots in the southeastern corner of the Volunteer State. But Chattanooga really has a lot going for it outside of being… outside. The city is large enough to possess several key cultural resources such as top-notch dining options, an art district, and more, but is small enough and has the infrastructure in place that allows for an easy understanding of its layout, with many sections within an easy walking distance of one another, all the more so considering the world's largest pedestrian bridge calls this city home.
By the time I had gotten to town, I was three-quarters of the way through a month-long trip throughout the southeast that would see me drive close to 2,000 miles by journey's end, and take on four different media projects throughout. It was an awesome adventure to be sure, but one that certainly wore me out. I was initially concerned about my energy level for this story, but the truth is that there's something about this city that I found to be energizing. It wasn't just the fun trails and riding; you can find that all over the world. I think it had more to do with the ease with which I was able to settle in here. I don't know of many places that can execute the "small town vibes mixed with big city living" concept as well as this place does. It almost feels like everyone is on a holiday here, even the folks who call it home.
"You can share so many awesome life experiences with others in a place like this," Eric Pullen tells me over lunch. I had asked him why there seemed to be so many folks who moved here from other illustrious adventure locales, and after a pause, he explained it rather succinctly. "Whether it’s on the bike, or on the river, or rock climbing; so many people here share a similar mindset. It’s just a really fun place to be. It’s kind of like being on vacation every day of the week. That’s what brings and keeps so many of us here."
Chattanooga mountain biking trails
It's only a matter of time, and not much of it, before mountain biking supersedes its outdoor brethren in this year-round adventure paradise
EB&D Travel Information:
For the most comprehensive travel information on Chattanooga, including where to sleep, eat, drink, and be merry, be sure to check out Chattanooga Fun.
For trail maps, updates, and more information on how you can help contribute check out SORBA Chattanooga.
I stayed at the Crash Pad. They're adventure-oriented, clean, have super fast internet, and a bike wash. What's not to love?