If you’re looking for a moderate-length hike on a fairly easy trail, Skyuka Spring in the Lookout Mountain unit of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park is a destination worth considering.
Located at the base of the mountain near the banks of Lookout Creek, Skyuka Spring is most easily reached by hiking (or mountain biking) through the Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center, then along the Lower Truck Trail, a service road that follows close to Lookout Creek.
The spring is named for Cherokee Chief Skyuka Wauhatchie Glass, who led the Chickamaugas against John Sevier in one of the last battles of the American Revolution in 1782 and later fought with Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson and others against the Creek in 1814.
The primary downside to this hike is that it isn’t free, unless you’re a member at Reflection Riding (as I am, and which I highly recommend). Otherwise, you’ll need to pay admission to pass through the Reflection Riding property: $10 for adults, $7 for seniors 65-plus or children. But the slightly over 1-mile hike through Reflection Riding on level gravel roads has scenic views and great opportunities to see wildlife. See an earlier article about Reflection Riding here.
As you reach the turnaround point of the gravel loop, you’ll continue on, passing between a small pond and a gazebo, shortly coming to a metal gate that marks the beginning of national park land. This is the Lower Truck Trail. From here, it’s another 2.4 miles to Skyuka Spring over gently rolling terrain that follows fairly close to Lookout Creek. In the summer, sections of the trail are a bit grassy in the middle, but the tracks are generally as clear as the average hiking trail. This is one of the few trails in the park that allows mountain biking. It’s also popular with trail runners. At an unknown spot along the way, you’ll cross the state line into Georgia.
This is a good area to see wildlife, with deer or turkey sightings always possible. Although coyotes are plentiful in most places, they tend to be elusive. This is one of the few locations I’ve actually encountered one (twice).
The spring gushes forth from beneath two large boulders and flows a short distance into Lookout Creek. It has more water at some times than at others, but I’ve never seen it dry. This is a good spot to pause for lunch before heading back. As a sign there states, the water is not potable, so plan to bring enough drinking water for the round trip.
From here, the South End Trail continues for a half-mile to the southern boundary of the national park. The John Smartt Trail climbs up to link with the end of the Upper Truck Trail. And the Skyuka Trail heads back between the two, bypassing Reflection Riding. Returning the way you came will make an approximately 7-mile hike.
An alternate route
If you prefer to bypass Reflection Riding to avoid the expense, or perhaps in order to take dogs with you, the Kiddie Trail, which begins across the road from a gravel parking area just before reaching Reflection Riding, provides a detour option. People tend to joke about its name, as the Kiddie Trail is one of the steepest climbs in the park. But it’s actually named for a Col. Kiddie, who I presume has some connection to the Civil War, though I’ve been unable to find any information.
The Kiddie Trail climbs about 300 feet in 0.4 miles, then connects to the Skyuka Trail, which runs along the side of the mountain south for 1.1 miles to a fork, where you’ll have two options for continuing on to Skyuka Spring. You can take the Creek Connector Trail (unnamed on most maps) down for 0.7 miles to its intersection with the Lower Truck Trail, at this point about 2 miles from Skyuka Spring. Or you can continue on the Skyuka Trail, which gradually slopes downhill to reach Skyuka Spring in 2.6 miles. Either option gives you an approximately 8.25-mile round-trip hike.
A word of caution
When I recently checked on the condition of the Kiddie Trail, I found it in a state I’ve never seen in my over 30 years of hiking it. Although the trail itself appears well-used, dense, junglelike vegetation crowds in on either side. This is because of a large number of pine trees having died and fallen down in recent years, most the victim of pine beetles. This is allowing sunlight to penetrate the forest canopy and stimulate intensive growth. As I neared the intersection with the Skyuka Trail, I discovered an enormous hornet nest about 5 or 6 feet from the trail and about 3 feet off the ground, partially hidden in foliage. I notified the Park Service, so I don’t know whether it’s still there. But in any case, I don’t really recommend this option before winter, unless you’re just feeling adventurous.
Directions and map
Click here for a good Lookout Mountain trail map.
The address for Reflection Riding is 400 Garden Road, Chattanooga, but the best way to find either trailhead on Google Maps is to simply type in "Chattanooga Nature Center" (the former name of Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center).
Reflection Riding is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.
The Lookout Mountain trails are open 6 a.m. to sunset.
Bob Butters explores nature and the outdoors, primarily in and near the South Cumberland region, and publishes the blog www.Nickajack-Naturalist.com.