The road doesn't always have to point West to find awe-inspiring outdoor destinations. Cradled in the foothills of southern Tennessee, northwest Georgia, and northeast Alabama, there's one particular road that serves as the ultimate Southeastern adventure corridor: Interstate 59. Beginning in New Orleans and stretching to Wildwood, Georgia, I-59 is 445-miles in total. But it's the 147-mile stretch between Chattanooga and Birmingham that we'd like to talk about.
This stretch is simply loaded with world-class outdoor offerings—with all sorts of waterfalls, boulder fields, and singletrack trails spurring and spiderwebbing their way off of the main road up into the surrounding mountains and hills. While you could spend years exploring just Chattanooga's outdoor experiences, or just Birmingham's, it's the ride between the two that's perhaps just as impressive.
With the famous ridgeline of Lookout Mountain acting as a guiding compass along the way, here's how to make the most of your next mini-road trip from The Scenic City to The Magic City.
1. Sunset Rock
If any crag can be considered the "Crown Jewel" of southern sandstone climbing, Sunset Rock surely must be it. Sunset offers exquisite rock, a friendly approach, and lots of high quality routes. Plus the views from the connecting Bluff Trail and from the top of the rock itself are spectacular and arguably the best in the Scenic City.
2. Lookout Creek
There are many quality flat-water paddling opportunities around Chattanooga, but few can match Lookout Creek for ease of access, scenery, and wildlife—all less than five minutes from I-59, where thousands rush past, never knowing what they've just missed. Plus you have the surrounding grounds of Reflection Riding to enjoy a post-paddle hike or picnic.
3. Cloudland Canyon
Cloudland Canyon is one of the most beautiful river gulches in the Appalachian range, offering stunning views, rugged hiking, and excellent camping opportunities. Located only a short 45 minute drive outside of Chattanooga, this is one of the finest state parks in Georgia. For a great day trip, hike the West Rim Trail (for near constant panoramas) or the Waterfall Trail (for two of the most breathtaking falls in the area), or stay for a night and enjoy a night of camping.
4. DeSoto Falls
On the Alabama brow of Lookout Mountain, DeSoto Falls is a place that was seemingly destined to be photographed. The 104-foot waterfall carves out a pathway through the sandstone bowl surrounding it and then smacks the pool below with loud, erratic claps reminiscent of a giant natural shower. To get to the bottom of the falls requires some rugged scrambling down a steep trail, but reaching the beach below is a great reward, as you can skip rocks, snap photos, and even take a dip.
5. DeSoto State Park
Home to 3,502-acres of hardwood forests, glittering waterfalls, and mountain streams, DeSoto State Park is arguably one of Alabama's most gorgeous state parks. And with over 25 miles of hiking trails, including 11+ miles of mountain bike trails ranging in difficulty, as well as 21 primitive campsites, there's no shortage of adventurous things to do.
6. Little River Canyon
Little River Canyon is easily one of the most beautiful outdoor destinations in the Southeast. As one of the deepest canyons in the region, the landscape here lends itself to an incredible array of hiking trails, whitewater rapids, and climbing routes. And it's also home to one of the best swimming holes in the country.
7. Horse Pens 40
Northwest of Birmingham atop Chandler Mountain, Alabama’s third tallest peak, sits the crown jewel of Southeastern bouldering. Horse Pens 40 is in a league of its own. You won't believe some of the sandstone routes you'll find here, and you may need to dedicate (at least) a few days to experience this place.
8. Hospital Boulders
Tucked away on a neighborhood hillside in northeastern Alabama, the Hospital Boulders are an hour and a half from Chattanooga and just an hour from Birmingham. Added to the Southeastern Climbers' Coalition's docket of protected climbing areas in the Southeast in 2012, this boulder field is the relative 'new kid on the climbing block.' As such, it guarantees climbers a full day of thrashing on textured sandstone yet to be polished down by hordes of weekend warriors.
9. Noccalula Falls
Expect crowds, cameras, and maybe even some crying toddlers—this place is extremely popular. But it's popular for a reason. Noccalula Falls Park is a 250-acre public park located in Gadsden, Alabama that offers up some intriguing historical sites and some pleasant hiking trails. The obvious centerpiece of the park is the 90-foot Noccalula Falls, which is impressive to say the very least.
10. Cherokee Rock Village (Sand Rock)
With a few hundred routes ascending the freestanding sandstone pinnacles, Cherokee Rock Village's Sand Rock is well-worth a weekend trip for sport climbers of all skill levels. For years this place had been trashed, but with the support of the local community of Cherokee County and the Southeastern Climbers Coalition, Cherokee Rock Village is beginning to reach it's full potential of natural and recreational beauty.
11. Oak Mountain State Park
Located 20 miles south of Birmingham, and standing tall and stout at 9,940 acres, Oak Mountain is the largest state park in Alabama. It sits atop the twin ridges of Double Oak Mountain and features an incredible assemblage of outdoor activities.
Looking to make the drive between Birmingham and Chattanooga soon? Be sure to check out our city guides for both Chattanooga and Birmingham to make the most of your stay in and between these two outdoor towns.
And next time you're out and about in the wild, be sure to tag us on your adventures at #RootsRated, and remember to always Leave No Trace, and pack it in and pack it out.
Originally written for BCBS of AL.