Chilhowee Recreation Area - Mountain Biking

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Chilhowee is one of the few places to ride mountain bikes on singletrack in the Cherokee National Forest , and that riding is challenging and excellent. Earn your turns from the Clemmer Trailhead and reap the reward on the way back down!

Written by

Jeff Bartlett


20.0 miles

While there are many, many options for riding at Chilhowee, the described loop is approximately 20 miles.

Destination Distance From Downtown

38.0 miles


4 of 5 diamonds

The trail surface isn't typically very technical, but some sections—especially the uppermost portion of the Clear Creek descent—will require some walking for most riders. The trails are also older, hand-built singletrack, which is typically more challenging terrain for those used to modern machine-cut flow trail. Starting from the Clemmer Trailhead, as described, also means beginning one's ride with a 2.5-4.3 mile climb (depending on route).

Time To Complete

3 hours

Plan on 2-3 hours to do the suggested 20-mile loop


All Seasons

Chilhowee's trails are old and well-bedded, meaning this can be a good choice when some of the trails closer to Chattanooga are too saturated.

Dog Friendly




The trails at the Chilhowee Recreation Area have been around for a long time. They existed long before anyone started riding mountain bikes in the woods in this part of the world, and when mountain biking caught on the Forest Service was quick to designate them as open to bikes.

It’s mostly old, twisty, hand-built singletrack connected by short stretches of abandoned logging road. Start at the Clemmer Trailhead, next to Parksville Lake, and you’ll start your ride with a long climb but reap the downhill rewards on your way back to the car.

For many years, this was one of the only places to ride MTB near Chattanooga, and despite the singletrack renaissance which has brought many miles of modern purpose-built trail to the region it’s still a great place to go ride.

What Makes It Great

The Cherokee National Forest isn’t known for mountain biking; between the various wilderness areas, the Appalachian Trail, the Benton MacKaye Trail and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, few of the thousands of miles of trails in this part of Tennessee actually allow mountain bikes. Yet Chilhowee is a hidden gem, as worthy of a visit as the well-known neighboring Tanasi / Brush Creek trails at the Ocoee Whitewater Center.

We recommend parking at the Clemmer Trailhead, at the foot of the mountain, then beginning your ride by climbing all the way up the Clemmer Trail to the first signed junction. Here, take a left to continue onto the Slickrock Laurel Loop and climb until it merges with an old forest road; stay to the right here, then take a sharp left at the sign onto the Slickrock Hancock Loop.

The trail turns to singletrack here, with some steep sections, and you’ll reach the high point of your climb at about the 4 mile mark. Continue on a fun, rocky downhill until you reach a grassy road, then take a right and follow the road to a clearing.

Once at Benton Falls, you have a couple of options. First, we highly recommend walking your bike down to the falls themselves if you’ve never been. Those who prefer a shorter ride can cruise back to Clemmer and blast downhill from there, returning to the vehicle the way you came. If you still have some leg remaining, take a left and ride out to the campground, then cross the parking lot and hop onto Azalea at the sign. Ride Azalea to its conclusion and follow the Clear Creek Trail from there until you reach the T-junction.

One more decision to make. Do you want to ride down the gorge and back up the other side on Rim Rock, then finish with Clemmer, or do you want to drop off the eastern brow of the mountain on the Clear Creek Trail? If the former, take a right and get to it. Rim Rock heads straight back to the Benton Falls Trail, with a picturesque creek crossing at the bottom. A left brings you back to Clemmer; add in the Rim Rock Spur loop (on your left) if you want one more quick hit of narrow singletrack.

If you prefer the Clear Creek route: Clear Creek involves a steep climb, a few fun rock gardens, some seriously gnarly and technical terrain that will have most riders walking a short stretch or two, then some fast-and-loose descending with a couple of wide creek crossings at the bottom. It’s wonderful, but it’s for advanced riders only. Proceed with caution!

From this clearing, there are three ways to go: far left is the upper part of the Naked Widow loop, middle is the lower part of Naked Widow, and the far right-hand option is the conclusion of the Hancock Loop. All three are fun, and the middle option is the rockiest and most technical. Both sides of Naked Widow intersect with Benton Falls; Hancock returns to a forest road, and you’ll need to go left and ride downhill a bit longer before reaching the Benton Falls Trail. At the end of the trail, you’ll intersect highway 30. Take a right, follow the pavement past the Parksville Lake Campground, and you’ll find yourself right back at the parking lot.

Who is Going to Love It

Chilhowee is a bit of a time capsule. It harkens back to a time when trails were hand-built and mountain bikes had 26” wheels. Beginners with the right attitude will have fun here, but expect soaring heart rates and the occasional short hike-a-bike. There is a sort of “Western North Carolina” feel to these trails, from the thick bands of rhododendron and mountain laurel to the Pisgah-esque feel here and there.

Who will like it? Anyone who likes riding on raw, old-school trail without buffed grade reversals and bermed turns. A mile away from either trailhead, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only person in the forest, an experience which is difficult to replicate at any of the trail systems in town.

Endurance riders will find no shortage of gravel forest roads to link with the trail system here, most notably the long slog from the campground north to Oswald Dome where encountering traffic is relatively rare. 

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

From Chattanooga, take I-75 north to exit 20 and take a right onto highway 64. Stay on 64, following signs for the Ocoee River. After passing Rock/Creek on your right and entering the forest, you’ll skirt the edge of Parksville Lake / Lake Ocoee.

Do NOT follow signs for the “Chilhowee Recreation Area” unless you intend to drive 7 miles up to the top of the mountain and start from the campground. Instead, to reach the Clemmer Trailhead (as described above), drive a little further. You’ll take a left onto highway 30 toward the Parksville Lake Campground, and the gravel trailhead parking lot will appear immediately on your left.

Please be respectful of hikers, the vast majority of whom will be accessing Benton Falls from the campground atop the mountain or will be parking at Clemmer in order to hike the Scenic Spur Trail to hike to Rainbow Falls (Rattlesnake Falls). Also, please DO NOT MODIFY any trail features. One of the best rock gardens at Chilhowee was recently chopped and dismantled by a visiting mountain biker, gone forever. These are not beginner-level flow trails; if that’s what you’re looking for, Chilhowee is probably not for you.

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