An undiscovered treasure: The Tennessee River Gorge
Located just on the west side of Chattanooga is something you might not expect to find next door to a bustling mid-sized American city: a river canyon. The Tennessee River Gorge is a 26-mile passage of scenic natural beauty winding through the Southern Cumberland Mountains, carving a deep path below rocky elevations of up to 2,300 feet.
The rugged character of the Gorge has helped to keep it a largely unspoiled wilderness. It has also served to make it something of a well-kept secret — except among those outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers who have long valued this biological and recreational asset.
The Gorge is 27,000 acres of mostly undeveloped forest, mountain, valley, and river. It’s home to about 1,100 varieties of plants, a diverse mix of wildlife, and a few thousand people. It’s relatively unusual to find a distinctive wilderness area that is also so accessible. Though much of the land is remote, civilization is never more than a few miles away. And that’s been true since ancient times: dozens of archaeological sites bear evidence of man’s presence in the Gorge for at least 10,000 years.
“The Gorge is often referred to as ‘Tennessee’s Grand Canyon,’ ” says Jim Brown. “It’s an apt description, given the breathtakingly beautiful scenery and the incredible wealth of natural and cultural resources found here.”
Brown is the executive director of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the ecological diversity, scenic beauty, and historic past of this nationally significant river canyon. He explains the concept of a land trust: “We hold land in trust the way a bank holds money,” he says, “and we are authorized to do so in perpetuity. A bank monitors the use of money. We monitor the use of land.”
The Trust, which was founded as a result of local residents’ concerns about overdevelopment, has been committed to the goal of preserving this special place for the past 25 years. It does this through a combination of easements, purchases, and donations. The Tennessee River Gorge Trust now owns 6,400 acres and protects a total of 16,700 acres. It is governed by a board of directors and employs a small staff.
Brown says cooperation between the public and private sectors is essential to making the Trust work. “TVA has always been one of our most valued partners. We share the same mission of protecting the environment, making it accessible to the public, and helping the public understand how to preserve it for future generations.”
Research is vital to that effort. Scientists from TVA, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and other institutions study a host of components within the Gorge’s ecosystem. Turtles, aquatic plants, shoreline erosion, and water quality are just a few of the topics being investigated so that a healthy and balanced environment can be sustained.
Shaped by nature and history
TVA dams stand like sentinels at either end of the Gorge: Chickamauga to the northeast and Nickajack to the southwest. The very design of the TVA reservoir system reflects the need to control the waters of the Tennessee River as it flows through the Gorge. Before TVA was created, major storms occurring in the huge drainage area above Chattanooga would cause the river to rise rapidly, overwhelming the narrow mountain passes below the city through which it must flow.
Excess water would back up into the city, flooding it on the average of once a year. For this reason, reducing the flood risk at Chattanooga was a top priority in the design of the TVA reservoir system and remains a major factor in operating the system today. To date, almost $4.9 billion in flood damage has been averted at Chattanooga by TVA’s management of the reservoir system.
Taking care of business
The control provided by the reservoir system is a boon to business as well. The Tennessee River is a busy thoroughfare for commercial river traffic, and the Gorge is one of the most challenging stretches of river to navigate during high flows. More than 2.5 million tons of raw materials and manufactured goods are transported through the Tennessee River Gorge each year, originating in or destined for ports in 14 states.
The Trust does not govern river traffic, but it does monitor the impact of business practices on the environment. After an opportunity arose to reclaim land at a rock quarry, the Trust negotiated an arrangement that proved mutually beneficial for the Gorge and for business.
“The rock quarry now belongs to the Trust,” Brown explains. “We allow business to continue, and they allow us to reclaim land as it is quarried. After rock has been removed, we come along with soil, plants and other native materials to restore the area to its original condition.”
The commercial viability of the quarry is about 50 years, but long after it’s gone the ridge on which it operates will look much as it did before quarrying began. The Trust also receives royalties on rock sales and rights to other property owned by the quarry business.
Cruising the Blueway
One of the best places to view the Tennessee River Gorge is from the bluffs below Signal Point on Signal Mountain. You can see the sweep of the Tennessee River as it winds along the Chattanooga riverfront, around Moccasin Bend, and past Williams Island toward Marion County. The City of Chattanooga has designated this stretch of river a “blueway” — essentially, a water trail in the same spirit as land-based “greenway” trails. The public is encouraged to explore the Gorge by following the river from one destination to the next.
There are many points of interest along the way. The downtown riverfront, with a vibrant mix of parks, shops, restaurants, and museums, is accessible from both the water and land. From there, the Blueway meanders its way to quieter places like Williams Island State Archaeological Park. Williams Island divides the river channel with a 450-acre tract of land inhabited only by wildlife. From about 1000 to 1650 A.D., this area was home to several Native American tribes. It is now managed by the Tennessee River Gorge Trust and has become a haven for birders and naturalists, as well as archaeologists.
Another stop along the Blueway is the Pot Point House, named for what was once the most violent set of rapids in the Gorge. Before dams provided the means to control water levels, many boats wrecked while attempting to navigate “the Boiling Pot.” The house was built in the 1800s with logs from one of those wrecks. The Trust restored the structure and now rents it to civic and academic groups and for private parties. The Trust also maintains a scientific research station there.
The Blueway is accessible from several ramps and launches along the river. One of the most popular is Raccoon Mountain, a favorite of boaters, paddlers, and anglers, and a convenient place to launch day and overnight trips.
Farther down the Gorge is a secluded spot where you can see Nickajack Cave from the water. TVA biologists monitor its bat population and encourage the public to “bat watch.” There is no cave access, but canoeists and kayakers enjoy drifting by at twilight with binoculars in hand to observe the comings and goings of these small but busy nocturnal creatures.
“The Gorge is an outstanding recreational resource,” says Brown. “But its proximity to an urban area makes it vulnerable. Easy accessibility translates into heavy demand, and thus environmentally responsible use is vitally important.”
“Preserving land is about protecting the environment while providing access to it,” Brown says. “It requires ongoing negotiation, lots of input, and a good deal of work. Whether they’re driving down the road or cruising on the river, we like to remind folks that whatever they can see — from the ridgetop to the shoreline — is what the Tennessee River Gorge Trust is working to protect.”
The Trust holds a variety of events and fund-raisers to sustain the effort to protect this special place. To volunteer or to find out more about how you can get involved in supporting the preservation of the Tennessee River Gorge, visit the Trust’s web site at www.trgt.org.