After seeing a recent press release from the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park saying that a major portion of the Mountain Beautiful Trail on Lookout Mountain—closed for the past year and a half because of a rock fall—was now open, I decided to have a firsthand look.
Arriving early one foggy morning at the Cravens House, a popular starting point for a number of hikes, I headed up the 0.7-mile climb to connect to the Mountain Beautiful Trail a short distance from Point Park. One of the switchbacks on this relatively steep trail utilizes the bed of the original incline railroad on the mountain, the Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain Railway. This railroad operated in the 1880s and ‘90s and was later used for an electric streetcar from 1913 until sometime in the 1920s.
The Mountain Beautiful Trail runs for 1.5 miles below the east brow of Lookout Mountain, from the base of the bluff at Point Park, south to its intersection with the Hardy Trail by the side of Scenic Highway. Upon reaching the Mountain Beautiful Trail, I followed it less than half a mile underneath towering bluffs to the point of the mountain, where turning the corner onto the west side of the mountain, the trail continues on as the Bluff Trail for 4.2 miles to Ochs Gateway near Covenant College. My hike so far had been on trail that, while not used as much as the Bluff Trail, has remained open, so it wasn’t too overgrown.
Now to the adventurous part
Returning to the intersection where the Mountain Beautiful Trail continues on to the south, I found a "trail closed" sign still in place. Figuring park staff simply hadn’t gotten around to removing it, I proceeded. For the most part, this stretch was quite overgrown. Although the trail is somewhat easy to follow, there’s a lot of overhanging vegetation, so tick protection is highly recommended. Along the way, I encountered a small box turtle in the trail, which scurried away as I tried to take a photo.
At one point, the trail passes under the famous Incline Railway, which is low enough I had to duck under support beams. Traditionally advertised as "America’s most amazing mile," the trolley-style cars, pulled by cable, carry tourists up and down the side of Lookout Mountain. The second incline built on the mountain, this version began operation in 1895.
Eventually, I came to the section of trail that has been rerouted since the December 2012 rock fall, when a large boulder tumbled down the side of the mountain, coming to rest beside Scenic Highway. This new section avoids the rock fall area. The work was achieved by a partnership between the national park and the Southeast Youth Corps. Just a few yards before reaching the south end of the Mountain Beautiful Trail at its intersection with the Hardy Trail, I spotted a yellow jacket nest in the trail, just in time to zip past it without getting in trouble.
Relaxing on the Hardy Trail
The 1.2 mile-Hardy Trail is a whole different story. Part of the 5-mile Guild-Hardy Trail System, it’s wide and smooth, follows the route of the old broad gauge railroad that once ascended the mountain, and is owned and managed by the Lookout Mountain Conservancy. The upper end starts at the Scenic Highway (with no parking that I could see), a short distance past the end of the Mountain Beautiful Trail. After gazing a bit at the large boulder that landed in the trail in December 2012, I followed the gentle downhill slope of the Hardy Trail back to the Cravens House. While perhaps not long enough to make a special trip for, this is a great section of trail to incorporate into a longer run, bike ride or hike.
I don’t recommend hiking the Mountain Beautiful Trail before winter or extensive maintenance, unless you’re feeling adventurous—in which case, just be sure to watch out for yellow jackets, ticks, snakes and poison ivy.
Opportunities for volunteers
Back at Cravens House, I met Ranger Bob, who said he had been observing young woodchucks playing in the trail. He revealed that the park had once had 30 employees maintaining trails, but he’s now the only one. Most trail work today is done by volunteers. In discussing the challenges of keeping trails up, I recalled a quote from a recent New York Times article by Nicholas Kristof: "We were rich enough to construct many of these trails during the Great Depression [which includes the Mountain Beautiful Trail], yet we’re apparently too poor in the 21st century even to sustain them."
If you’re interested in participating in volunteer work on this and other trails on Lookout Mountain, as well as other units of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, contact the park’s volunteer coordinator, William Sunderland, at 706-866-9241; 423-752-5213, extension 137; or firstname.lastname@example.org. See more information here.
Click here for a map of Lookout Mountain trails.
Bob Butters explores nature and the outdoors, primarily in and near the South Cumberland region, and publishes the blog www.Nickajack-Naturalist.com. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.