Craving some time in nature outside of the Scenic City? Don’t overthink it. The southeast United States is rich in outdoor adventure, much within a few hours of Chattanooga. Here’s what to put on your to-do list to get moving in the coming months.
Cave Exploration: Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
Mammoth Cave National Park stretches 52,830 acres and includes hiking trails, off-road bike trails, canoeing and kayaking, and ranger-led programs. The property’s biggest draw is cave exploration. Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system in the world at 426 miles, is known as “the Monarch of Caves.” Located in central Kentucky near Bowling Green, it’s a 3 hour 20 minute drive from Chattanooga. Unless you’re able to snag tickets for a Discovery (Self Guided) Tour in June or July, the only way to go into the cave is via guided tour. The offerings are varied. Tours include a 1.25-hour walkthrough of historic/prehistoric artifacts and Mammoth Cave’s largest rooms, an exploration of rock formations that resemble Gothic architecture, a 3-hour tour traveling exclusively by lantern light, and a new Frozen Niagara Tour that allows easy access to the Frozen Niagara section of the cave without the long hike and stairs. For those with more extreme adventuring in mind, the Wild Cave Tour will have you crawling through the dirt and scrambling over physical obstacles. This tour lasts six hours and requires lace-up hiking boots that cover the ankle (no zippers), plus a chest/hip measurement that does not exceed 42 inches. Limited to ages 16 and up, Mammoth Cave labels this experience as “extremely difficult.”
According to the National Park Service, Mammoth Cave was carved by rainwater etching away at limestone more than one million years ago. In the 1800s, the cave was mined for saltpeter, used in gunpowder factories for war efforts including the War of 1812. Rich in history, the cave has been home to experiments in whether cave air can cure tuberculosis, to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writing of the essay “Illusions,” and to the use of torch throwing in the absence of flashlights and electricity. Mammoth Cave National Park was certified as an International Dark Sky Park in 2021.
Whitewater Rafting: The Ocoee River
Polk County, Tennessee
Whitewater rafting offers a combination of adrenaline, teamwork, and–when you have a chance to glance up–scenic landscape. The best day trip rafting from Chattanooga is on the Ocoee River, which winds 93 miles through Georgia and Tennessee before it meets the Hiwassee River in Polk County. Rafting guides will report that you have two options when booking a trip downriver: the Middle Ocoee and the Upper Ocoee. The difference between Middle Ocoee and Upper Ocoee experiences is continuity and size of rapids. The Upper course includes a ⅓-mile section with the river’s strongest currents and fastest water. This is the section used during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games for canoe slalom, purposefully narrowed to up the challenge. None of these rapids will surpass a Class IV. The Middle Ocoee includes an early Class IV rapid but is ultimately not as fast as the Upper. What the Middle does offer is consistency in Class IIIs. You’ll hit one rapid after another with a break in the middle of the run. Based in Benton, Tennessee; Cleveland, Tennessee; and Ducktown, Tennessee, river guiding companies include Nantahala Outdoor Center, Ocoee Rafting, Ocoee Adventure Center, Outland Expeditions, and Ocoee Outdoors. Each experience includes a safety briefing, a short bus ride to the drop point, and time on the river.
Zip Lining: Banning Mills
Zip lining at Banning Mills is a progressive experience, each level upping the ante on length, speed, and height. Level 1 is the Forest Tour and Woodland Tour (1-1.5 hours) and includes 9 zip lines with a sky bridge and a tower. Level 2 is the Flight Pattern Zipline Tour (1.5-2.5 hours). This experience includes Level 1 plus an extended experience at an elevation 200 feet above Snake Creek Gorge with 12 zip lines and 10 sky bridges. The day can build from there depending on the participants’ height and weight, with a total of four levels offering speeds up to 75 miles per hour. What’s nice about Banning Mills is that based on your level of enjoyment and your time constraints, you can decide whether or not to tack on the next leg of the experience as you go. Some of the most exciting adventures on site include the 3,400-foot Amazing Flight of the Falcon and the climb up a 100-foot tower to begin the 10-mile zip line course known as Screaming Eagle. Banning Mills also won’t try to make more money off you via photo packages. Pictures of your experience are free.
Banning Mills is an adventure resort that aims to recreate an 1800s-era, so envision charm, not boutique. On the property, guests have been known to spy alligator snapping turtle, piebald deer, eastern screech owl, red tail hawk, flying squirrel, river otters, and pileated woodpecker. If you’re up for additional adventures, you’ll find a 140-foot free-standing climbing wall, 15 miles of hiking trails connected by beautiful suspension bridges, 18 holes of mini golf, horseback riding, and a catch-and-release lake. If you’d rather ride than hike, Eco-Spider Tours on four-wheeled electric vehicles are perfect for off-road terrain.
Bouldering: Horse Pens 40
Once offering both protection and a place for sacred ceremonies for Native Americans, today Horse Pens 40 is one of the most popular bouldering spots in the southeast. Here you’ll find more than 200 sandstone problems among incredible rock formations and scenic trails. A two-hour drive southeast from downtown Chattanooga, it’s the sheer concentration of bouldering problems on site that make this spot so compelling. While there’s typically plenty of climbers around to direct you to an appropriate route, you may also want to check out Mountain Project suggested routes (organized by V Scale) for information about boulders on site including the Turtle Rock Area, Landslide Boulders, Mulletino Boulder, Flat Roof Boulder, Ten Pins Area, The Wash, and others. For a glimpse of what the property has to offer, check out this Climbing.com video of a few favorite Horse Pens 40 problems including A Face in the Crowd (V7) and Stranger (V2).
Before it found climbing acclaim, according to park staff, Horse Pens 40 was home to the only peace treaty ever signed by Cherokee and Creek tribes. Over time, the land was also used by the Confederacy to hide valuables from Northern troops during the Civil War and by outlaws and moonshiners ducking the law. Eventually it was settled by John Hyatt, who described it as “the home 40, the farming 40, and the horse pens 40” (referring to acres). In the 1950s, the stone amphitheater made it an ideal location for area bluegrass festivals. It continues to play host to bluegrass festivals today. Due to the concentration of endangered species and rare foliage inside the park, pets are not allowed. The property does have restrooms and a restaurant open Friday through Sunday.
Waterfall Views: Fall Creek Falls State Park
Located in the eastern Cumberland Plateau, Fall Creek Falls State Park is a 29,800-acre park anchored by its namesake 256-foot tall waterfall. With more than 56 miles of hiking trails of varied difficulty, as you wander through the woods you’ll find not just Fall Creek Falls but Piney Falls, Cane Creek Falls, and Cane Creek Cascades as well. Popular hikes to waterfalls include Woodland Trail, Gorge Overlook Trail, Hemlock Falls Trail, and Piney Falls Overlook Trail. For those looking for an additional outdoor challenge, check out the Fall Creek Falls 2.5-hour Canopy Challenge Course (zip lines, ladders, bridges, cargo nets, and rope swings), top roping and rappelling at Copperhead Rock (by registration only), sunset and sunrise pontoon boat tours, and guided tours of Lost Creek Cave.