The dog days of summer are here, and unless your idea of camping involves sitting inside a land yacht with the AC running, picking the right destination is critical. Although I once survived a 100 degree afternoon in a campsite by sitting in front of no less than six box fans running at full tilt, it wasn’t an ideal situation.
How do you stay cool while summer camping? Short of driving to Canada, the surest way to drop the temperature is to gain altitude. Depending on conditions, you might see a five degree drop for every 1,000 feet of elevation. It’s time, literally, to head for the hills. Second, you need water. Not just to drink, but enough to immerse yourself. You need a lake, or at least a creek with a swimming hole. Finally, it wouldn’t hurt to have some mountain biking, trail running, hiking, climbing or paddling nearby, would it?
Fear not, it can be done. Draw a circle encompassing a couple hour’s drive of Chattanooga and you’ll have some great options.
1. Chilhowee Recreation Area
Strategically located atop Chilhowee Mountain between the Ocoee and the mighty Hiwassee rivers, this campground is at 2,100 feet, tall enough to feel the difference. A wide, easy trail circles the seven acre lake with a swimming beach that kids love. The three-mile round-trip hike to Benton Falls is another popular option. Mountain biking from your campsite is superb with 25 miles of trail ranging from fast forest-service road to technical singletrack. My first time on Clear Creek trail a passing rider stopped to tell me, “You know there are places ahead where you should walk your bike, right?” He wasn't kidding! After a good workout you can leave your bike on the beach and go right into the lake. For a full weekend of knobby tires, head down to the mountain to the Ocoee Whitewater Center and ride the Tanasi trails. Speaking of whitewater, Chilhowee is fine spot to spend the night after paddling on the Hiwassee or Ocoee.
2. Fort Mountain State Park
There’s a fine 9-mile loop for trail running right from your campsite and of course the mysterious stone walls on the summit that give the mountain its name. Did a Welsh prince named Madoc build these fortifications 300 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue? Hike up for a look, then decide for yourself.
Off-season bonus! Fort Mountain also hosts a portion of the Gahuti trail.
3. Fall Creek Falls State Park
Fall Creek Falls is Tennessee’s flagship state park with a lodge, restaurant, golf course, and even a new zipline attraction. Although the trails can be busy near the popular overlooks, this is a rugged and vast area where it’s not difficult to find solitude just a bit further down the path.
4. DeSoto State Park
An hour’s drive south from Chattanooga, DeSoto State Park is cool in ways its namesake conquistador never imagined. The swimming pool is often crowded, but there are natural swimming opportunities along the Little River, which flows through the park and eventually into the dramatic Little River Canyon to the south. From your campsite you can wander onto 25 miles of hiking trail, 11 of which are designated for mountain bikes. There are opportunities for bouldering in the park and good climbing near the 110-foot falls a short drive from the campground, and it’s not far to the overhung and challenging walls of Little River Canyon.
Even if you’re not a 5.12 climber, you’ll want to drive the road along the rim of the canyon to experience some of Alabama’s greatest scenery. If hiking the easy trails at DeSoto didn't get your blood pumping, the descents and climbs out of the canyon at Little River will do the trick.
5. Indian Boundary Recreation Area
The 96-acre lake at Indian Boundary is large enough to make the two hour drive from Chattanooga worthwhile, with soaring mountains as the backdrop. Although you’re still in the foothills, the elevation is a respectable 1,600 feet. An easy 3 mile trail around the perimeter is perfect for a morning run or relaxed mountain bike ride. In fact, just about everything at Indian Boundary is relaxing, including the ability to reserve a specific campsite online in advance. The campground is located just two miles off the famous Cherohala Skyway, a celebrated ribbon of pavement which takes you from the rapids of the Tellico River to over 5,300 feet. In good weather the 2.4 mile round-trip hike out to Huckleberry Bald is a highly recommended way to stretch your legs during the drive, or you can follow the Skyway all the way over to see the big trees at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.
So, does anyone need a half dozen box fans?