Location is everything.
Chattanooga is where it is because of the conveniences of transportation. It’s where the Tennessee River cuts through the wall of the Cumberland Plateau, and the city built up around this natural intersection between boats and rails during the early industrial era. That made it quite the prize during the war between the states, and it’s the crossroads of the South even still—a 2.5 hour drive or less from Atlanta, Knoxville, Birmingham, and Nashville. Much of the traffic between the Southeast and the Midwest passes through here, giving us more traffic woes than a city of this size warrants. Two of the top 10 largest trucking corporations in the U.S. are headquartered here, and we’re still known around the world for a catchy tune about a train ride.
All of that to say, living here makes getting other places a fairly easy proposition, so much so that a drive over to the western edge of the Appalachians for a day hike isn’t much trouble at all. On clear days from certain vantage points around town, you can make out the profile of Big Frog, Cowpen Mountain, and Grassy Mountain shooting up from the valley floor about 40 miles to the east. They are the westernmost “real mountains” (+/- 4,000 ft. above sea level) in the country until you get to the Black Hills.
These peaks and their environs are protected by Cherokee National Forest (in Tennessee) and Chattahoochee National Forest (on the Georgia side of the line) and further sheltered by two adjacent wilderness areas (Big Frog and Cohutta) totaling over 40,000 acres. In addition to providing for pristine woodlands, these layers of governmental oversight make the area much harder to access than the more familiar peaks within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or along the Blue Ridge Parkway. If you want to see the tops of any of these mountains, be prepared for miles of gravel Forest Service roads and long, steep trails. The rewards are worth the investment, with thin crowds, ample wildlife, and woodlands bursting at the seams with otherwise rare wildflowers.
A friend and I drove over this past Saturday (5/7) to take advantage of a spell of unseasonably fine weather (it’s usually rather hot by this late in the spring) and soak up some time in the woods. We parked at the Conasauga Lake day use area and ascended Grassy Mountain. The lake itself is worth noting. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930s, it is the highest lake in Georgia at 3,150 ft. above sea level. The kid-friendly loop trail is a favorite summer beat-the-heat walk for our family, especially when the rhododendrons bloom around July 1. For this hike, we started by walking around the west arm of the lake and taking the Tower Trail that branches off the loop by the dam.
Spring blooms did not disappoint, and the midday sun lit things well enough that even my phone could get some good photos. Among the display (not all shown, and not all quite at peak) were multiple varieties of trillium, bluebead lily, lily of the valley, crested dwarf iris, mountain laurel, squawroot, wild ginger, phacelia, hawthorn, violets, etc. A couple of red squirrels and a very large tom turkey (too fast for this cameraman) made an appearance as well.
The top of the fire tower was padlocked, but we could still climb far enough up the steps to soak up the view. On such a clear day, it was well worth the effort.
We opted to come down via the Forest Service access road (closed to all but ranger vehicles). It was faster by a bit, but I’d recommend the footpath for overall enjoyment. The total loop was about 6 miles, with only 1,000-1,500 ft. of total elevation change (up and down). This little corner of Appalachia is well worth a visit for anyone who enjoys a walk in the forest without crowds. We only encountered two other hikers all day.
For somewhere so close, it feels rather far away.