John Shearer: Walden’s Ridge Park Has Something For Everyone

  • Friday, November 24, 2023

Not long after the dedication of Walden’s Ridge Park earlier this fall, I decided to check out both the top and bottom of this unique green space on the side of Signal Mountain that is like a park’s equivalent of a skyscraper.

You can go up and down hundreds of feet in elevation on foot or on a mountain bike, you can go over part of the land and return where you started, or you can simply just walk a few yards of mostly flat land without building up much body heat. And in all routes, you enjoy plenty of scenery.

As Hamilton County Parks director Matt Folz said in a brief phone interview about the space that was dedicated on Sept. 30, “It’s a true multi-use park built by the community for the community.”

The roughly 200-acre tilted park – which was acquired and developed through land donations and monetary gifts and is operated by Hamilton County -- has about 10 miles of trails for biking, hiking or simply gazing. It also features rocky areas for climbing.

It is obviously not just for Signal Mountain or Mountain Creek residents, but for those from other parts of Chattanooga and beyond, too, particularly mountain bikers. I found a few out-of-state car tags in the lower parking area during my initial visit.

The latter is where my wife, Laura, and I parked our car two days after the park opened. We were not going to channel our inner Sir Edmund Hillary or Greg LeMond and tackle the whole mountain on foot or bikes when it was still warm and fall was just beginning, but we were simply on an inspection tour of the lower part with a short exercise walk.

The lower trailhead is off Mountain Creek Road and Reads Lake Road, where the old Quarry Golf Course was. It is about 12 or so minutes from our Northgate Mall area home via Ashland Terrace and Morrison Springs Road. As we pulled into the former Quarry parking lot in front of the shelled-out former clubhouse, we soon found the trail less than 100 feet southeast of the old clubhouse.

I was particularly curious to see the location of the champion-sized post oak tree that I heard was part of the park and that nearby residents had fought to protect. I asked a couple of people coming and going from the trail about it, but no one seemed to know where it was.

But one couple closer to our Baby Boomer age gave us a little insight into the trails. The man said they had left the bottom about 90 minutes earlier, had walked probably halfway up the mountain on some trails that did not seem too steep, went more horizontally across the slope, and then came back down. He said the experience had not been that bad, and hopefully he was not giving that perspective as a seasoned Ironman Triathlon participant.

Laura and I went up the zig zag part of the trail a couple hundred feet while enjoying the woods as the leaf changing was just beginning.

I was still curious to find the post oak, though, so when we got back down to the trailhead, I jogged or walked fast through the grassy and recently mowed open area facing Mountain Creek Road. It is dotted with a small pond and the large Quarry sign near the road.

I did see a giant oak about 10 yards into the woods on the south side of the open area also near the street, but I believe it was a white oak.

Since I could not find the prized tree, I became a little frustrated as I jogged on the other side of the creek splitting the property and saw no post oak. I was about to give up when I got near the car, but decided at the last minute to see what was on the other side of the old clubhouse.

As I went back there, I was reminded an old golf hole was there, and as soon as I saw the whole field, I noticed a big and magnificent tree standing about 200 yards away by itself. I immediately figured that was it, and sure enough, when I almost sprinted up there full of inspiration, I noticed its distinctive cross-shaped leaves. My search was happily over!

I did see, however, that it had a couple of broken or small rotting areas through the bark of its trunk, and I certainly hope it is OK and gets the careful attention of the community’s arborists.

I also became curious what all land around the golf course is part of the park, and the follow-up call with Mr. Folz a day later revealed that the park consists of the opening where the post oak is as well as a small area in front of the clubhouse. The latter is east of the current leased parking lot and on the north side of the creek.

The nice grassy open area with the sign and small pond near Mountain Creek Road is owned by the Pratt development firm, said Mr. Folz. Any lover of nature would probably hope as well that becomes part of the park. After all, many people might say an open field with such panoramic backdrops as Signal Mountain is one of God’s greatest gifts of green space.

About four days later, I visited the top of Walden’s Ridge Park up the W Road. I was not sure exactly where the parking area for it was, but I hoped I did not miss it and be forced to go through the challenging “W” stretch of the road.

However, a gravel driveway with the words “Walden’s Ridge Park” was quite visible as I neared the top. I pulled in and was surprised that it was an expansive area for quite a few automobiles.

I got out and walked around briefly and realized the top area is almost flat for a brief stretch and that a couch potato could walk a hundred yards or so and back without getting winded, maybe even farther on the W Trail. The area also has plenty of large rocks, creating a natural rock city so familiar to Signal and Lookout residents.

I looked more closely at the trail map there and realized some trails are more for bikers, some are for both, and each one has different levels of difficulty. They spray out horizontally in all directions like blood vessels on a medical diagram.

But perhaps most interesting were the names of the trails. Some have expected names like “Escalator,” and one was creatively called Dale Bermhardt as a play on the NASCAR racing family. But some were called such names as “Biscuits and Gravy” and “Bread and Butter” that need further explanation. At least they don’t have any scary names like “Point of No Return” or “Slippery Slope.”

Seriously, both areas look scenic, and I look forward to exploring this addition to the Chattanooga area’s preserved outdoor space more intensely with a longer hike in the future.

What is for sure is that the serious mountain pedal pushers likely feel they now have their own amusement park and can talk about making it all the way down on their bikes. The hikers, meanwhile, can begin to say they have climbed a mountain by going up.

It also has plenty for those simply getting out of their cars briefly and exercising only their eyes.

* * *

After I had written most of the above story initially for the Mountain Mirror and its early October deadline and late October publication, I decided to go back to the lower part of the trailhead on Thanksgiving Day to get some pictures more synonymous with late November for this story.

Yes, most of the leaves had fallen off the trees, and the contrast to early October was quite stark after going back and looking at both sets of photos on my computer.

Also, since I last wrote that above section, something that I feared and wondered about had come true – at least one biker has made news for getting injured going down the trail. I certainly hope the person is OK, and I realize that is all part of rigorous outdoor activities – just as hikers or climbers fall off the bluffs on Lookout and Signal mountains, too. And people will have car accidents, too.

I had also noticed something had changed with the lower part of Walden’s Ridge Park since I was there seven or eight weeks ago as well: the area back to the open space where the post oak is was now closed off. Perhaps it is due to some work being done related to the old clubhouse building. Regardless, I was disappointed I could not see my new arboreal friend.

But there were several people making use of the main aspect of the park – going down the bike trails on bikes – so all seemed well again on that front.

The small creek also looked pretty and peaceful as it stood out more among the now-barren trees, so that was nice. And I even saw a poem titled “My Creek” on a sign by the creek crossing near the trailhead.

Written by sixth grader Tucker Hunt, perhaps in some kind of contest, he wrote at one point, “I will always remember the creek as an adventure.”

I know my eyes certainly went on an adventure gazing at the creek, up the now-barren trees and up Signal Mountain. And as I took a look down at the Pratt firm-owned open space back toward Mountain Creek Road, I hoped it might always be the site of adventures in nature as well.

* * *
After this story was initially posted, Steve Hunt sent the following email explaining the story behind his late son’s poem I noted in my original story above:

Hi John.

My family and I enjoyed your article on the park. We live just up Reads Lake Road and have enjoyed watching this park transform from concept to reality. In fact, our property shares a common boundary with the park and together, we share the wet weather conveyance that starts at the "W" of the W-Road. It is the park's northern boundary until it enters and dissects our property on its way to the Quarry where it joins the waters of Read Spring. It is this water that our son Tucker claimed for his own in his poem "My Creek."

Tuck loved to play and explore that creek. Rainy or not, he would venture up that creek and into those woods as often as we would let him, usually returning with wet feet, or worse - wet everything.

His sixth-grade English teacher at Baylor asked her class to write a poem about something meaningful to them. He chose his creek. He was 12 years old. His birthday is November 24 so imagine our delight to come across your article on his birthday. It was a very special gift. Tucker died in his sleep when he was 13; he would have been 26 yesterday. We have been without him for as long as we had him. Your article made us all smile, especially reading it on his birthday. Thank you.

At the grand opening of Walden's Ridge Park, Kim bumped into a few close friends, two of which dedicated much time and energy through North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy to create the park. When they hiked to Read Spring, she was so moved by their friendship and what this new mountain bike park would have meant to Tuck, she shared his poem. (Tucker loved to ride his bike...). They surprised us with the sign and the remembrance. It is all so special - their thoughtfulness and your article - in a time when we continue to heal.

Thank you.

* * *

This is the 43rd story in a series looking at current and potential greenways and parks in Chattanooga and Hamilton County. To see the previous story in the series, read here.

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