There are so many amazing places and attractions in downtown Chattanooga that it’s easy to spend all of your time happily exploring within the city limits. However, part of what makes Chattanooga such an incredible destination is its location at the center of a region that offers never-ending possibilities for recreation. By venturing just an hour outside of the city, you’ll discover a whole new world of adventures that can easily be accomplished in half a day. We challenge you to explore some of our favorite off-the-beaten-path places—but don’t worry, you’ll be back in Chattanooga in time for dinner.
1. Prentice Cooper State Forest
An all-time favorite among hikers and adventurous trail runners, Prentice Cooper features 22 miles of ridgetop singletrack trails in two loops: the 10-mile Mullens Cove Loop and the 12-mile Pot Point Loop. Visitors to the 25,000-acre preserve will receive an up-close look at some of the region’s most unique rock features, like Natural Bridge, and three stunning vistas at Snooper’s Rock, Mullens Cove Overlook, and Raccoon Mountain Overlook. Even the 30-minute drive from downtown is utterly beautiful, as you wind up and up alongside the steep rapids of Suck Creek.
2. Chickamauga Battlefield
Much of the Chattanooga area’s history has been defined by its role in the Civil War, and Chickamauga Battlefield commemorates some of that era’s pivotal moments. While history buffs will undoubtedly find a lot to love at this 10,000-acre military park, there’s much more to the battlefield than its many monuments. You’ll discover 50 miles of hiking trails, many of which follow the remnants of old military roads. It’s also extremely popular for cyclists, who can enjoy forests, meadows, and creekside riding.
3. Ooltewah, TN
Get off the beaten path and head about a half hour north of Chattanooga for a visit to Ooltewah, a residential burg with a whole lot to offer. White Oak Mountain features 18 miles of well-marked trails that are great for running, hiking, and mountain biking. They range from easy family-friendly options to technical skill-building sections. After your outdoor adventure, pop over to Cambridge Square to explore the many restaurants, bars, and shops.
4. Cloudland Canyon State Park
Though only 45 minutes from Chattanooga, a trip to this park will make you feel like you’ve been transported from North Georgia to the rugged landscapes of the Wild West. Despite the park’s whopping 64 miles of trails, much of the stunning scenery can be found relatively close to the parking area. The short Main Overlook Trail treats visitors to views of the 1,000-foot deep Cloudland Canyon, while the moderate 5-mile West Rim Loop offers a more extensive exploration. For a vertical challenge, descend the notorious 600-step staircase into the canyon to marvel at Hemlock Falls and Cherokee Falls, two magnificent cascades that emanate from Daniel Creek and plummet into the lush canyon.
5. Nickajack Lake
This massive reservoir on the Tennessee River is a fantastic place for all sorts of water-based recreation: fishing, waterskiing, paddling and lakeshore camping. Nickajack Dam was built in the 1980s, and now the lake acts as the 6th step in the lock system that moves barges up and down the Tennessee River. Now, the partially flooded cave is home to roosting gray bats during warmer months, and visitors can watch them fly out and darken the sky each evening at sunset.
6. Sewanee, TN
Atop the Cumberland Plateau, Sewanee is both an outdoor and cultural destination near Chattanooga. Stop for a look at the powerful Foster Falls, and hike a little way on the revered 12-mile Fiery Gizzard Trail. Afterward, explore some of the eclectic roadside shops and stop in at Stirling’s Coffee House for a delicious warm beverage. While you’re in the area, make sure to get a look at Sewanee: The University of the South. This Gothic-style campus was built in the 19th century and is about as close as you can get to a real-life Hogwarts.
7. Savage Gulf State Natural Area
This 16,000-acre nature preserve is brimming with sandstone rock features, gorgeous streams, and even a rare section of old-growth forest. The park has more than 50 miles of trails and is a favorite spot for both day trips and overnighters from Chattanooga. While you’re there, don’t miss Greeter Falls and Stone Door, a 100-foot deep crevice that Native Americans once used as a passageway. The namesake gulfs are formed by three creeks that descend 800 feet over the course of five miles, making Savage Gulf one of the most geographically unique places in Tennessee.
8. Mentone, AL
A charming little mountain town in northern Alabama, Mentone is the perfect escape from the bustle of downtown Chattanooga. Less than an hour’s drive will bring you to the quaint and authentically southern streets of Mentone, where you’ll find farmers markets, antique stores, arts and crafts shops, and country cafes. If time allows, you can make a pitstop at the nearby DeSoto State Park for lovely hiking trails and a gander at one of the state’s largest waterfalls, DeSoto Falls.
9. Hiwassee River
This lively river makes a perfect day trip for boating, hiking, fishing, or picnicking. Located within Cherokee National Forest, the area is crisscrossed with little-used hiking trails, nearly all of which offer ample opportunity for creek splashing and exploring pristine woodlands. In the summer, visitors experience one of the region’s most family-friendly whitewater rafting or tubing experiences on the Hiwassee, which features fun Class I and II rapids.