It's an incredible natural wonder snaking its way through the middle of Tennessee, creating a series of outlooks and natural spaces that are a bounty for nature lovers and fishermen alike.

Although several locations call themselves Grand Canyon Of The East, the Tennessee River Gorge can hold its own against any of them. This gorge is a 26-mile canyon formed by the Tennessee River and known locally as Cash Canyon. It is the fourth largest river gorge in the Eastern United States. The Tennessee River Gorge was cut into the Cumberland Plateau as the Tennessee River wound its way from Tennessee into Alabama. Numerous archaeological sites discovered there indicate people have lived in the canyon for at least 10,000 years.

colorful fall foliage and barge on the river

river bend with island and boatdocks

Nortorious Navigation

Prior to the completion of Hales Bar Dam in 1913 and the subsequent rise of the water level, the stretch of the Tennessee River flowing through the gorge was notorious for navigational hazards such as whirlpools, eddies, shoals, and one particularly huge rock. Beginning with Williams Island and the sandbars on either side of it, these obstructions included Tumbling Shoals, the Holston Rock, the Kettle, the Suck Shoals, the Deadman's Eddy, the Pot, the Skillet, the Pan, and the ten-mile Narrows.

Of these, the Kettle, or the Suck as it is better known, at the mouth of Suck Creek is the most infamous. Its reputation even attracted the attention of the nature-loving third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, who had never been anywhere near the area.

old fashioned paddleboat

Magnificent Flora And Fauna

The only large river canyon bordering a mid-sized city (Chattanooga), the Tennessee River Gorge is a unique carving of the river through the Cumberland Plateau, which encompasses 27,000 acres. Habitats for more than a thousand varieties of plants, trees, grasses and flowers, as well as a diversified wildlife population, exist within this scenic terrain.

The breathtaking scenery and incredible wealth of natural and cultural resources are astounding. One of the best places to view the Tennessee River Gorge is from the bluffs below Signal Point on Signal Mountain. From there, you can see the sweep of the Tennessee River as it winds along the Chattanooga riverfront, around Moccasin Bend, and past Williams Island. This was almost the only high ground in the area controlled by Union troops during the Civil War siege of Chattanooga between September and November 1863.
wood ducks sitting on a log

Designated Blueway

The city of Chattanooga and The Tennessee River Gorge Trust, along with other agencies, have designated this section of river as a blueway, or water trail, for canoers and kayakers.

A good way to explore the Gorge is by following the river from one destination to the next as it meanders its way to locations like Williams Island State Archaeological Park. Williams Island divides the river channel with a 450-acre tract of land inhabited only by wildlife.

Preservation Efforts

From about 1000 to 1650 AD, this area was home to several Native American Indian tribes. It is now managed by the Tennessee River Gorge Trust and has become a haven for birders and naturalists, as well as archaeologists and Civil War buffs. Pot Point House, named for what was once the most violent set of rapids in the Gorge, was built in the 1800s using logs from wrecked boats. The blueway is accessible from many ramps and launches along the river; a favorite is Raccoon Mountain which is popular with boaters, paddlers and anglers.

17,000 acres of the 27,000 acres that make up the Tennessee Gorge have been specified for preservation in an effort to retain the natural beauty of this part of the state.

fisherman holding a giant catfish

(Below: Chris Coleman shows off the latest Tennessee record largemouth bass (15.4 lbs.) he caught in 2011)

record largemouth bass

Rare Birds Of The Gorge

In the past several years, Rick Huffines, Executive Director of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, has documented a number of rare birds near Chattanooga. He banded multiple songbirds that rarely travel through East Tennessee and spotted one swamp-loving crane that historically does not stray north of Florida, among others.

golden winged warbler

Golden-winged warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera)

cerulean warbler

Cerulean warbler (Setophaga cerulea)

limpkin water bird

Limpkin (Aramus guarauna)

A solitary water bird, the limpkin has been documented only three times in Tennessee. Not only is it rare, but Huffines says the habitat in which he saw the bird did not fit its known habits.

Historically, limpkins are year-round residents of South Florida, parts of Mexico and parts of South America, where they live in open marshes and swamps. But Huffines spotted one perched on a low tree branch alongside a sandy stretch of the Tennessee River.

"I can't emphasize how unusual this habitat was," Huffines says. "I thought, 'That can't be a limpkin.' I didn't have the nerve to say it aloud."

white ibis

White ibis (Eudocimus albus)

The white ibis is a long-legged wading bird that spends most of its life in Florida, parts of Mexico and parts of South America. They migrate only within those regions, depending on weather conditions, says Huffines, although he spotted a young white ibis foraging for insects on the Trust-maintained island.

While the white ibis has been recorded previously, mostly in West Tennessee, sightings are considered rare in the Gorge.

(Credits: Chris Coleman photo via the Tennessean;; Rick Huffines quotes via the Chattanooga Free Press; mallard duck photo-Trip Advisor; photos of rare birds by Michael Hicks [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0])