Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, October 6, 2023

A long-awaited ride in the woods

Walden’s Ridge Park opens to bouldering, biking, hiking on Signal Mountain

In 2004, the late Chattanooga business and civic leader John “Jack” McDonald donated a 119-acre sprawl on the side of Signal Mountain to the North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy. McDonald wanted to always be able to look at the mountain and see forest, says Tim Laramore, director of the conservancy.

Seven years ago, a thought struck Laramore and a handful of people from the Land Trust for Tennessee as they were exploring the property McDonald had donated: The topography was well-suited for mountain biking and bouldering.

“So, we assembled a working group, approached the McDonalds and asked for the pieces that would allow us access a trailhead at the top of the mountain and an additional 100 acres at the bottom,” Laramore recalls.

LTT President and CEO Liz McLaurin remembers the organization’s outgoing southeast director at the time, Joel Houser, leaving it with a parting challenge: Make that land a public park.

“He said it would be amazing,” McLaurin recalls. “So, I contacted the McDonald family, and Jack decided to donate the land.”

McDonald, who died in 2017, gifted the land under the condition that the LTT would hold a conservation easement that would protect it as an open space in perpetuity, McLaurin adds.

Oct. 1, the Chattanooga community celebrated the generosity of the McDonalds as it opened Walden’s Ridge Park, a 200-acre park featuring more than 10 miles of mountain biking, hiking and trail running, as well as bouldering.

Bruz Clark, president and treasurer of the Lyndhurst Foundation, which together with the Riverview Foundation of Chattanooga provided over $300,000 for the design and construction of Walden’s Ridge, says the new park will add to Chattanooga’s appeal as a world-class destination for mountain biking and bouldering.

“I (recently) attended the ribbon cutting for the first phase of the Aetna Mountain Bike Trail,” Clark says, referring to one of Hamilton County’s many other outdoor destinations. “And here we are to celebrate the opening of Walden’s Ridge Park.

“This same phenomenon is happening with the expansion of our local and regional climbing areas. We’ve become an international destination for climbers who wish to test their skills at Sunset Rock, the Tennessee Wall, Hell’s Kitchen and Woodcock Cove. Now we also have the boulder field at Walden’s Ridge.”

Walden’s Ridge Park started with an easement and then evolved into fundraising, bookkeeping and meetings, Laramore says. As a multitude of public and private entities joined forces to secure funds and then design and build a premier trail system, it became clear these partnerships would serve as the heartbeat that would give the park life.

“We’re grateful to the funders that provided foundational support,” says McLaurin, who lists Lyndhurst, Riverview, the city of Chattanooga and The Tucker Foundation as initial donors. The contributions of these partners inspired other funders, she continues, including Chattanooga Tourism Company, the McKee family, Parks for All, REI Co-op, the Grandview Foundation, the International Mountain Biking Association and more.

As the LTT labored to raise over $1.2 million to present Chattanooga with a completed park, the NCCC assembled the battalion of partners needed to shape the land into a world-class park.

Included among these many groups was the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association, which worked with Trail Solutions, a subsidiary of the International National Mountain Bike Association, to design the mountain biking trails, reports Les Warnock, the director of SORBA’s Chattanooga chapter. Trail Solutions then built most of the trails.

“We wanted to fill what we considered to be a void in the Chattanooga area mountain bike scene,” adds Warnock. “Walden’s Ridger Park is a progressive, downhill-oriented bike park with 30-foot jumps, whereas the rest of Chattanooga is more cross-country oriented.”

SORBA then maintained the trail as it awaited the public launch, when Hamilton County assumed stewardship of the park. But even as that moment arrived Saturday, Laramore said SORBA volunteers were probably still working to perfect the trail.

“There are probably people from SORBA down the hill blowing and raking right now,” he said during the ribbon cutting ceremony at the top of the park. “They built and maintained the trail, and they set up a management plan so the park we see today is the park we’ll see in 10 years.”

Meanwhile, volunteers with the Southeastern Climbers Coalition lent their hands, feet and seemingly unbreakable backs to the massive effort to help forge trails across the uncut land, says Megan Evans, the organization’s executive director.

“People tend to think these kinds of trails are machine-built, but our volunteers spent hundreds of hours of hand-digging trails, making stone staircases and reinforcing landings. It’s been rock nets and volunteers picking up the rocks and moving them to where they needed to go.”

“Their work on this park has given them a legacy case of poison ivy that will never go away,” Laramore jokes. “Their sacrifice and dedication have been impressive.”

McLaurin agrees and reiterates the LTT’s commitment moving forward.

“We’re grateful to the volunteers who dedicated countless hours building and maintaining the trails, installing the signage and test driving the trails. The Last Trust for Tennessee will ensure this park remains an open space in perpetuity through the conservation easement. Our work and the county’s work will never end.”

That work will lean on one of the key principles the Lyndhurst Foundation identified as it evaluated the Walden’s Ridge Park project and considered whether or not it was eligible for funding, says Clark: the community.

“We asked if Walden’s Ridge Park would foster a greater sense of community among those who live in proximity to it. Using this and other criteria, you can see how exceptional the park is and how fortunate we are to have this recreational and ecological resource in our urban backyard.”

The other criteria Lyndhurst assessed included the park’s habitat and biodiversity, its connectivity to similar assets and nearby neighborhoods, its ability to improve the mental and physical health of residents, and its potential to generate measurable economic benefits.

Greg Dahlstrom, a businessman who lives near Walden’s Ridge Park, as well as am avid mountain biker who’s tackled parks across the country, says he expects the space to bring in enough revenue to justify its existence.

“I’m very excited about Walden’s Ridge Park. Its trails are unique, not just to this area but also to the entire region, and the terrain is great for mountain biking. When they built the trails, they used the terrain to make them challenging but also fun. There are big boulders you can ride off of and long drops onto the trail below. People are going to travel to come here.”

In the end, the local community was just as important as the topography in making Walden’s Ridge Park a magnet to the outdoor recreation community, says Laramore.

“Chattanooga has the boulders, cliffs, crags and creeks to support a place like Walden’s Ridge Park, but a lot of towns have those. This city has become a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts because it also has a community that supports this kind of thing.”

Director of Parks Matt Folz shares Laramore’s appraisal and says everyone’s efforts will bear fruit.

“A lot of blood, sweat and tears – and maybe a few beers – went into building this park. It’s a special place. The people who were a part of the project made their community better, not just for their neighbors, but also for the world, and the work was always worth it when you can say that.”