Ask Hamilton: Raccoon Mountain

Photos Courtesy of Tennessee Valley Authority and Raccoon Mountain Caverns

Dear Hamilton,

Like most Chattanoogans, I’m familiar with Lookout Mountain and Signal Mountain, and I’ve enjoyed exploring the hiking paths and scenic destinations on each. I recently found out that there’s another mountain nearby called Raccoon Mountain. What can you tell me about its history, and are there any must-see spots I should visit?

Eager to Explore

view of tennessee river gorge

View of the Tennessee River Gorge from Raccoon Mountain

Dear Eager to Explore,

While Raccoon Mountain may fly under the radar compared to Lookout and Signal Mountains, it’s home to several historic sites that are well worth the visit. A 15-minute drive will get you from downtown to the area known as Raccoon Mountain, which actually consists of three mountains: Aetna, Elder, and Raccoon. The mountains are located west of Chattanooga, and each have a unique piece of history attached. Aetna has ties to the Cherokee Nation, Elder is known for the still-standing, 100-year-old mansion of its namesake, and Raccoon played a pivotal role in resupplying Federal troops to Chattanooga during the Civil War.

TVA's underground power plant

Inside TVA’s underground power plant

Raccoon Mountain gained a new body of water in 1978 with the completion of a massive, man-made lake. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) constructed this mountaintop reservoir as part of its largest hydroelectric facility to date. The storage system pumps water from Nickajack Lake to the reservoir, which can hold over 100 billion gallons of water. When TVA needs additional power, water is released into the underground power plant, where it turns turbines and helps generate electricity for the entire Tennessee Valley.

In 2006, a groundbreaking partnership continued to change the landscape of Raccoon Mountain. TVA entered into a land management agreement with the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association (SORBA) Chattanooga, allowing the organization to build and maintain bike-accessible trails. The first phase was completed in 2007, and in 2010, SORBA Chattanooga received the National Partnership Award from American Trails for their work with TVA. Today, mountain bikers and hikers alike can enjoy 28 miles of day-use trails. With witty trail names that nod to the TVA power plant, like High Voltage and Megawatt, the Raccoon Mountain Trail System winds around the reservoir and has turned the mountain into a recreational hotspot.

raccoons playing by the river

Raccoons playing by the river

Like its name suggests, Raccoon Mountain is also home to abundant wildlife. In fact, 800 acres are designated by the state as a Wildlife Observation Area, thanks to TVA and the Tennessee River Gorge Trust. The area is considered a prime wildlife habitat and is home to animals such as white-tailed deer, woodchucks, gray foxes, a wide variety of bird species, and of course, raccoons. You might even spot our nation’s emblem, as a large population of bald eagles arrive each winter.

raccoon mountain caverns

Raccoon Mountain Caverns

More history can be found at the base of Raccoon Mountain, and if you’re daring, underneath! Here, a massive system of natural caverns awaits. This underground world was discovered in 1929 by Leo Lambert, the famous Chattanoogan who popularized Ruby Falls. He established the site as Raccoon Mountain Caverns in 1931, and since then it has attracted people curious about what lies within the caverns. One of the most geologically active caverns in the South, Raccoon Mountain Caverns features countless natural formations such as stalactites and stalagmites, flowstone, and natural bridges within its five miles of passageways. It takes a century for these formations to grow just one inch – now that’s a lot of sedimentary history!

No visit to a mountain is complete without stopping by a scenic overlook to enjoy the views. Depending on which side of Raccoon Mountain you’re on, you can either spot downtown Chattanooga or look out over the Tennessee River Gorge. After all, our city isn’t just historic, it’s also beautiful!

Happy exploring!

Hamilton Bush
Resident History Hound
Chattanooga, TN

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