Chattanooga, Tennessee: From Grime to Green

How "The Dirtiest City In America" became the sustainable paradise of today.

Chattanooga, Tennessee at sunset.
Richard Cummins / robertharding / Getty Images

If 1969 America had a yearbook, the superlative given to Chattanooga, Tennessee was not one it would  hang with pride above the fireplace. "The Dirtiest City in America," Walter Cronkite had infamously dubbed the industrial town on a the CBS Evening News Broadcast. Of course, the Southeastern Tennessee city, snuggled in the transition between the Appalachian Mountains and the Cumberland Plateau, was not exactly proud of the title.

But that's the thing about Chattanoogans. They don't take negative news well. And thus like all influential movements, a group of a few committed citizens began to elicit a big change. 

By 1985, a collective of individuals had created "Chattanooga Ventures," which hosted six public forums entitled “Vision 2000." These forums, open to the entire community, were conversations that focused on the future-- places, play, work, people, and government to better the community and surrounding towns.

And so it happened. It didn't happen overnight (but then again, not may things do.) But indeed it happened.

And the tables have now turned 180 degrees. Chattanooga is known as one of the crown jewels of the sustainability movement worldwide. The Tennessee River has gone from toxic to swimmable, and a network of parks and greenways are expanding through and around the city. Visitors to Chattanooga can take advantage of free electric bus shuttles around downtown, and if they come with electric cars or hybrids, they can take advantage of free solar charging stations. If they go to the Majestic 12 Cinema downtown, they’ll experience a building that’s made 100% from recycled materials.

Even the toilets use rainwater. Within barely 25 miles of the city, trailheads welcome hikers, trail runners, and mountain bikers to more than 100 miles of single-track trails—most built by volunteers over the past 10 years. Forest service roads nearly double that. The city is also a popular destination for rock climbing, paddling, and wildlife viewing, and the city is putting increased focus on bicycle tourism, as Chattanooga becomes a nexus for the U.S. Bicycle Route System in the Southeast.

The city is growing each and every year as a hotspot for sustainable tourism. And it's not hard to see why people so easily fall in love with the accurately dubbed, "Scenic City."

How to Fall in Love With Chattanooga

The Vibes of 'Nooga

It's one of those "old school America" towns that happens to have the population of a city. It's not traditional "Southern" in any sense of the stereotype. Bow ties and Sperry boat shoes are replaced by tie dye and bare feet; McDonalds is replaced by mom and pop organic cafes and any sense of pretension is replaced by a genuine "love and help thy neighbor" type vibe. Every Friday and Saturday evening between late spring and early autumn, Chattanooga's welcome visitors and enjoy free live music, delicious bites, and the opportunity to celebrate this glorious world with their neighbors at Nightfall.

(Oh, and the dress code? Barefeet encouraged!)

Around town you'll see houses with outdoor gardens, people stopping mid-stroll to converse and plenty of smiles. While Chattanooga is not without its problem's, it has a gentile and easy-going existence. You can almost hear "Hurry up and slow down!" as you drive into town off 1-24. And even thought its not perfect, the residents see the future of the city as promising and having long-term livability. 

Ruby Falls

Who doesn't dream of discovering something epic? Astronauts, geologists, and spelunkers dedicate their entire careers to pioneering the unknown. In 1928 Leo Lambert, an avid cave enthusiast by night and chemist by day made one such discovery. Now, the largest underground waterfall open to the public in the United States, Ruby Falls is one of Chattanooga's biggest attractions. 

The discovery of the waterfall happened by accident. Lambert and his crew had been spending time around Lookout Mountain, knowing the Mountain had a storied past rife with Native American and Civil War history. Little did they know, they were to unearth a natural source of water. Lambert and his crew had been drilling to make the cave accessible to the public. At one point, they felt a gust of wind and suspected something lie beyond. Lambert spent 17 hours crawling on hands and knees to in the dark till he came upon the 145-foot waterfall.

In true, 1920's love story fashion, he named the falls after his wife, Ruby. The cave opened to the public in 1929 and was a hit until the depression hit and they tourist spot had to declare bankruptcy. 

And the story doesn't stop there. Under new ownership, the falls have continued to thrive for 85 years and annually draw in 400,000 plus visitors. 

Due to the nature of the caves fragile eco-system, an environmental consultant was brought in to do yearly audits and help maintain the balance between tourism and its impact. 

Their goal is to the promote "production of renewable energy, reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, recycling and waste reduction, and land use planning" [1]. Ruby Falls also happens to be the Green Globe Certified attraction of the US. 

Lookout Mountain

At the top of Lookout Mountain are Rocky City Gardens and the seven-state lookout point. Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky can all be seen on a clear day and with binoculars on days with low visibility. Visitors can make a day of the Falls and Lookout point by purchasing a pass that covers entry fare for the two attractions plus the incline railway which will take you from the historic neighborhood of St. Elmo to the top of the Mountain. The three attractions perfectly blend nature, adventure, and history together with Southern charm.


Rock Climbing

If simply standing atop a mountain doesn't give you the thrill you seek, you can always take advantage of Chattanooga's outdoor rock climbing and bouldering. Many dirt baggers and enthusiasts come to town solely for this purpose. The vast array of crags and jug hangs provide ample opportunity for adventure. Foster Falls and Tennessee Wall are two spots that sport climbers frequent but beginners can also take advantage of. Most of the bouldering routes are a V4 or above so come prepared to sweat it out and problem solve and as always, bring a crash pad!


Family friendly rock-climbing can be found at indoor gym, High Point. 

How to Get Around

 Getting around downtown Chattanooga is so pedestrian friendly that you'll recycle your keys. Biking, walking and taking the countries largest fleet of electric buses are highly encouraged modes of transit. The Greenway Loop will finish construction this year and is set to provide access to 25 miles of trails along the waterfront. The walkways not only allow the residents to explore nature and stay healthy, but the hope is also that they connect with people they might not otherwise! The trails will run through the city and make it possible to walk from your home to the downtown area and leave the car parked in the garage.

With the added economic boosts, developers are looking to reclaim industrial and run down neighborhoods through the greenways and set the stage for a more holistic future. 

 Equally exciting developments in "green design" are found in the city's businesses and construction. Between 13th and 17th Street downtown sits a 75-foot tall tank that collects up to 105,000 gallons of greywater to irrigate the terrain. The Majestic Theatre and Finley Stadium are two establishments that have eco-friendly features. The Majestic is the first Gold LEED-certified theater in the US and a solar canopy over the parking lot of Finley contributes to powering the electric grid of the stadium.


Where to Stay

The railway put the city on the map and continues to serve as its central theme. The Chatanooga Choo Choo is more than simply a hit record from the 40's. The old rail station was repurposed in the 1970's into a hotel, dining and shopping center. Guests can stay in one of the Victorian-era sleeper cars and dream of life on the Tennessee Valley line. Get up the next morning and visit one of the top attractions, the Tennessee Valley Railway Museum. Then take the incline rail to Ruby Falls! 

If repurposed rail cars aren't your accommodation of choice, consider staying at The Crash Pad. The only hostel in the world to hold an LEED certification, a distinction of no small feat. Crash Pad's aim is to promote locally sourced goods and business, which can be seen in the coffee they serve to the construction of the building itself. Even their door handles are made by local artisan, Bryan Strickland. This hostel was also specifically designed for climbers to have a place to "crash" after a long day on the wall.


Need to stay in a traditional hotel? You can check for a list of Chattanooga Green hotels. Dual sustainability and comfort--there is not a better duo out there! 

Where to Eat

After a long day of hiking to gorgeous vistas and challenging yourself on the hill landscape with electronic bicycles, you won't have to look far for some locally sourced and pretty darn delicious food choices. 

The Blue Plate special was the result of the depression era necessity. Originally folks would visit the diners and be served whatever the chef had on hand. Meals were dished on disposable plates that sectioned off the protein from the starches. Today Blue Plate restaurant takes that concept to a heightened level. They still make everything from scratch but the plates are reusable and most of the food is sourced from local business--everything from the baked goods and treats, to the ice cream, to the coffee comes from the surrounding area.

River Ridge Farms supplies the seasonally harvested vegetables and contributes to making the Southern Comfort cuisine taste fresh and wholesome. 

For the meat lovers, there's Urban Stack, which promises "meats that are either all-natural, organic, grass-fed, free-range or from sustainable and humane farms". With a slogan like, "Killer Burgers, Manly Drinks" this is the kind of watering hole one could imagine the Hatfield's taking a journey from Pigeon Forge to get their grub on. The building itself is LEED certified and used to be Southern Railway Baggage Building. We recommend trying the 3 Little Piggies Chilli, which has three types of meat (piggies), a ton of veggies and is outrageously flavorful.

Just don't tell the McCoy's you've got the bacon! 

If you are an herbivore-loving foodie, we suggest The Farmers Daughter, located in Northern Chattanooga. The farm-to-table movement has gained a lot of traction in recent years and this establishment is one of the reasons why. Their aim is to cultivate business for their neighbors, and while the farmers they work with are a large part of that, they also promote local artists and family-owned businesses. They host pop-up shops, cooking classes and community events that showcase the work that the denizens of the town are creating.

While the menu isn't entirely vegan or vegetarian--they offer quite a bit for those on a plant-based diet as well. The seasonally based menu and soft-spoken, inviting atmosphere will entice visitors of all persuasions. 

For even more choices, visit to find a list of 'Nooga restaurants engaging in sustainable practices. 

How Individuals Can Shape a Community

Along with the locally owned hotels, hostels, tour operators and restaurant owners, it is the commitment of individuals to the town that make Chattanooga what it is. One such Chattanooga transplant has done volumes for both the environment and for keeping Chattanooga...well...Chattanooga-y. Jim Johnson graduated from Wesleyan and thought he would be in Boston for the long while. However, a series of life events led him to the quaint Tennessee city and he immediately fell in love with it all--the openness, the sense of community, the everything.

He has since dedicated thousands of dollars and hours in time to preserving Chattanooga's natural elements and keeping the city from becoming infested with developments.

 An avid cyclist, Jim is also the founder of, emphasizing a low impact and sustainable transport for seeing the world. This company is a prime example of the mindedness of 'Noogans to not only make a difference in their local community, but also the world at large.

Said Johnson of his business, "We're the only company that represents local bicycle tour companies around the world. With perhaps two exceptions, all bike tour companies operate bike tours. The one that has a similar model to ours. We're also the only one that extends beyond being a solely sales-oriented company to one that is deeply into bicycle advocacy and bicycle tourism development locally, nationally and worldwide."

"We're trying to rebuild bicycle tourism in Nepal, for example, by working with a local operator on a leisure mountain bike tour there, opening the country to a broader market than just experienced adventurers."

Time to Visit

This Appalachian treasure will engulf you and give you a sense of renewal. Chattanooga offers ample opportunity to dive in and experience the past as it integrates with the future. So go ahead, get a ticket to ride and visit Eastern Tennessee to see for yourself. To know Chattanooga as a sustainable and natural-filled phenomenon is to love it.

"We’ve gone from being an environmental embarrassment to being a city deeply proud of its commitment to the environment," concluded Johnson.  "It took a sense of shame nearly 50 years ago to energize our sense of pride, and we’ve more than made up for our polluted past."