Southeastern Climbers Coalition Preserves and Promotes Access to Rock Climbing

BY BOB BUTTERS

 
 
Climbers at Denny Cove. Photo: Southeastern Climbers Coalition

Climbers at Denny Cove. Photo: Southeastern Climbers Coalition

 

Chattanooga is a gateway to one of the highest concentrations of rock climbing destinations in the Southeast. The majority are located within the Cumberland Plateau region, which stretches 300 miles from Alabama to Kentucky. Climbing rock in the area features a wide variety of characteristics, but is generally known as Southern sandstone, and provides what is considered some of the best climbing in the country.

According to the Outdoor Industry Alliance, climbing is one of the fastest growing outdoor recreation activities, with a reported 6.8 million climbers nationwide. As a result of the rapid increase in the popularity of climbing, it has become a vital part of the Chattanooga region’s tourism economy. 

There are primarily three types of climbing engaged in by local climbers: Traditional, or “trad” climbing, in which the climber places bolts or other gear to protect from falls while ascending; sport climbing, which involves the use of pre-placed permanent bolts or anchors; and bouldering, climbing on short, low routes without safety ropes, protection typically in the form of a pad placed beneath the climb.

The Southeastern Climbers Coalition (SCC) is a climbing advocacy and conservation organization based in Chattanooga whose mission is to preserve public access to climbing in the Southeast. “We are a nationally recognized Local Climbing Organization for our efforts to acquire and conserve climbing in the region,” stated SCC Executive Director Andrea Hassler. “In our 26 years of existence, we have acquired nine climbing areas and help manage 30 areas on public and private lands in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.”

“SCC has leveraged support to meet our mission through volunteers and partners in all three states,” Hassler added. “This network helps to identify threats to access, ensuring public access to climbing and address climbing related impacts, preserving the natural and recreational environment.”

There are three primary ways through which the SCC works to preserve climbing access:

  1. Working with national, state, and local governments and land managers on public lands.

  2. Working with private landowners to open and preserve access on private lands.

  3. Raising money to purchase or lease climbing areas from private landowners, then managing these areas to keep them open to climbing.

In addition to public and private landowners, the SCC works closely with other climbing advocacy groups, especially the Access Fund, other land trusts, private businesses, and local families.    

The SCC was formed in 1993 to deal with climbing issues at Sunset Rock, the iconic bluff on the western edge of Lookout Mountain, a part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park and one of the oldest climbing destinations in the Chattanooga area.

The SCC’s more recent accomplishments include the acquisition of two properties on Walden’s Ridge just north of Chattanooga, a 10-acre bouldering area adjacent to the Cumberland Trail known as Hell’s Kitchen, and a 7-acre tract which provides access to the Dogwood Boulders climbing area. The goal is for both of these properties to be transferred to Cumberland Trail State Park.

In another exciting project, the SCC has worked in partnership with the Land Trust for Tennessee, the North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy, Access Fund, and SORBA Chattanooga to establish the 200-acre Walden’s Ridge Park just a few miles from downtown Chattanooga. 

The SCC’s largest project has been the recent acquisition of 685 acres at Denny Cove, part of the Fiery Gizzard system located near Foster Falls. Working in partnership with Access Fund, South Cumberland State Park, the Land Trust for Tennessee, the Conservation Fund, and other organizations, the tract was purchased from a private owner and has now become a unit of South Cumberland State Park. In addition to a spectacular 70-foot waterfall, Denny Cove features about 150 climbing routes on nearly three miles of cliffs. The SCC was also involved in the construction of trails and a parking lot.

 
Public access to Denny Falls is a bonus that came with preserving Denny Cove. Photo: Bob Butters

Public access to Denny Falls is a bonus that came with preserving Denny Cove. Photo: Bob Butters

 

Just north of Denny Cove, Foster Falls, also part of South Cumberland State Park, has become a very popular destination for sport climbing. The sandstone bluffs lie adjacent to the well-known Fiery Gizzard Trail. 

Not far from the Fiery Gizzard, another conservation success is Castle Rock, a unique turret-shaped sandstone buttress overlooking the town of Jasper. The SCC worked with a number of partner organizations to acquire the bluffs and 30 acres atop the plateau which are now owned by the Tennessee River Gorge Trust. 

 
Climbing at Castle Rock. Photo: Southeastern Climbers Coalition

Climbing at Castle Rock. Photo: Southeastern Climbers Coalition

 

Within the Tennessee River Gorge and Prentice Cooper State Forest and Wildlife Management Area, the Tennessee Wall has long been a popular site for trad climbing. More recently, the nearby Pot Point Boulders area has been developed as a bouldering site.

The area known as Rocktown, located just east of Lookout Mountain within Georgia’s Crockford Pigeon Mountain Wildlife Management Area, is considered one of the best bouldering locations in the Southeast. Also in the Pigeon Mountain WMA are Zahnd, another bouldering area, and Lost Wall, an 80-foot trad climbing cliff.    

Boulderers prepare for action at Rocktown. Photo: Southeastern Climbers Coalition

Boulderers prepare for action at Rocktown. Photo: Southeastern Climbers Coalition

Additional popular climbing locations in the Chattanooga region include Buzzard Point in the Laurel/Snow State Natural Area; the St. Elmo Boulders at the base of Lookout Mountain; Sucka Cave on Suck Creek Mountain; Stone Fort, Leda, and Deep Creek on Walden’s Ridge; and Alabama’s Little River Canyon and Griffin Falls. 

Visit the Southeastern Climbers Coalition website for more information about all 39 climbing areas that the SCC is involved with. 

The SCC doesn’t rest with just acquiring and protecting climbing areas. They also work to maintain or improve them. “We actively engage our community to help steward climbing areas through volunteer opportunities,” said Hassler. “We have 28 Area Reps who serve as ambassadors for a specific climbing area, addressing concerns and maintaining relationships with land managers and the local community. We also host over 30 volunteer stewardship projects throughout the year, working with over 250 volunteers at 34 volunteer events. Our Trail Days engage climbers of all ages and backgrounds throughout the region as we work with individual volunteers, school groups, youth climbing teams and more.”

Hassler added, “We are continually working to grow our stewardship program so that we can meet the needs of the current generation of climbers and create sustainable climbing areas that will be resilient for the future generations of climbers.” 

The Southeastern Climbers Coalition plans to continue contributing to conservation efforts which further protect climbing and encourage recreation access throughout the region.


 
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Bob Butters is an outdoor writer, photographer, and landscaper. A lifelong naturalist, as well as a hiker, mountain biker, and paddler, he has been exploring the outdoors in the Chattanooga area since 1980. Bob lives with his wife in the beautiful Sequatchie Valley, just west of Chattanooga, and publishes the blog Nickajack Naturalist.