World-Class Outdoors Means Economic Growth

It’s well known that cities like Boulder, Asheville, and Flagstaff boost their economies and attract residents and tourists due to their outdoor vistas, but how does Chattanooga stack up to these places?

By Brenda Shafer


Across the U.S., cities such as Boulder, Colorado, Asheville, North Carolina, and Flagstaff, Arizona, have experienced economic growth. These cities have attracted young entrepreneurs that have developed new businesses, older professionals that have chosen their cities for retirement, and visitors that have supported vibrant tourism industries.

What’s the common denominator?

The Great Outdoors. Each of these cities has spacious outdoor areas along with world-famous outdoor destinations. Together these outdoor areas and destinations provide a quality of life unmatched in other cities and offer attractions that draw outdoor enthusiasts, all of which serve to support their local economies. Boulder, with 45,000 acres of preserved open space, is famous for the Flatirons.  Asheville is celebrated for its beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway that snakes through thousands of acres of preserved mountain regions. Flagstaff, surrounded by mountains, deserts, and forests, benefits from its proximity to the world-renown Grand Canyon.

What about Chattanooga? Voted “Best Town Ever” twice by Outside magazine, Chattanooga offers beautiful, spacious outdoor areas, along with numerous world-class attractions all within an hour’s drive. Millennials are increasingly calling Chattanooga home, as the scenic city was titled one of the “hippest mid-size cities” and the top place to start a business.  Named among the best retirement locations, Chattanooga is drawing in baby boomers who see its beautiful scenery and outdoor activities as ideal for retirement. Boasting millions of visitors each year, Chattanooga was named one of the “Top 45 Places to Go” in the world by the New York Times. These accolades are no surprise considering the beauty and world-class destinations that surround Chattanooga.

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Right photo courtesy of Chattanooga CVB

Championship Rock Climbing

For traditional rock climbers, there is Lookout Mountain’s highly sought-after Sunset Rock, along with the Tennessee Wall, which offers 600 different routes. Sport climbers can attack Foster Falls, a highly technical and strenuous climb, a forty-five-minute drive from Chattanooga. Castle Rock, thirty minutes away, offers nearly 100 sport and traditional routes.

One of the best boulder fields in the world, Stone Fort, or Little Rock City, is twenty-five minutes north of city center. Little Rock City is internationally known for its sandstone bluffs that attract climbers from around the world for the annual Triple Crown Bouldering Competition.

Unrivaled Trails for Hiking, Mountain Biking, and Trail Running

Within fifteen minutes, Chattanoogans have access to 150 miles of hiking trails. A little farther out on Signal Mountain, the Cumberland Trail begins. The Cumberland Trail by itself is an impressive 190 miles of trails, connecting two state parks and eleven Tennessee counties, but when it’s completed, it will be over 300 miles and part of The Great Eastern Trail which extends from Alabama to New York.

Chattanooga offers over 100 miles of singletrack mountain biking trails,
including Raccoon Mountain Trail Network, which is considered the best mountain biking trail in Tennessee.  The 5 Points 50, a 50-mile endurance mountain bike race, connects several of these trails and draws expert mountain bikers from around the Southeast. The 5 Points 50 distinguishes itself by connecting public trails through three privately-owned trails, so racers don’t have pre-race access to the map nor can they fully prepare with pre-rides. 

With 150 miles of singletrack trail running, Chattanooga hosts the Stump Jump, the largest and most competitive 50k trail race in the Southeast, which takes runners up to an elevation of 4,400 feet.

Endless Greenways for Walking, Road Biking, and Running

Chattanooga not only boasts multiple parks with beautiful pathways, but also greenways that connect the city, enabling a runner or biker to safely navigate from the Georgia border through downtown up to highway 153. The Tennessee Riverwalk and South Chickamauga Greenway, once completed, will combine to create a 25-mile horseshoe loop, an impressive system of greenways for any city its size.  Because of these walkways and bike-friendly roads, Chattanooga has been named a “Silver Level Bicycle Friendly Community” and the most bike-friendly city in Tennessee.   

Runner’s World named Chattanooga among the most beautiful places to run in the world. Each year, Chattanooga hosts over one hundred 5k races.  Even more impressive, Chattanooga is the only city in the world to host a full-distance IRONMAN, a 70.3 IRONMAN, and the 70.3 IRONMAN World Championships.

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Photo courtesy of Ruby Falls

World-Renown Caving

Caving enthusiast won’t run out of real estate to explore, as there are 7,000 caves surrounding Chattanooga, all within an hour’s drive from downtown. Ruby Falls, one of Chattanooga’s gems, is a 145-foot waterfall beneath the surface of Lookout Mountain. Then there is Nickajack Cave, a popular destination as it houses thousands of endangered gray bats during the summer months. Nickajack also provides a 50-foot limestone cliff face over 60-foot deep water that is perfect for deep water soloing, a favorite among young adventure tourists.

Craighead Caverns houses America’s largest and the world’s second largest underground lake, The Lost Sea. A registered National Landmark, the visible surface area of the lake measures approximately 4.5 acres but 12 acres have been mapped underwater.

Unsurpassed Adventures

Tennessee’s beloved river, that snakes through Chattanooga and cuts through the Cumberland Plateau, yields the fourth largest river gorge in the Eastern United States. Each “corner” of the gorge, with nicknames like the suck, kettle, pan, and pot, provides adventurers with treacherous water to swim or paddle.

In fact, swimmers and paddlers are drawn each year to Chattanooga for nationally-known races. Swim the Suck, one of the most famous open water swims in the world, is ten miles long and sells out within 20 minutes of registration opening. Chattajack 31 is considered one of the best paddle board races in the country. Chattanooga’s Head of the Hooch is one of the world’s largest rowing regattas, with more than 2,000 boats racing over two days.

Only an hour from Chattanooga, whitewater enthusiasts can visit the Ocoee River, the home for the 1996 Summer Olympic Whitewater Games and a top U.S. destination for whitewater rafting.  Avid fishermen are also drawn to Chattanooga, as the surrounding lakes and rivers contain the best variety of freshwater fish in the U.S.  Chickamauga Lake has received national attention for bass fishing and has drawn many visitors.

For extreme adventurers, Lookout Mountain offers one of the top hang gliding spots in the country. The combination of mild weather and the opportunity for both tow assist and mountain launches creates the perfect spot for this sport. Lookout Mountain also offers the largest full-time hang gliding school and resort in the country.

Outdoors and Economic Progress

In the last decade, young professionals have increasingly chosen Chattanooga as their home and become a greater force in new business startups. With organizations like The Company Lab and Lamp Post Group, whose sole purpose is to promote Chattanooga startups, young entrepreneurs are flocking to Chattanooga’s Innovation District with the next great idea. Startups like Access America (now Coyote Logistics), Bellhops, Quickcue (now Open Table), and Southtree are home-grown Chattanooga businesses developed by young entrepreneurs that have received national attention for their successes.

Retirees too are choosing Chattanooga. In addition to low cost of living, today’s aging baby boomers are looking for quality of life. Demographic data from Gale Research shows that this age group, from 55-65, has increased by 58% since 2000, making Baby Boomers Chattanooga’s fastest growing age group.

Tourism is also on the rise. Fortunately for Chattanooga, Americans spend $646 billion a year on outdoor recreation, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. That’s almost more than motor vehicles and parts ($340 billion) and pharmaceuticals ($331 billion) combined.

In the last decade, Chattanooga’s tourism industry has increased 57%, hitting one billion dollars last year. While it is difficult to quantify the outdoors’ contribution, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga estimated that climbing alone brought 7 million to Hamilton County last year. They found that 16,565 non-residents visited the Tennessee Wall, Sunset Rock, and Stone Fort during last year’s climbing season. These climbers also booked hotel rooms, ate at local restaurants, and are coming back next year. These are promising trends for Chattanooga.

Bob Doak, President and CEO of Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, attributes Chattanooga’s tourism success to the “unparalleled collection of God-given and man-made beauty.” “Other cities have mountains, but few cities are surrounded by mountains with a beautiful river running through the heart of downtown,” Doak says, “In Chattanooga, you can stay at a four-diamond hotel, and within less than thirty minutes, you can be involved in incredible outdoor activity—that’s a rare combination.”

Preservation Efforts Key to Outdoor Attractions

With significant cash coming in from these attractions, it makes economic sense to invest in our outdoors. Luckily, there are local organizations working tirelessly to preserve the outdoors, like the Lula Lake Land Trust, protecting Lookout Mountain’s Lula Lake and its surrounding 8,000 acres. The Trust for Public Land, whose Tennessee headquarters are located in Chattanooga, has been helping build the Tennessee Riverwalk since 1994. The Land Trust for Tennessee, which has a local office in Chattanooga, has protected more than 100,000 acres of land statewide since its founding in 1999. “Major efforts have been made to create strategies for saving public lands and land use for generations to come,” says Greg Vital, a local board member, who has served on The Land Trust for Tennessee’s board for eight years.

Another organization, The Tennessee River Gorge Trust, safeguards 17,064 acres that surround the river. Executive Director, Rick Huffines adds that, “Protecting our open space supports clean air and water which drives local wildlife watching, hiking, paddling, and climbing opportunities. We must be good stewards of what we have. We all feel the daily need for food, shelter, and water, but space isn’t missed until it’s gone. Here we have it, because we are preserving it.”

The “space” that Chattanooga offers is unique—beautiful, spacious outdoor areas with world-class adventures, plus all the amenities of a city. It brings a quality of life that millennials, retiring boomers and tourists alike want to experience for at least a visit, if not for a lifetime.