The dog days of summer are here, and unless your idea of camping involves sitting inside a land yacht with the AC running, picking the right destination is critical. Although I once survived a 100 degree afternoon in a campsite by sitting in front of no less than six box fans running at full tilt, it wasn’t an ideal situation.
How do you stay cool while summer camping? Short of driving to Canada, the surest way to drop the temperature is to gain altitude. Depending on conditions, you might see a five degree drop for every 1,000 feet of elevation. It’s time, literally, to head for the hills. Second, you need water. Not just to drink, but enough to immerse yourself. You need a lake, or at least a creek with a swimming hole. Finally, it wouldn’t hurt to have some mountain biking, trail running, hiking, climbing or paddling nearby, would it?
Fear not, it can be done. Draw a circle encompassing a couple hour’s drive of Chattanooga and you’ll have some great options.
1. CHILHOWEE RECREATION AREA
Strategically located atop Chilhowee Mountain between the Ocoee and the mighty Hiwassee rivers, this campground is at 2,100 feet, tall enough to feel the difference. A wide, easy trail circles the seven acre lake with a swimming beach that kids love. The three-mile roundtrip hike to Benton Falls is another popular option. Mountain biking from your campsite is superb with 25 miles of trail ranging from fast forest-service road to technical singletrack. My first time on Clear Creek trail a passing rider stopped to tell me, “You know there are places ahead where you should walk your bike, right?” He wasn't kidding! After a good workout you can leave your bike on the beach and go right into the lake. For a full weekend of knobby tires, head down to the mountain to the Ocoee Whitewater Center and ride the Tanasi trails. Speaking of whitewater, Chilhowee is fine spot to spend the night after paddling on the Hiwassee or Ocoee.
2. FORT MOUNTAIN STATE PARK
At nearly 3,000 feet of elevation, Fort Mountain towers over Chatsworth, Georgia. The 17-acre lake offers rental canoes and paddleboats (yes, the kind with pedals, but you can bring your own paddleboard or kayak). The swimming beach is full-service with a concession stand and a rustic miniature golf course. The mountain biking here is old-school and challenging, with fall-line descents so steep your wrists will cramp from squeezing the brakes before you reach the easier forest roads that circle the mountain. You'll pass old gold mines and sheds where stenciled letters tell you, “Fuse burns at the rate of one foot per minute.” The climb back up to the top will challenge the strongest rider—mortal humans should feel no shame getting off to push.
There’s a fine 9-mile loop for trail running right from your campsite and of course the mysterious stone walls on the summit that give the mountain its name. Did a Welsh prince named Madoc build these fortifications 300 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue? Hike up for a look, then decide for yourself.
Off-season bonus! Fort Mountain also hosts a portion of the Gahuti trail.
3. FALL CREEK FALLS STATE PARK
With spectacular gorges, four dramatic waterfalls, and miles of trails, Fall Creek Falls has long been a premier camping destination. The hike to the bottom of the main falls is steep but more than worth the trip.The swimming pool is closed for renovations (summer 2015) but the streams provide a number of good swimming holes. The park has a designated mountain-bike trail but it’s actually more fun to ride the Motor Nature Trail along the gorge and especially the four miles of paved paths that leads around the edge of the lake and over to the main falls. Trail running ranges from short and easy loops to view the waterfalls to a challenging 12 mile loop that includes a descent and climb of the gorge.
Fall Creek Falls is Tennessee’s flagship state park with a lodge, restaurant, golf course, and even a new zipline attraction. Although the trails can be busy near the popular overlooks, this is a rugged and vast area where it’s not difficult to find solitude just a bit further down the path.
4. DESOTO STATE PARK
An hour’s drive south from Chattanooga, DeSoto State Park is cool in ways its namesake conquistador never imagined. The swimming pool is often crowded, but there are natural swimming opportunities along the Little River, which flows through the park and eventually into the dramatic Little River Canyon to the south. From your campsite you can wander onto 25 miles of hiking trail, 11 of which are designated for mountain bikes. There are opportunities for bouldering in the park and good climbing near the 110-foot falls a short drive from the campground, and it’s not far to the overhung and challenging walls of Little River Canyon.
Even if you’re not a 5.12 climber, you’ll want to drive the road along the rim of the canyon to experience some of Alabama’s greatest scenery. If hiking the easy trails at DeSoto didn't get your blood pumping, the descents and climbs out of the canyon at Little River will do the trick.
5. INDIAN BOUNDARY RECREATION AREA
Years before we had the advantage of local experts advising us on Roots Rated, I had a friend who made a database of all the campgrounds near Chattanooga. For each destination he ranked the activities he enjoyed most (in his case, hiking, biking, and paddling) then let the computer calculate the scores. The winner, by a large margin, was Indian Boundary Recreation Area near Tellico Plains, Tennessee.
The 96-acre lake at Indian Boundary is large enough to make the two hour drive from Chattanooga worthwhile, with soaring mountains as the backdrop. Although you’re still in the foothills, the elevation is a respectable 1,600 feet. An easy 3 mile trail around the perimeter is perfect for a morning run or relaxed mountain bike ride. In fact, just about everything at Indian Boundary is relaxing, including the ability to reserve a specific campsite online in advance. The campground is located just two miles off the famous Cherohala Skyway, a celebrated ribbon of pavement which takes you from the rapids of the Tellico River to over 5,300 feet. In good weather the 2.4 mile roundtrip hike out to Huckleberry Bald is a highly recommended way to stretch your legs during the drive, or you can follow the Skyway all the way over to see the big trees at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.
So, does anyone need a half dozen box fans?
Originally written by RootsRated.