Sweet Home...Chattanooga?

We asked readers to pick their ultimate dream town, a perfect base camp that offers everything from epic singletrack to progressive city planning. They did—21,975 voted in all—and we couldn’t believe their choice. So we dispatched all-knowing travel sage Chuck Thompson to the hills of Tennessee to fact-check our Facebook-sourced, democratically proclaimed Best Town Ever.

Greetings from Scenic City! The Tennessee River rolling under Walnut Street Bridge.     Photo: Tara Donne

7,434 (33.8%)

“Chiggers, poison ivy, rednecks, humid summers, cold winters. If you don’t like those things, you shouldn’t come here.”

You wouldn’t know it by listening to him, but Trevor Childress is the best spokesman there is for Chattanooga. You also wouldn’t know that the blond, blue-eyed, 29-year-old Georgia transplant is at the spear tip of a civic and outdoor renaissance that has ele­vated this city of 167,674 from what comedian Doug Stanhope once callously described as a place “so behind the times that you can’t even get AIDS there yet” to what Outside’s Facebook ­voters overwhelmingly dubbed the Best Town Ever.

Officially, Childress isn’t buying the recognition. Consider, however, that in addition to being a professional outdoor guide, he’s also a dedicated rock climber and licensed pilot who happens to be airing his gripes on the shores of a favorite swimming hole after a tour of some of the most wildly textured sandstone climbing crags in the country. Spend much time with Childress and you begin to sense an ulterior motive behind the griping.

“I don’t like Outside ­coming in here and naming this the best town ever,” he says, like a kid upset that his secret hideout has been revealed. “I sure didn’t vote for Chattanooga on that thing.”

PLENTY OF OTHERS did. Which is how this river city near the meeting point of Tennessee, Georgia, and ­Alabama beat out perennial “most livable,” ­“coolest,” and “Bro, you gotta try this seasonal IPA” meccas like Boulder, ­Colorado; Burling­ton, Vermont; and Portland, Oregon.

The explanation for Chattanooga’s sudden jump to civic stardom begins with the literal rise of the Cumberland Plateau. Taking in more than 24,000 square miles on its mountainous run from Kentucky to Alabama, the plateau splinters near Chattanooga to form a labyrinth of jagged ridges and sheer gorges. At the site of Chattanooga itself, the plateau towers more than 1,000 feet above the Tennessee River. The back side of the Cumberland forms the eastern wall of the Sequatchie Valley, a rich hub of recreation whose vertical cliffs and green, flat valley floor long ago established it as the hang-gliding capital of the East.

I get my first gulp of the local adrenaline while attached to Childress on a tandem hang-glide that starts with a leap off a sheer 1,800-foot cliff at a place called Henson’s Gap. On a day with crazy thermal lifts, Childress once pulled off a 53-mile flight from here all the way to Fort Payne, Alabama. Our circle tour over the forest and farmlands below is much briefer but exhilarating enough.

Closer to ground, there are literally hundreds of challenging crags along the plateau. My favorite is a boulder garden, Stone Fort, about 20 miles ­outside the city, where a staggering playground of big rocks awaits barely two minutes from the car. And, OK, it’s one o’clock on a hot summer weekday—cooler October temps bring out the climbing masses—but Childress and I have the place to ourselves.

During a different adventure, at a place called Raccoon Mountain, I experience the painful pleasure of having my ass handed to me on a rumble-tumble 18-mile network of bike trails. The tight, intermediate-to-advanced singletrack is stuffed with enough sudden rock drops and trees around which to wrap a handlebar that my catalog of hardwood-forest obscenities gets as much of a workout as my legs and arms.

Cavers and creekers are similarly blessed with an abundance of options. Commercial rafts pile up like theme-park bumper boats on the Ocoee River, but you certainly don’t have to join them: within 30 minutes of downtown, there are roughly 30 creeks that feature Class IV or V runs, making Chattanooga a magnet for skilled paddlers.

STILL, FOR PEOPLE like me who are comfortable with reusable-cloth shopping bags, it’s not easy twisting your head around the idea of Outside’s Best Town being in a place with a history of monstrous industrial abuse (in the 1960s and 1970s, manufacturing waste and smog made Chattanooga one of the most polluted cities in the U.S.), ubiquitous evangelical dogma, and a reputation for red-state conservatism.

The people of Chattanooga, of course, will tell you that it’s not that simple.

“Chattanooga is an island of sanity in the middle of a very socially conservative place,” ­explains Minya James, a 30-­year-old Chattanoogan who recently started a ­wooden-boat-building business. “On a social level, I don’t want to say I have a love-hate rela­tionship with the town, because I don’t hate it. I don’t love it, either. But for outdoor recreation, there’s nothing like it.”

Like virtually everyone else I meet during the three days I spend in town, James is a transplant—and most of the others tell the same story. Chattanooga is affordable: the median home value is around $128,000. Major employers such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Cigna, Volkswagen, and McKee Foods (they make all your Little Debbie snacks) provide the foundation of an unflashy yet relatively stable and diverse ­local economy.

The foodies are coming, too, bringing with them those hipster Portland and Burlington restaurants that emphasize locally grown everything. And even if the hookup scene is lacking—one local single moro­sely informed me that Chattanooga is “a town of sixes, and barely enough of those”—there are signs of life. The weekend I was in town, the Crash Pad—a new, self-­described “boutique hostel” aimed at the outdoor crowd—threw a well-attended party with DJ talent imported from Los Angeles.

AS FOR THE TOWN'S political conservatism, I’m reminded several times by locals that it doesn’t always follow the script. Chattanooga’s revitalized waterfront district and the city-operated adventure outfitter Outdoor Chattanooga were green projects pushed through in the early 2000s by then-mayor and current Tennessee Republican senator Bob Corker, a local hero.

Besides, the best cities are sometimes the ones that haven’t quite arrived. They are places where people talk more about momentum and the future and promises yet to be fulfilled than about skyrocketing home values and what a bitch it is to park downtown.

Which is not to say that Chat­tanooga doesn’t have enough problems to keep the gawking hordes at bay. One man, for ­certain, is still clinging to them.

“Ticks, mosquitoes, fleas, can’t get a decent job,” Childress moans, continuing to lay out the pitiable string of maladies afflicting his beloved town.

“That’s all part of it—that’s Chattanooga,” Childress says. “I just want everyone to know before they start coming here that that’s what to expect.” Then he relents and almost smiles as a razor-fine shaft of afternoon sunlight cuts toward his favorite swimming hole, hidden at the bottom of a deep, rocky gorge.

“It’s perfect for me, though,” he says, before diving in again.

From Outside Magazine, Oct 2011 Get the Latest Issue

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web