A Quick and Dirty Guide to the Best Chattanooga Trail Running

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Increasingly, Chattanooga is staking its claim as one of the country’s premier trail running meccas. Thanks to the incredible commitment of non-profit and volunteer-driven organizations like Wild Trails, The Friends of the Cumberland Trail, Lookout Mountain Conservancy, and the Land Trust for Tennessee (just to name a few), Chattanoogans have access to over 50 trailheads within 30 minutes of downtown.

The trail running community is burgeoning, and hundreds of people gather together on a weekly basis for group trail runs. The Rock/Creek Race Series is arguably one of the premier race series in the world, with marquee events like StumpJump, Upchuck, and the River Gorge garnering national acclaim year in and year out. And for entry-level outdoor enthusiasts, trail running is, as Rock/Creek Marketing Director Mark McKnight describes, the gateway drug, acting as the sport that connects beginning enthusiasts to Chattanooga’s broad ecosystem of outdoor pursuits, which just so happen to include world class climbing and whitewater paddling as well.

Lookout Mountain

Mark McKnight

One of the iconic landmarks in Chattanooga is Lookout Mountain, the famous plateau that comes to a point overlooking the city. The mountain was the site of key Civil War battles in the late fall of 1863, and as a part of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, much of the mountain’s western flank has been protected and preserved for recreational use. Just minutes from downtown, trail runners can access an extensive network of trails that wind their way up and down the mountain.

For trail runners, perhaps the best place to start on Lookout is from the historic Cravens House, situated half-way up the mountain. It provides beautiful views of Chattanooga and a convenient gateway to Lookout’s trail network.

The Bluff Trail is the mountain’s gem, and with easy access from the Cravens House, as well as several other access points, outdoor enthusiasts flock here for superb hiking and trail running, as well as some of the best sport and trad climbing in the Southeast at Sunset Rock. From 2,000 feet above the valley, runners enjoy panoramic views of the rolling hills and ridges of the southern Appalachian chain. Toward the mountain’s point, near Sunset Rock and Point Park, the trail packs majestic views of the Tennessee River snaking its way through downtown Chattanooga. The Bluff Trail is part of a network of trails, which include the Cravens Trail, Skyuka Springs Trail, the Nature Center, Guild Hardy Trail, Rifle Pits, John Smartt, Kiddie Trail, and Gum Springs. Runners can experiment with many loops of differing lengths.

The best 10-mile loop option on the mountain is the Big Daddy Loop. Comprised of 7 of the mountain’s trails, it provides a comprehensive experience on the mountain and challenging uphill running.

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For a shorter 4-5-mile run that’s perfect before or after work, or during the lunch hour, we recommend this loop starting from the historic Cravens House . What you’ll brag about? The grueling Gum Springs Trail—the bane of the trail runner. This steep trail is technical and well-maintained, but it packs a mean punch. With the exception of a 100-yard section half-way up, the 0.6 miles to Bluff Trail are straight up, and believe us, you’ll be panting heavily by the time you reach the top. If you want to reach the summit once you hit the Bluff Trail, punch all the way to the top of Sunset Rock.

If you’re not in the mood to ascend the mountain, we recommend starting at the Nature Center and running the gravel paths that wind their way through this arboretum and sanctuary. You’re likely to see turkey, deer, and hawks, as well as old Civil War trenches. If you want to log some additional miles, make it an out and back and run all the way to Skyuka Springs, which can be accessed at the back of the Nature Center Property (signs abound), or by climbing the Kiddie Trail from the nature center’s parking lot.

In December, the Rock/Creek Race Series hosts the Lookout Mountain 50-miler. It’s a beast of a race and provides ultra-runners with the best of Bluff Trail, the Nature Center, and Skyuka, but also the breathtaking Lula Lake and the trails that extend into north Georgia from Covenant College.

Mark McKnight

Raccoon Mountain

For a terrific 13-mile loop with views of Chattanooga that rival those from Lookout, runners will enjoy the trails at Raccoon Mountain . Make sure to share the trails with mountain bikers, though. Like Lookout, the trail system here provides for a number of loop options, and the east overlook is just 15 minutes from downtown.

Stringers Ridge

Urban nature can’t get any more accessible than Stringers Ridge . No more than 5 minutes from Chattanooga’s downtown business district, and maybe 2 minutes from the bustling North Shore district, Stringers is a great place to trail run. The ascents are punchy, and the descents are fast and fun. If you like roller coaster running, this is the place to go. Watch for mountain bikers and be sure to read the signs to determine which direction they'll be traveling on the trail.

Signal Mountain and the Cumberland Trail

Runners at the Rock/Creek River Gorge Trail Race
Runners at the Rock/Creek River Gorge Trail Race Rock/Creek

Like Lookout, Signal Mountain, which makes up the southern terminus of the Cumberland Plateau, is a mecca in and of itself. Creek gulches, staggering cliff bands, waterfalls, and astounding views of the Tennessee River Gorge, which is known locally as the “Grand Canyon of the Tennessee,” make Chattanooga’s ‘other’ mountain a trail runner’s paradise. It’s not surprising that three of the premier races in the Rock/Creek race series take place here: the famous StumpJump , the brutal UpChuck , and the staggeringly beautiful River Gorge Race , which Trail Runner Magazine recently identified as one of the top 21 races in the country .

The 6-mile roundtrip out-and-back route from Suck Creek Road to Mushroom Rock, requires quite a bit of climbing, but the rewards of bombing down gorges and crossing swinging bridges make it all worth it. Signal Point to Mushroom Rockis a 12 mile out-and-back that provides magnificent views of the Tennessee River Gorge along the Cumberland Trail. Mabbits Spring is an off-the-beaten path Chattanooga favorite that leads runners to the largest waterfall in the area. And, last but certainly not least, the 12-mile Pot Point Loop is considered by some to be the Holy Grail of Chattanooga trail running. This loop offers grand views of the Tennessee River Gorge and takes runners over a large natural bridge. The majority of trail is easy to run; the only really challenging part is out of McNabb Gulf, but even then, there are many views of Raccoon Mountain across the river gorge that make it all worth it. The Ransom Hollow Overlook, in particular, is one of the best views in the region.

Jake Wheeler

Additional Resources:

Trail Recommendations: RootsRated’s List of Chattanooga’s Best Trail Runs
Races: The Rock/Creek Race Series
Groups: Chattanooga Trail Runners and Cumberland Trail Runners
Retailers: Rock/Creek and Fast Break Athletics

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