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How a coalition of mountain bikers, climbers, and city officials are banding together to make Tennessee’s newest trail network

This is the first installment in a series detailing the trail construction and modernization of Walden’s Ridge Park in Chattanooga, Tennessee. 

By Lucy Higgins • September 1, 2022

Roughly an hour northeast of Chattanooga, Tennessee stretches Walden’s Ridge, a 74-mile ridgeline cutting north/south through the state. The steep, clifflike terrain denotes a clear geographic end to the Cumberland Plateau—it’s a swift drop from the plateau’s 1,000-foot elevation of sedimentary rock covered in pines, oaks, and hickories to the base of Walden’s Ridge. It’s tucked in here, at the end of some of the largest swaths of uninterrupted forest in the eastern United States, that something new is just getting started. 

Since 2016, an effort has been underway to create Walden’s Ridge Park, a 200-acre area dedicated to mountain bikers, climbers, hikers, and trail runners. That’s the year that a local family donated the first piece of what is now park property to the North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy (NCCC), hoping to keep the views and watershed protected. 

“The president at the time, he’s now the executive director of the North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy, Kim Laramore, went around and did an inventory of all our properties,” explains current NCCC president Taft Sibley. “He looked at (what is now the) Walden’s Ridge Park and was like, ‘What do we do with it? It’s a steep mountain slope, should we give it away, what do we do? He called a friend at the Land Trust for Tennessee and they walked the land together. His friend was like, ‘You know what this would be perfect for? It’d be perfect for mountain biking and it would be perfect for bouldering.’”

Photo: Liz Chrisman/International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA)

Sibley was thrilled to first hear about the new undertaking. Though an avid white water kayaker and not a mountain biker, he is proud to be “born and raised” in Chattanooga and quickly became the project leader, eventually becoming NCCC president. While Sibley has worked hard since to advocate for Walden’s Ridge’s construction, the NCCC and its members are by no means undertaking these efforts alone. 

Joining in were, in fact, many dedicated mountain bikers and climbers from the region, via groups like the Southern Offroad Bikers Association’s (SORBA) Chattanooga branch and the Southeast Climbers Coalition. “We called SORBA and were like, do you guys want to build a mountain bike park?’ And they were like ‘yea, sure,’” Sibley recalls of some of those early conversations. “Then we called the Southeast Climbers Coalition and were like, ‘Hey, we’ve got some sweet boulders out here,’ and the boulderers were like, ‘Sure, we’d love to help build a park.’ So we just hit the ground running.”

Support streamed in, and eventually a coalition was formed that included NCCC, SORBA, Southeast Climbers Coalition, the Land Trust of Tennessee, and Hamilton County Parks and Recreation. In 2018, additional land was donated to the proposed park, and the Hamilton County Commission stepped forward to take over management after the park’s completion. Just one looming question remained: How, exactly, does one build this style of mountain biking trails, let alone design a park of this scale? 

Like in most cases of construction, that required money, and it required expertise. To address financing,the coalition began applying to grants, and eventually received funding from state grants, like the Recreational Trails Funding Grant, as well as grant money allocated from private companies such as Hydroflask and REI. 

Then came another turning point: the Walden’s Ridge Park coalition was awarded IMBA’s first Trail Accelerator Grant, then hired the IMBA Trail Solutions team to begin planning, designing, and implementing the park’s trails and layout. 

“They came out and walked the property and put together a plan for us and at that point, we drank their Kool-Aid,” Sibley says, laughing. “Josh from IMBA Trail Solutions really helped guide our processes in terms of permitting and what does the user want, how to we hedge liability, what does the maintenance plan look like.”

“This isn’t just a bunch of hippies in the woods,” he says. “These are doctors and lawyers and accountants (who will be) coming to our hill and eating in our restaurants and staying in our AirBnBs. And we see the value of that.”

Taft Sibley, NCCC President

Josh Olson serves as IMBA Trail Solutions’ director of construction and operations, and brought over twenty years of trail building experience—as well as his own mountain biker’s perspective—into the park. After IMBA Trail Solutions planning and design project manager Steve Kasacek met with local user groups and created the conceptual design for the park, Olson put boots on the ground and began flagging and eventually building the trails. After a handful of visits, each for a few days, to design and flag, the team got to work. The end result was over ten miles of trails including intermediate to advanced mountain biking trails; hiking trails to access bouldering spots; and multi-use trails for hiking, trail running, and walking.

The mountain biking trails, however, are the park’s main draw. “We purposefully didn’t build any green trails,” Olson says, pertaining to their decision to cater the biking trails to advanced riders.”There are a lot of green trail networks surrounding Chattanooga, but this is multi-use, directional on the perimeter trails. The network factors that all in so you can still hike and run.”

Photo: Liz Chrisman/International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA)

“The most juicy and the best part of this park is that it’s pedal up, it’s not lift serve,” Olson continued. “This is gravity-oriented, pedal-up, earn-your-turns mountain biking. We built out some blue intermediate jump lines, like rock/tech jump, then it’s going to be a high level park.”

It’s the hope of the IMBA Trail Solutions and the Walden’s Ridge Park that this network becomes a draw for the greater Chattanooga community, adding an aspect of advanced riding to a region already catering to local and intermediate riders. 

For Sibley, there’s no question about the park’s ability to elevate his hometown’s appeal. “This isn’t just a bunch of hippies in the woods,” he says. “These are doctors and lawyers and accountants (who will be) coming to our hill and eating in our restaurants and staying in our AirBnBs. And we see the value of that.”

Walden’s Ridge Park is slated to open around the New Year, 2023.

Click here to read Part 2: Walden’s Ridge Park: Almost Out of the Woods.