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Soaring Above Tennessee’s ‘River City’

“Okay,” I yell. “Now I’m nervous!”

My tandem hang-gliding instructor, Mike Labado, has just asked how I’m feeling. We’re at the Lookout Mountain Flight Park about 20 minutes from downtown Chattanooga, and an ultralight airplane is towing our glider across the slick wet grass of the launching area. Before I can form my next sentence, the ultralight picks up speed, takes flight, and lofts my glider into the late-September sky like a giant kite tied to the tail end of a speeding airplane. Suddenly, we’re airborne—and I’m soaring above Tennessee.

‘Where the rock meets the sky’

Ask a local how Chattanooga got its name, and you never know quite what to expect. Some say it’s an Indian word for “where the mountain meets the river.” Others think it’s “where the rock meets the sky.” A few might even suggest Chattanooga is the very definition of American urban renewal. In fact, all three are good descriptions of Tennessee’s resurgent River City, where the rocky slopes of Lookout Mountain rush to the meet the shores of the city’s revitalized urban waterfront.

From the downtown area, you’re just minutes away from mountains, rivers, and wide open skies that translate to enough free—or nearly free—outdoor pursuits to satisfy just about any active traveler. Miles of free hiking trails, bike paths, and fresh-water kayaking? Check. Olympic-class rapids for whitewater thrill seekers? Check. The top hang-gliding school in the country? Surprisingly, check. And when you add these affordable activities to the city’s healthy dose of Southern hospitality, you’ll find Chattanooga’s a bargain no matter how you define it.

‘Don’t worry’

Now aloft, my hang glider soars above the trees while the ultralight banks a sharp right toward the top of Lookout Mountain. Mike and I are dangling from the apex of the glider’s triangular frame, and my hands are locked in a Vulcan death grip on the handholds attached to his harness. He smiles. He sees this all the time.

“Don’t worry,” he yells over the rushing wind. “Whatever happens to you up here happens to me, too. And I plan on coming back!” It’s a good point. Mike has been gliding for 21 years and instructing from Lookout Mountain for the last 12. He logs about 1,500 flights per year. I’m in good hands.

At 2,000 feet, Mike cuts us loose from the ultralight, and suddenly we’re free—floating like a leaf on the wind above Lookout Mountain and the valley far below. It’s a lot more peaceful than I expect. After the initial rush of liftoff, hang gliding is actually calming. By the time we glide softly to a landing 20 minutes later, I’m already thinking about another flight.

You don’t have to be a daredevil to enjoy hang gliding. The instructors at Lookout Mountain Flight Park have taken students as young as five and as old as 92 into the skies. The “Discovery Tandem Package” that I tried costs $139. An even better bargain is the two-flight package for $219, yielding a $60 savings on the second flight. These packages are meant for those who want to experience hang gliding before deciding if it’s something they want to do on their own. If you want to start learning to do it yourself, the $199 “Introductory Experience” package gives you five short hill launches in the morning and a full 2,000-foot tandem flight in the afternoon.

Choose your own adventure

Last year, the residents of Chattanooga formed Outdoor Chattanooga with a mission to “make outdoor recreation an attractive, healthy, and distinguishing lifestyle for its resident and visitor populations.” So far so good. The organization is maintaining and updating old mountain biking trails on the nearby mountains, including the moderate Lookout Mountain Guild Trail. The Guild Trail twice cuts beneath the Lookout Mountain incline railroad, dubbed “America’s most amazing mile,” and once past the entry point for Ruby Falls caverns, where $13 gets you 260 feet beneath the mountain to see an enormous underground waterfall. Outdoor Chattanooga arranges guided mountain biking excursions; it will also help you find a bike rental if you’d prefer to go solo.

The Tennessee River runs through Chattanooga before shooting off into smaller creeks with gentle flows not far from the city center. Outdoor Chattanooga’s guided activity wing, OutVenture, leads canoe and kayaking daytrips starting at $10; introductory lessons go for $20. I ventured down the Chickamauga Creek, past beaver dams and through the waterlogged branches of fallen sycamore trees. It’s one of 10 water-based trips offered by OutVenture. Others include sunset kayaking along the downtown waterfront, and a paddling excursion to Nickajack Lake where you can watch nearly 100,000 bats emerge from Nickajack Cave after nightfall.

In 2006, Outdoor Chattanooga’s offerings will expand to include an office and rental center downtown at the newly created Renaissance Park. Call 423-643-6888 for more information as the new year approaches.

About an hour from the city, the Ocoee River boasts the longest continual stretch of Class III and IV whitewater rapids in the U.S., and no shortage of outfitters willing to take you through the foam. I went with High Country Adventures, whose “middle section” trips range from $20 to $44 per person based on group size and season. The middle section of the Ocoee River starts just after the dam where, more than 100 times a year, the county literally opens the floodgates and lets rafters rush down river for some seriously big water.

Staying in Chattanooga

Chattanooga today barely resembles the industrial town that once sat on the banks of the Tennessee. Gone are the waterfront polluters and grimy factories. In their place now stand the city’s $120-million 21st Century Waterfront Project, which includes a new $30-million expansion to the Tennessee Aquarium, the completely renovated Hunter Museum of American Art, and the hilltop Bluff View Art District‘s galleries, restaurants, and high-end B&B.

I’d recommend staying right in the city on any trip to the Chattanooga area. Most hotels offer parking for rental cars—which you’ll need if you plan to explore most of the surrounding area’s outdoor offerings—while electric busses run frequently to all of the city’s attractions.

The Hilton Garden Inn is a short walk from the waterfront project and can’t-miss restaurants such as Sticky Fingers (the city’s best barbeque ribs), Mojo Burrito (football-sized Mexican fare and 62 varieties of beer on hand), and Easy Seafood (Creole-inspired seafood). Rooms at the Garden Inn range from $109 to $169 based on the season.

A little further from the town center, the upscale Chattanoogan Hotel is the nicest of the many area hotels, and at $139 for a standard room is within reach of many budget-minded travelers. The lobby of the famous Chattanooga Choo Choo is built out of the old station house and leads into its restaurants and hotel rooms. Rates start at $99 for a standard room, or $159 for a night in one of the renovated train cars. The hotel’s Station House restaurant is worth a visit for its singing servers.

You can feel the energy of urban renewal all around you in Chattanooga. The locals are friendly and upbeat. The buildings have the shine of recent renovation. And whatever your interests, there’s always something to do here when you get back from your outdoor adventures.

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