Hiker College

Lookout Mountain. Signal Mountain. Raccoon Mountain. Chattanooga rests in the laps of multiple mountains, so why would hikers in Chattanooga go out of state looking for a mountain to climb?

In the case of a hike Bill and I recently took with the Chattanooga Hiking Club, which has members living as far as 50 to 75 miles from the city, driving to Berry College to hike was as much about accommodating member hikers who live there as it was about a change of scenery.

Away they go, with Bill setting the pace.

Berry is a private, liberal arts college of about 2,000 students that is technically in Mount Berry, Georgia. For all practical purposes, though, it’s in Rome, Georgia, about a 90-minute drive from Chattanooga.

Berry also has the world’s largest college campus in terms of land area. It sits on more than 27,000 acres of woodland, fields and streams.

That vast acreage includes Berry’s “Mountain Campus,” and parts of that are open to the public for hiking, bicycling and horseback riding. Bill and I made our first trip there to meet up with the Chattanooga Hiking Club.

The hike was led by Barbara McCollum, a club member who lives in Rome, Georgia. Barbara also just happens to be a Berry alum and past president of its alumni association. She is a fountain of Berry fun facts and of energy.

The meet-up time was 9 a.m. That meant Bill and I had to leave Chattanooga by 7:30 a.m. and get up even earlier, on a Saturday. When we arrived at 9, Barbara and a handful of other hikers had already knocked out an extra three miles they wanted to log before pushing off with us and the larger group for another 10 miles. Plus, they got in three more miles after the group hike. We learned that’s because Barbara and the mileage-adding others were less than a week from leaving for Spain to hike about 360 miles of the famed Camino de Santiago in about 30 days.

I’ve known about and wanted to walk the Camino for 20 years. I’m jealous, but the fact six members of the club were about to go and do it told me these are my kind of hikers.

Inside Frost Chapel

The Berry Mountain Campus has a network of 80 miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails, and two frisbee golf courses.

After you pass through the main campus entrance, you meander through three miles of Gothic stone buildings, open fields and groves of trees until you arrive at the mountain campus.

We met at Frost Chapel, a campus landmark built by Berry students in 1937.

Frost Chapel entrance

The chapel was open, so we took a look inside. The heavy wood-beamed ceiling, flagstone floor, slate roof and stained-glass windows made it look like an Appalachian, fairy-tale version of a church, and it was definitely worth a look.

From there, we walked to the nearby “House of Dreams gravel access/fire road.” That began an eight-mile loop, following the gentle, but insistent ascent of almost 1,000 feet in 2.5 miles up Lavendar Mountain.

The campus is known for having a population of 1,500-2,000 deer, and we saw several members of that community on our winding climb.

Up on Lavendar Mountain, we reached the cottage and gardens known as the House O’ Dreams. Both once belonged to Miss Martha Berry, who founded the college. The House O’ Dreams–yes, that’s how it’s spelled–was built by Berry students in 1922 as a gift to Miss Martha on the school’s 20th anniversary. Born to a Georgia family of wealth amassed from decades as wholesale grocers and cotton brokers, Miss Martha was an advocate for education, especially for those who might not easily have access.

House O’ Dreams and gardens with koi pond

The House O’ Dreams sits at 1,360 feet elevation, by far the highest for 360 degrees all around. It looks out on the town of Rome, and toward Alabama in one direction and back toward Tennessee in another.

Firetower atop Lavender Mountain

In fact, I could make out some mountains in the distance toward Chattanooga, so I fired up a $5 app on my phone: A.R. Peak Finder. You open it and hold your phone as if taking a picture of a mountain horizon in front of you. On your phone screen, you see a photographic image, but it also has the names of mountain peaks in the image.

It uses GPS coordinates to determine the location of the phone and the peaks you aim at.

Garden archway on Lavender Mountain

I learned about it from my fellow avid hiker and close friend, Hank Dye, and it’s a nifty little tool I recommend to anybody who wants to know more about mountain geography in front of them because it will work on any topography around the world.

It was pretty amazing to see confirmation that one of the peaks I was looking at—from 75 miles away—was Lookout Mountain back in Chattanooga. That’s how far and clear the view was from Lavendar Mountain.

From the House O’ Dreams, we began our descent on a wooded trail used by hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders.

That trail took us past a lake reservoir, a project financed by Henry Ford, one of Miss Martha’s affluent and cause-minded friends.

The lake that Henry Ford built
Bill at The Mill

We continued to what’s called the Old Mill with its 3-story-sized water wheel and reportedly the most-photographed spot on the campus.

Shortly thereafter, we were strolling among the buildings of a Chick-Fil-A-funded marriage and family center, then our eight miles were logged and our loop was complete.

Just for fun, and because it was Labor Day Weekend and the traditional start of football season, the hiking club had asked participants to bring food contributions for a post-hike tailgate.

Newbies, like us, were told we were off the hook to bring food, but Bill and I imagined a cold, healthy fruit salad might be a hit. We brought it, and it was.

Travel+Leisure magazine rates Berry as one of the most beautiful college campuses in the country. I have to agree. Not to mention it dedicates thousands of wooded acres to outdoor pursuits–that’s a college any hiker ought to want to get into.

The Party With Purpose

Hand-held high heels for party hiking

Over the 15 months since we moved to Chattanooga, Bill and I have steadily discovered more and more of what makes this area so highly acclaimed for its outdoor offerings.

Mountains, valleys, lakes, rivers—calm and wild, it’s all here if you want to do it. And there are a whole lot of do-ers, like us. There also are a lot of people who are less do-ers than they are advocates for preserving the beautiful places that attract do-ers. Those places are called national treasures by still another group around here and, when we joined them for a recent benefit party, we knew we’d found our people.

Point Park entry: Replica of Army Corps of Engineers insignia

The 11thAnnual National Treasures Party at Point Park supported National Park Partners, a local group of movers and shakers behind conservation of the natural, historic and cultural resources of Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, which includes the Moccasin Bend National Archeological District.

Point Park is a 10-acre treasure on top of Lookout Mountain. In that park, all people are created equal—hikers, rock climbers, wheelchair-bound, the elderly, whomever—when it comes to taking in spectacularly beautiful scenery. You can easily drive up the mountain right to the gates of the park and walk on in. When hikers talk about whether a view can be had on a “windshield tour,” this place is a windshield tour bonanza.

It’s part of the National Park Service’s Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, and an entry fee of a few dollars is charged. The views are a bargain at any price.

Point Park’s name is derived from its northern tip—the point overlook on Lookout Mountain—on which Civil War Confederate soldiers perched confidently as the Union Army was caught below, for a time, in the city of Chattanooga. The federal soldiers’ ability to ascend and defeat Confederates on the slopes of Lookout Mountain is a stunning thing to contemplate.

No battles were fought at the Party at Point Park, but permanent placards and replica cannons positioned throughout document the place’s history.

National Public Radio affiliate WUTC-FM is a part of the UT Chattanooga Division of Communications and Marketing where I work, and I’m pleased to say that I learned about the Point Park shindig from underwriting (like advertising on commercial radio) by National Park Partners on our station. As soon as I heard about the place and the purpose, I was in.

The weather could not have been more perfect—dry and breezy as the sun was setting. Party planners clearly had thought of every detail.

A park ranger was stationed at a social media selfie site overlooking the valley. Four long tables were laden with silent auction items.

Dozens of round tables were draped with cheerful red-and-white checked tablecloths and nestled in a grove of tall, mature trees. Pulled pork, chicken and some vegetarian/tofu—this is Chattanooga, after all, where vegetarians are plentiful—versions of barbecue were served. Along with all the traditional sides and then some, and all of it buffet-style. Fruit salad, hand-dipped ice cream cones and banana pudding were the dessert options. I can vouch for the authenticity and deliciosity of the banana pudding.

Seating was unassigned, and we joined a local, Lookout Mountain-dwelling couple, seated with another local resident and the couple’s dog, which was napping inside a doggie stroller. They were warm and friendly. So was the other couple—also Lookout Mountaineers—who then joined us. For context, it’s necessary to point out that Chattanoogans who own property and live on Lookout Mountain are understood to be wealthy. Extremely so. Lots, alone, can sell for multiple millions, thanks to the million-dollar views. All five of our new friends—plus the stroller-napping Jack Russell Terrier—were engaging and delightful.

Umbrella Rock

After taking in the meal, Bill and I took in more of the sights. We made a bee-line for the once-a-year opportunity to approach and be photographed on iconic Umbrella Rock. It appears to me the result of a massive rock serving as a pillar on which an almost-bigger, horizontal slab of a rock must have landed and now rests.

The park keeps it locked behind a gate 364 days a year—to protect either from personal injury or from vandalism, I guess. The party is the one day a year when the gate is unlocked, and—happy surprise!—we got our rare chance to check out Umbrella Rock and get pictures in the most perfect conditions.

It’s next to the Ochs Observatory and Museum.

That observatory—essentially a vast stone deck—offers the single-most spectacular scenic view in all of Chattanooga, in my opinion.

From that lofty perch, you can look down at Moccasin Bend, the Tennessee River Valley, Chattanooga, earth. If you can’t see at least seven states from there, I’d be surprised.

And can you guess who’s behind the Ochs name of the overlook? Yes, that would be the legendary Adolph S. Ochs. I see his name on a lot of things in Chattanooga, usually acknowledging that he founded the Chattanooga Times newspaper. Which is important and true, but it’s only a piece of his story in Tennessee.

I used to see his name on a Tennessee Historical Commission placard in Knoxville almost every day for about eight years. That’s how long I worked for the newspaper there, and a placard just outside the building noted the site of what used to be Staub’s Theater and that Arthur S. Ochs—later the publisher of the New York Times—was its first chief usher.

Staub’s Theatre Marker notes Adolph Ochs’ presence in Knoxville.

Ochs was born in Cincinnati before his family moved to Knoxville, where he was raised as his parents operated a struggling business in the years just after the Civil War. In 1869 and at the age of 11, Ochs began delivering papers before he learned to set lead type. Of course, he did go on to establish the Chattanooga Times, with a merger since then resulting in the Times Free Press, today’s best newspaper in Tennessee, and later he became publisher of the New York Times, one of the best newspapers in the world. I was already a fan of Ochs. The fact he made enough money in the newspaper business that he could pay to make one of Chattanooga’s most spectacular views accessible to the public—what’s not to love?

According to the National Park Partners organization, more than 945,000 people from around the world visited the six units of Lookout Mountain’s National Park – Chickamauga Battlefield, Lookout Mountain Battlefield, Missionary Ridge, Moccasin Bend, Orchard Knob and Signal Point in Point Park in 2018..

I know of two more who’ve already been multiple times in 2019 and will keep going back in 2020 and beyond.