Less than 5 miles from downtown Chattanooga, the Tennessee River begins to wind its way through the Cumberland Plateau via a 1,000-foot-deep gorge for 27 miles before emerging into the Sequatchie Valley. The Tennessee River Gorge, sometimes referred to as the “Grand Canyon of Tennessee,”covers 27,000 acres. It’s the fourth largest canyon east of the Mississippii, and the largest one in the U.S. adjacent to a mid-sized city.
While the gorge has not been completely spared from development, large acreages of mountain slopes remain forested and home to unique ecosystems and a high level of biodiversity. Believed to contain over 1,000 plant species, the Tennessee River Gorge is also home to 184 bird, 63 mammal and 193 butterfly species. Thirty-one threatened or endangered species are known or believed to exist in the gorge. Ecologically important riparian habitat helps feed and shelter wildlife and preserve water quality within the gorge.
Human history in the Tennessee River Gorge can be traced back thousands of years to the Mississippian period. The 450-acre William Island, situated in the eastern entrance to the gorge, is a designated state archaeological park and has provided clues to ancient settlements. More recently, before the completion of Hales Bar Dam in 1913 (later replaced by Nickajack Dam), river navigation through the gorge was challenging, with potentially dangerous rapids and whirlpools bearing names like The Pot, The Pan, The Skillet and The Suck.
Today, the Tennessee River Gorge is the central feature of an area of growing outdoor recreational use. To the north lies the 24,000-acre Prentice Cooper State Forest and Wildlife Management Area, with 35 miles of hiking trails and the popular rock climbing bluffs known as the Tennessee Wall.
Attractions on the south side of the gorge include TVA’s Raccoon Mountain Pumped Storage Plant, with nearly 30 miles of mountain biking and hiking trails.
The 48-mile paddling route known as the Tennessee River Blueway passes through the gorge on its way from Chickamauga Dam to Shellmound Recreation Area near Nickajack Dam.
Preserving the gorge
In 1981 a small group of local citizens, concerned about the growing pressure of development on the region’s natural treasures, formed the Tennessee River Gorge Trust in the hopes of preserving as much of the river gorge as possible. Today, through partnerships with landowners, state government agencies, TVA, and the local community, the trust has protected over 17,000 of the gorge’s 27,000 acres. Some land is preserved through conservation easements on private property, some through agreements with government land agencies and some with outright ownership by the trust, currently estimated at approximately 5,500 acres.
A new era
Today, the Tennessee River Gorge Trust is expanding beyond its longtime priority of land preservation. While a continuing priority, land conservation now shares the trust’s mission alongside increasing public access for outdoor recreation and using sound science to inform where to focus conservation and recreation enhancement efforts.
The trust’s current executive director, Rick Huffines, assumed the helm in 2013, coming from a career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Huffines has a strong interest in songbirds and was instrumental in the creation of a bird observatory in the spring of 2014 on a remote tract owned by the trust at the foot of Elder Mountain. From spring through fall, staff members catch songbirds in mist nets set up in a 40-acre area of forest. The nets are checked every 40 minutes when in use. The birds are banded, and their species, sex, age and various measurements checked. Birds serve as an important indicator. Healthy bird populations reflect a healthy environment.
In the spring of 2016, there are plans to conduct overnight tours where participants can stay in one of two small cabins or camp on a tent platform and help with support tasks.
The trust has also been engaged in a two-year survey of rare cerulean warblers as well as worm-eating warblers in the gorge.
In an exciting new development, the trust is planning to acquire 16 geo-locators to place on Louisiana water thrushes. This will enable the staff to determine just where the birds winter and more.
In 2014, the trust began a two-year Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment of Tennessee River Gorge lands. This will further help in pinpointing lands most in need of conserving.
Across the river, the Pot Point Cabin, built in 1835 and owned by the River Gorge Trust since 1991, has served as a field research station and is available to rent for weddings and other events. The tract of land the cabin is on also has the 3.5-mile Pot Point Nature Trail, which has recently undergone some rerouting work. This loop trail traverses a variety of habitats as one section climbs to over 1,000 feet in elevation on the mountainside, with another section following close to the river’s edge. Other trails on River Gorge Trust property are under development or being planned.
In recent years, the Tennessee River Gorge Trust has partnered with other organizations to achieve conservation goals beyond the strict confines of the river gorge. Working with the Trust for Public Land in 2009, 92 acres were preserved on Stringers Ridge, now a popular hiking and mountain biking location close to downtown Chattanooga.
In another recent project, 35 acres at Castle Rock, a popular climbing bluff overlooking Jasper and the Sequatchie Valley, was acquired by the trust, with the Land Trust for Tennessee holding a conservation easement and the Southeastern Climbers Coalition managing the recreational use of the property.
To learn how you can get involved with the important mission of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust or to discover more about the Trust and the Tennessee River Gorge it works to protect, visit trgt.org.
Bob Butters explores nature and the outdoors, primarily in and near the South Cumberland region, and publishes the blog www.Nickajack-Naturalist.com