We start climbing Raccoon Mountain immediately, trading the placid shores of the Tennessee River for a narrow route up the side of a lush river gorge, thick with leafy hardwoods. The trail is machine-cut, but you wouldn't know it, given its scant width and the endless barrage of rocks under your tires. We're talking half-exposed, cooler-sized boulders garnished with gray baby heads as far as the eye can see.
The trail works its way up the slope of the gorge to a small plateau, then climbs again to another plateau, then climbs again, like it's building to some sort of diabolical crescendo. It carves around sandstone boulders and giant, mushroom-shaped rocks that increase in size the higher we move up the gorge, until eventually we're riding along a perfect bench cut that hugs a 30-foot-tall cliff band.
There's solid rock to the left of me, and the dark green Tennessee River 500 feet below to the right. Then the switchbacks begin–21 of them, steep and tight, winding up to the rim of the gorge until finally, thankfully, there's no more mountain to climb. All in, we're only talking about 800 feet of climbing in a couple of miles, but the chunky nature of the route and the momentum-killing switchbacks make you earn every foot of the ascent. The sporadic 20-percent grades don't help much either.
This is High Voltage, one of the newest trails on Raccoon Mountain, a trail system just outside downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee. In a word, it's glorious. And I mean that in the religious sense of the word, in the way that suffering through a heinous XC climb can sometimes lead to celestial visions and temporary bouts of understanding.
High Voltage is a fraction of what Raccoon Mountain has to offer, and Raccoon Mountain is just a fraction of Chattanooga's trail portfolio. A little more than 10 years ago, a few forward-thinking mountain bikers developed the Singletrack Mind Initiative, a project with the objective of building 100 miles of singletrack within 10 miles of downtown Chattanooga. It was a bold, manifest-destiny kind of trail expansion that came out of left field.
At the time, Chattanooga was known more for its history of pollution than adventure–the Environmental Protection Agency once declared it the dirtiest city in America–and it had no legit mountain biking to speak of aside from a few rogue trails. There was no chunk of National Forest land to work with, or really any public land to speak of. Instead, mountain bikers had a patchwork of former industrial sites, derelict land and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) property as a canvas.
"We didn't have anything you could ride when I moved here in the '90s," says Lee Simril, a semi-pro adventure racer and endurance coach who's been a driving force in Chattanooga's trail movement for two decades. "We just sort of pieced it together. A little here, a little there."
Ten years later, there's roughly 120 miles of singletrack scattered around the city, ranging from 10 miles of beginner-friendly trail at an old munitions plant just north of town to 20 miles of backcountry bliss on top of Lookout Mountain–an area better known for the tourist traps of Ruby Falls and See Rock City.
"All of our systems are within that 10-mile range," says Lee Carmichael, the president of Chattanooga's Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association chapter. "We even have one park in town, so you can be working in a high-rise downtown and be on the trail in five minutes." Chattanooga's flagship system is Raccoon Mountain, a 2,162-foot-high summit sitting on the edge of the Tennessee River that's owned by the TVA, a power company that began building hydroelectric dams throughout the Southeast after the New Deal. The Tennessee River might not have the global name recognition of the mighty Mississippi, but the powerful body of water has literally shaped this corner of the Volunteer State, particularly near Chattanooga, where it has carved a wide, steep gorge through the Cumberland Mountains.
Two TVA dams stand at either end of this 26-mile canyon–one of the biggest gorges in the eastern half of the country–and Chattanooga sits in the middle of those dams, essentially surrounded by hydroelectric power.
The river forms a 'U' around downtown. Raccoon Mountain's trail system is on the other side of that U, encircling a TVA-pumped storage facility on top of the mountain, about 1,000 feet above Nickajack Dam. You can find a bit of everything on this 30-mile system–some butter-smooth beginner trail, a small freeride area with choose-your-own-adventure lines through a large boulder garden–but mostly it's an intestinal-like XC trail that does a beautiful job of contouring along the slopes of the gorge. I follow Brenda Simril, Lee's wife and adventure-racing partner, up the beastly climbs of High Voltage while she chatters away about home brewing without ever bothering to catch her breath.
At the top, we cruise through the beginner-friendly Electric Avenue around the storage facility to Live Wire (most of the trails on Raccoon are named after hydroelectric terms), a schizophrenic 5-mile downhill that hosts an annual Super D race. It's actually two trails in one–Live Wire Phase I and Live Wire Phase II.
Phase I is packed with sweeping berms and rollers that take you from the top of the mountain to the mid-point on a giggle-filled speedfest. Phase II is a 3-mile juggernaut of a rock garden littered with small creek crossings, some of which have bridges, some of which are choked with mean-ass rocks. Phase I is Dr. Jekyll. Phase II is Mr. Hyde.
If you don't believe in consequences, you could fly through the whole thing. The Super D record is something like 19 minutes from top to bottom. The rest of us take significantly longer as we dab a foot every third rock.
After the ride, we drink some of the Simrils' homebrew and stare at an expansive cliff band on the other side of the river that turns increasingly orange as the sun sets.
Slowly, it becomes apparent that mountain bikers in Chattanooga probably don't realize how good they have it. I don't mean they're ungrateful. I mean they literally don't know that other towns in the South, or even the entire U.S., don't have this much pure singletrack right out their door. When I say there are 120 miles of singletrack surrounding this town, I mean singletrack. There are no forest-road connectors and very few road-to-trail conversions. We're not even talking about inherited hiking trails. Chattanooga's trail network consists of 120 miles of skinny dirt paths designed specifically for mountain bikers.
Considering Chattanooga's humble beginnings, it's a miracle. "In the beginning, we had a few people who wouldn't let the idea go," Carmichael says. "Now, there's an entire community behind this thing."
That community still won't let the Singletrack Mind Initiative go. Most of the trail systems surrounding town are built out, but the club will soon turn its attention to the trails near the Ocoee River, 45 minutes outside of town in the Cherokee National Forest. They've conquered Gig City, so it's time to look further afield for trail expansion. It is Manifest Destiny at its finest.
￼￼Know Before You Go | You'll find directions, mileage and maps of Chattanooga's various trail systems on SORBA Chattanooga's website: sorbachattanooga.org. All trails on Raccoon Mountain are open to mountain bikers and are signed well. The High Voltage to Live Wire ride is 13.5 miles. Stringer's Ridge has 6 miles of flow and two pumptracks just north of the river in downtown Chattanooga. Knock out the Blue Loop for 6 miles of berms and rollers. There are a half-dozen bike shops to choose from, but Suck Creek (suckcreek.com) is just a few blocks from Stringer's Ridge and rents high-end demo bikes.
Stay | The Crash Pad is a boutique hostel in downtown 'Nooga's hip Southside neighborhood that's geared toward adventure travelers. You can get a bunk for $30 or a private room for $79, which includes free breakfast. There's plenty of gear storage as well as an outdoor fire pit and grills. Crashpadchattanooga.com
Fuel | Chattanooga Brewing Company just opened a new tap room in the Southside neighborhood. Get the Hill City IPA (chattabrew.com). By all accounts, Tremont Tavern has the best burger in town. Get the Pimento Burger, which is topped with homemade pimiento cheese. Tremonttavern.com. Good Dog has wildly creative hot dogs in the North Shore neighborhood close to Stringer's Ridge.