Exploring Chattanooga’s History by Paddling Lookout Creek

Paddling is a great way to learn more about the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
Paddling is a great way to learn more about the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Hailey Moore
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It was a warm, breezy evening as I bumped along a gravel road in a van full of strangers. Don’t worry, there was nothing amiss about my situation; we were driving through the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, being shuttled to the banks of Lookout Creek where a wonderful evening of canoeing and stories awaited us.

This year marked the 125th anniversary of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, the second oldest National Park behind Yellowstone. Local organizations like Outdoor Chattanooga, National Park Service and the Chattanooga Historic Center want to share the beauty and history of the parks and our natural surroundings with the public. That’s why they’ve partnered to bring you events like the Lookout Creek canoe tour I attended, and they’re happening almost everyday.

Exploring Lookout Creek

Paddling tours are part of the celebration of the 125th anniversary of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
Paddling tours are part of the celebration of the 125th anniversary of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Hailey Moore

There’s a reason the word “serene” is used so often in describing the sensation of floating on water. As I paddled along Lookout Creek, I became lost in thought as I reflected on all the life surrounding us, not only along the banks but beneath the mirrored surface as well. At one bend in the creek, our guide Will, a National Parks Service Ranger, pointed to a hidden grove beneath the canopy of tree branches where a river otter was known to nest. Then to an open grassy stretch of bank where wild turkeys were frequently seen foraging. In the distance stood Lookout Mountain, like a guardian standing watch over the forest.

My thoughts were interrupted by occasional stops along the creek where Will provided insight into how Chattanooga, and specifically Lookout Creek, played pivotal roles in the Civil War. It’s said that Lincoln equated the importance of gaining Chattanooga to Richmond, VA, the capital of the Confederacy. Chattanooga was such a lynchpin because of its easy access to navigable water. It seemed that the very creek we were drifting on drew a line along the divided nation. At one time there were Union soldiers on one bank and Confederate soldiers on the other.

And although the war carried on, during idle times you might have seen a board floating across the creek laden with tobacco leaves, and then returning with a load of coffee beans. Both commodities were scarcities at the time. Both commodities signify vices that exposed the humanity of the soldiers on either side of the creek.

During the Civil War, Union and Confederate soldiers swapped coffee and tobacco across Lookout Creek. Now it's a quiet place to reflect on the history of the area.
During the Civil War, Union and Confederate soldiers swapped coffee and tobacco across Lookout Creek. Now it's a quiet place to reflect on the history of the area. Hailey Moore

The tour carried us on to Moccasin Bend where we saw firsthand the intersection of mankind and nature. The actual geography of Moccasin Bend was changed to accommodate I-24; a concrete bridge now arches over Lookout Creek right at its juncture with the Tennessee River. We looked up as we crossed beneath the bridge only to see a long row of cave swallow nests stuck right in the eaves of the overpass.

Though it is now controlled by the TVA, the Tennessee River does still flood every spring, a cycle that allows the river banks to grow a little higher and be replenished with fresh soil and minerals, making it ripe for agriculture.

By the end of the tour, I had made a vow to myself to spend more time on the water. Following the crooks and bends of Lookout Creek was a novel way to experience geography, and the historical narration was great. If you missed the paddling tours already this summer, don’t worry—there are plenty of upcoming opportunities. Check Outdoor Chattanooga’s events calendar for tours like a Sunset History Tour by Kayak through the Tennessee River Gorge, or a Downtown Kayak Adventure to see more urban sites. Take note that these events do require reservations, though all equipment (minus your sunglasses, bug spray, water and sunscreen) is provided for you.

Many thanks to the various groups involved in making such events happen: Outdoor Chattanooga, the National Parks Service, Chattanooga Historic Center, the Friends of Outdoor Chattanooga, the Friends of Moccasin Bend, and the Friends of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

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