East Tennessee's Forgotten Mountain Biking Destination

I pedal away from the empty parking lot and the climb is steep immediately. For a moment, the pounding of blood in my ears drowns out the crunching of gravel under my tires, but it’s only a moment. The grade levels off somewhat, and that crunching fades as doubletrack gives way to something resembling a trail. This was a logging road once, a long time ago, but those origins are hardly recognizable now.

This is mountain biking, the kind that starts out with a three-mile grunt up some lumpy mountain in the southern Appalachians. Below, the spectacular Rock Creek splashes down the gorge, forming a half dozen noteworthy waterfalls and cascades along the way. It’s hard to complain too much about climbing when the surroundings are so idyllic.

A wide, shallow creek crossing at the bottom of the Clear Creek Trail.
A wide, shallow creek crossing at the bottom of the Clear Creek Trail. Jeff Bartlett

Above, at the top of the mountain, is a well-visited campground, where I could’ve parked the car if it didn’t feel so much like cheating to do so. Beneath my tires are old, gnarled roots, sandstone rubble, and the occasional mountain creek to splash through, and the sound of traffic has faded away completely.

Up and up, and the trail turns onto a long-gated forest road, then turns again onto a stretch of glorious, hand-cut singletrack which has been here since long before anyone in this corner of the world thought to ride bikes in the middle of the woods. It’s rockier now, though hardly what you’d call technical terrain, and both sides of the trail are lined with deep green rhododendron. I can smell the freshly-fallen leaves, that early-autumn smell, and there are no sounds except for the wind and my own labored breathing, and...

…wait. Why is no one else here?

The short spur trail to Benton Falls  is foot-traffic-only, but it's worth hiking your bike down to soak in the view.
The short spur trail to Benton Falls is foot-traffic-only, but it's worth hiking your bike down to soak in the view. Jeff Bartlett

I'm riding at the Chilhowee Recreation Area, at the western edge of the Cherokee National Forest, and this is the story of Chilhowee mountain biking these days. Ten or twelve years ago, this was the closest place to ride for Chattanooga mountain bikers. Now, it’s overshadowed by its well-known neighbor at the Ocoee Whitewater Center, and Chattanooga’s riders no longer need to drive an hour for real dirt to sink their tires into.

After all, back then area mountain bikers only had the 3 or 4 miles of multi-use singletrack in place at Booker T Washington State Park, and the first miles of trail were just being cut at Raccoon Mountain. That's hardly the case now. But there is no annual MTB race here; there aren’t many Strava segments. It's easy to overlook.

The Chilhowee Recreation Area does see quite a bit of foot traffic. The vast majority of those hikers are there to see the majestic Benton Falls by way of a flat, 1.5-mile trail that leads directly from the campground, or they’re hiking up to Rainbow Falls via the Scenic Spur Trail from Parksville Lake. Both are well worth visiting. The rest of the mountain, though, and its 20 additional miles of trails, is often a ghost town.

To find out why, I began by asking Trey Commander, longtime SORBA-Chattanooga volunteer and chapter president from 2006-2008.

"With Tanasi, those trails were purpose-built, unlike the old hiking trails at Chilhowee," Trey said. "So Tanasi has more flow, and it has more of a long-distance feel with some longer loops. It's developed a reputation as being a mountain biking destination. I think reputation (accurate or not) is part of why Chilhowee has fallen off the radar a bit. But I think proximity to trails in Chattanooga is the #1 factor. We have more choices in town, and people take advantage of them."

Veteran mountain bike racer and/or local badass Lee Simril echoes this sentiment.

“This is where we used to ride; I remember coming out here almost every weekend,” says Lee. “We’re just spoiled with all the new singletrack closer to Chattanooga. Chilhowee holds up well in comparison with the new stuff, plus you have the option to add on endless miles of gravel roads. Just remember to bring plenty of food, water, and a cell phone to call mom when you get tired and lost.”

It’s hard to argue, as they’re both certainly right about the explosion of singletrack which has taken place in Chattanooga over the last 10 years. Between Raccoon Mountain , Enterprise South Nature Park, White Oak Mountain, expansions to Booker T, Five Points, and Stringers Ridge, nearly 100 miles of thoroughly-modern mountain bike trail closer to town makes a drive out to the Cherokee sound less inviting.

But, oh, is it worth the drive. It’s part of the charm, now, this grand old lady of a trail system, forgotten somewhat by time and changing tastes in trail design. It's as good as it ever was, and this kind of old-school multi-use singletrack is both a rarity in this part of Tennessee and a counterpoint to the machine-cut flow trails cropping up everywhere. There’s a certain kind of trail where being designed without bikes in mind makes it really fun to ride bikes on, and this is it. These were the mountain bike trails in the area before the area had mountain bike trails.

On a recent weekend, with the absolute peak of fall color still clinging to the trees, I spent two days riding at Chilhowee, taking photos for this article and (unfortunately) cutting a rear tire both days. Saturday, I brought two friends, one of whom had never ridden at Chilhowee. Her reaction echoed mine from my very first visit, a sort of disbelief that I'd never been here before and no one had implored me to check it out. Sunday, I rode with another friend who hadn't ridden here in years and was honestly surprised at how fun the trails were.

"Forgotten" is an overused term, I think; few places are actually forgotten, merely underutilized. This place certainly hasn't been forgotten by the locals who have continued riding here over the years, delighting in the fact that they often have the trails entirely to themselves. I doubt this article will change that, as this kind of riding isn't for everyone. All the better for us! Load up the bikes, head out to the Cherokee and check these trails out. Chances are, you can ride to your heart's content without seeing another soul on any of the singletrack.

For suggested routes and trail descriptions, check out our guide to Chilhowee Mountain Biking.

Written by Jeff Bartlett for RootsRated and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.