One City’s Journey: Assessment to Construction
If you’ve ridden in the Tennessee River Gorge, the trail names “High Voltage,” “Live Wire,” and “Megawatt” likely ring a bell. These technical trails that circle the apex of Raccoon Mountain are favorites of Chattanooga locals looking for a scenic, close-to-town, and memorable mountain bike experience.
But, these trails are predominately geared towards seasoned riders, which has added a bit of a barrier to the influx of hungry, new trail users who have made their way to or their home in “Gig City.”
Quite a few contributing factors led to this influx of new outdoor enthusiasts: the 2020 pandemic ushered in a whole population new to the outdoors, the town has been actively recruiting young remote workers through its reputation as the “first city in the Western Hemisphere offer one gigabit-per-second fiber internet service to all of its residents and businesses back in 2010. A recent cherry on top was when Outside Magazine published its “Best Mountain Town” rankings in 2022, and Chattanooga came in at number 13.
Luckily, strong ties have led to strong partnerships to accelerate the development of new quality trails in Chattanooga. The right people are in the right seats on the bus, a key aspect of success for any community wanting to bring in trail infrastructure, and they’re doing all they can to meet the demand for more trails in Chattanooga.
The newest addition to the quiver of trail systems in Chattanooga proper is located just southwest of downtown, a 10-minute drive, in Lookout Valley. The master plan for this 300 acres calls for 12 miles of beginner-to-intermediate trails in a network called “Aetna Mountain Trails.” Thanks to a land donation from Black Creek Development, the Tennessee River Gorge Trust has secured this large forest area. “This is one of the closest wilderness areas in the immediate Chattanooga area,” said Eliot Berz, Tennessee River Gorge Trust’s Conservation and Access Director.
IMBA Local Chapter SORBA Chattanooga, a long-time partner of Tennessee River Gorge Trust, suggested that Aetna Mountain might be a good fit for mountain biking trails and provided details about IMBA’s Trail Accelerator Grant. The Tennessee River Gorge Trust team applied for the Trail Accelerator Grant and received the grant on the first try. “Once IMBA Trail Solutions was on the ground and confirmed that the site would be ideal for mountain biking trails, we were excited, and that’s when things really got into motion,” added Eliot. IMBA Trail Solutions flagged the design for the 12-mile master plan in November of 2021 and turned it over to Tennessee River Gorge Trust shortly after.
From there, it was all fundraising. “This project wouldn’t be possible without the support of Black Creek, Lyndhurst Foundation, IMBA, Tower Community Bank, Rock Creek, Chattanooga Tourism Co, Fox Factory, and RH Aviation,” said Eliot. A unique partnership to highlight was with Tower Community Bank – they agreed to donate a portion each year to go into a revolving annual maintenance fund for the trails.
The excitement for Aetna Mountain’s opening is palpable. During a Meet and Greet event midway through construction, 75+ people signed up for an opportunity to ask questions directly to the crew. “We ended up having to run shuttles just to get everyone up and down the mountain,” added Eliot.
Construction of phase one, ~four miles of trails, was completed last month, and the park will officially open to the public in late September. One notable aspect is a finished green loop that’s adaptive-friendly. Adaptive priority was also extended to the parking lot and trailhead infrastructure.
Aetna Mountain will complement the new intermediate-to-advanced Walden’s Ridge Park (another IMBA Trail Solutions and Trail Accelerator Grant project) well, with some gravity trails mixed into Aetna's cross-country heavy master plan. These planned gravity lines will allow for progression from Aetna Mountain to Walden’s Ridge to create a well-rounded trail experience throughout Chattanooga.
For the latest on opening day festivities, keep an eye on this page that TRGT updates with information as it becomes available.