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The Lure of Tennessee's Grand Canyon

Ms. Carroll is retired paralegal who enjoys writing for HubPages in her spare time. She was a Wilderness First Responder for 10+ years.

After a day of arduous climbing on the Tennessee Wall, I found myself in a pup tent on the banks of the River Gorge. I quickly learned why it is called Tennessee's Grand Canyon! It is not a rift between mountain peaks but a deep cleft between cliffs resulting from erosion over millions of years in the Cumberland Plateau. I could see parts of it from the climbing wall and was drawn to it for a cool dip at sunset. I didn't know then what I now know about the Gorge and after a bit of research, I felt compelled to share what I had learned.

The Gorge is a source of many interesting facts and amazing scenery. If you find yourself on Interstate-24 (I-24) in Chattanooga, Tennessee you will be remarkably close to a winding and lazy drive along Tennessee's Grand Canyon.

As the Tennessee River cuts through the Cumberland Plateau, it serves to divide Signal Mountain (northwest of Chattanooga) from Raccoon Mountain (to the west). Signal Point overlooks the Tennessee River between the two mountains.

Tennessee River Gorge at Chattanooga

Tennessee River Gorge at Chattanooga

Scenic And Archeological Facts About the Gorge

  • The Gorge can be seen from Signal Mountain as well as the Tennessee Wall, a popular site for rock climbers. Otherwise, the Gorge is noticeable from the road that runs alongside it. It is best enjoyed by boat.
  • The area is puzzling to geologists since the Gorge makes sudden and forceful turns through hard sandstone and limestone. The leading theory is that the Appalachian Mountains were uplifted when continents millions of years ago, forcing the rock strata into a series of peaks and valleys.
  • The Gorge itself is 8 miles long although the river itself twists and turns for 26 to 27 miles. There are boat services which offer tours through the Gorge.
  • Hales Bar Road, just off of I-24, offers great views of the Gorge and ends up at the Hales Bar Marina. Better still, Mullins Cove Road wraps around the Gorge giving you views from both sides.
  • A Gorge Trust was formed over 40 years ago to help protect and conserve this area and the many endangered and protected species that depend on it for survival.
  • Archaeologists discovered potential cave dwellers in the Gorge based on drawings found on cave walls along the Gorge. Evidence of humans in the Gorge date back to 10,000 years ago.

Conservation Facts

  • The Tennessee River Gorge Trust was formed in 1981 to help conserve the Gorge area. It stewards environmental and wildlife protection for thousands of acres while also envisioning access to outdoor recreation.
  • The Gorge itself consists of 27,000 acres and is considered the 4th largest river canyon east of the Mississippi River. The Gorge begins a few short miles from downtown Chattanooga (across from Williams Island). Thousands of people travel I-24 without even knowing the Gorge is just a few short turns from their busy asphalt life.
  • The Gorge continues for about 27 miles (river miles) to the Hales Bar Dam Marina which is near Nickajack Lake.
  • Among the threatened and endangered species the Tennessee River Gorge Trust was formed to help protect are several types of mussels, 2-3 types of darters, three types of bats (two endangered), a single species of fern, a type of wild orchid, and more.
  • Stringer's Ridge on Chattanooga's North Shore was threatened by development in 2007-08. Chattanooga public outcry stopped the development and a Trust for Public Land was formed to protect and purchase 37 acres on Stringer's Ridge. The owner, Jimmy Hudson, donated an additional 55 acres to the conservation effort. In 2009, the Tennessee River Gorge Trust became a sister organization to help protect and conserve this area. Stringer’s Ridge boasts a downtown vantage point of the entrance to the River Gorge. Today, the City of Chattanooga holds fee simple rights to 92 acres of Stringer's Ridge while the Tennessee River Gorge Trust maintains the conservation easement.
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Mountain Skullcap

Mountain Skullcap

Fun Facts & Warnings

  • The Tennessee River Gorge Trust offers hiking spotted with waterfalls and spiked with historical moonshine stills. The Ritchie Hollow Trail is a moderately strenuous trail with 1,200 feet of elevation gain. It is a 5.4 mile out and back hike (2.7 miles one way) where you will discover Blowing Wind Falls, a 30-foot fall about 3/4ths of the way out, and inoperable moonshine stills.
  • The Richie Hollow Trail is one of only a few trails that connect the Tennessee River with the Cumberland Trail system at the top of the mountain (at the Pot Point Loop Trail).
  • Pot Point Loop Trail is about 12 miles up the side of Signal Mountain and back down along the River. The Trail includes a boulder field and a wildflower meadow. There are steep, difficult sections, but there are also sections that provide ample opportunities for relief. Pot Point Cabin is along the Trail. Roots Rated refers to the Loop as the "Holy Grail of trail running in Chattanooga."
  • There are some extremely dangerous spots along the Gorge. There is a rapid known as "the Suck" and another spot called "the Pot" which is dangerous when the water levels are high, boasting a current as fast as 13 mph.
  • The Tennessee Wall is a local haunt for rock climbers and touts over 600 routes of crack climbing, aretes, dihedrals, and overhangs. T-Wall is about two miles long and a fairly aerobic 30 minute hike from an unmarked parking lot. It contains a few sports routes (bolted) but consists of mainly trad climbing routes. Top roping is difficult in this area. The Prentice Cooper State Forest owns and manages this area which also includes miles of trails.


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