One of the more popular hikes in the Chattanooga area lies atop Signal Mountain and within a mere 10 miles of downtown. When I began exploring local trails in the 80s, one of the first places I hiked, and a favorite ever since, was the Cumberland Trail from Signal Point to Edwards Point, a 5.6-mile round-trip trek with great views of the Tennessee River Gorge and the Middle Creek Gorge.
On a recent spring day, I revisited the Edwards Point overlook, hiking from the alternative Rainbow Lake trailhead, which provides a shorter and easier 4.2-mile round-trip hike. From the paved trailhead parking area located on Ohio Avenue next to Alexian Village, a wide graveled trail gradually descends for 0.7 miles to Rainbow Lake, dropping about 300 feet in the process. A trailhead kiosk displays an excellent map of this and other Signal Mountain area trail systems.
There can be some confusion soon after starting the hike, as the trail is crossed by an old concrete sidewalk (which was once associated with the adjacent golf course) and also diverges into parallel trails, but they all end up in the same place. The trail soon crosses a long wooden footbridge which looks down on a gazebo standing over Burnt Cabin Spring. At 0.4 miles, the trail reaches a well-marked intersection. An option here is to go right for a 1.5-mile loop around Rainbow Lake. But our hike to Edwards Point turns left here and continues downhill, passing below some impressive house-size boulders along the way.
As the trail nears Rainbow Lake, a short spur on the right will take you to an overlook of the lake, which is more of a small pond. The lake, which is owned by the town of Signal Mountain as part of the 239-acre Rainbow Lake Wilderness, was originally constructed in 1916 by the owner of the Signal Mountain Hotel. Then 15 feet deep, the lake was a popular recreational spot for hotel guests and residents. Over the past century, sedimentation has made the lake much shallower. Despite it being a man-made structure, the large dam creates a rather scenic waterfall.
Shortly downstream from the dam, the trail intersects with the Cumberland Trail. Turning left here and towards Signal Point, in 0.5 miles the Cumberland Trail passes about 200 feet uphill from the 40-foot-high Rainbow Falls. Summer vegetation obscures the view, and since for some unknown reason there is no developed trail to the falls, hikers these days are discouraged from scrambling down the steep hillside to get to the falls.
Back at the aforementioned intersection, going right will take you across Middle Creek on a 100-foot-long swinging bridge. Afterward, the trail will gradually gain about 200 feet in elevation getting to the top of the bluff line. Soon after crossing the swinging bridge, the Bee Branch Trail on the right provides a couple of other options, a loop around Rainbow Lake, which would add 1.1 miles to your hike, or a somewhat rugged 2.8-mile hike to Shackleford Ridge Park.
But continuing left on the Cumberland Trail will bring you to Edwards Point in 1.3 miles. As the trail climbs toward the bluff, it passes an impressive rock overhang fronted by a jumble of large boulders. It then soon passes close by a small natural bridge known as Lockhart’s Arch. Just past the arch, a spur trail on the right leads to Lockhart’s Arch Campsite, built as an Eagle Scout project and which I’m told contains a primitive camp shelter.
Once reaching the top of the bluff, the trail follows rather close to the edge of the bluff for about 0.7 miles, going through an area which burned in 2007, opening up the canopy and allowing thick growth of tree saplings, shrubs and wildflowers. This section roughly follows the eastern boundary of Prentice Cooper State Forest. There are several spots along this route where you can get a view of the Middle Creek Gorge, as well as the large multi-storied buildings of Alexian Village on the opposite side. Originally the site of the historic Signal Mountain Hotel, the Alexian Village complex now consists of an assisted living facility, a health and rehabilitation center, and a retirement community.
A short distance before reaching Edwards Point, the trail veers away from the bluff to pass through a ravine and cross a small stream. Downstream from here, the 95-foot-high Julia Falls tumbles over the escarpment and can be viewed from the opposite side of the gorge.
Arriving at the Edwards Point area, the first of several overlooks marks the corner of the Middle Creek and Tennessee River Gorges and offers a view of Signal Point, Williams Island and beyond. A newcomer to this hike may think of this as being the destination, but there are two larger overlooks a few hundred feet further up the trail. And immediately past them, a small hill provides great views of the river gorge in both directions. A couple of jeep trails also end here, allowing access to the overlooks for off-roaders and mountain bikers, as well as hikers.
Continuing west from here on the Cumberland Trail would bring you to Mushroom Rock in another 3.6 miles and Suck Creek Road in 5.6 miles.
Another hike option from the Rainbow Lake trailhead is to walk the streets a short distance to Signal Point, descend the 200-step wooden staircase and hike the Cumberland Trail to Rainbow Lake and back up to the trailhead, a 2.6-mile hike.
As the Rainbow Lake parking area only has about 10 spaces and is quite popular, I recommend getting there early in the day. The parking area is closed at night from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. For driving directions, simply search for “Rainbow Lake Wilderness Trailhead” on Google Maps. Click here for more information and a trail map.
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 article belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.