Chattanooga's new RiverRocks festival won't be staged for the first time until October, but when it happens, it may instantly become the premier outdoor festival in the eastern United States. That's what organizers promise, and given the range and diversity of the Chattanooga area's natural venues that festival events will showcase, their claim is plausible. It is hard to imagine a festival that would offer more.
Our unique mountain rock faces and wind-blown brows already attract rock-climbers and hang-gliders from all around the country. Bicycling enthusiasts are lured to our winding mountain roads, the bucolic Sequatchie farm valley, and stump-jumping and off-road rides in the woods. Some paddlers love the Tennessee River, others chase nearby white water streams.
Hikers take to the city's greenways and the River Walk, or share with bicyclists and horse riders the shaded trails in Prentice Cooper State Forest, where the terrain features enchanting creeks in rhododendron-rich ravines and stunning outlooks along the length of the Tennessee River Gorge. Trail runners explore similar places, now including the new Stringer's Ridge park.
10 days in nature's bounty
Participants in the 10-day festival, which will bridge two busy weekends on the city's colorful riverfront, will be able to choose from a range of activities and competitive events in these and other venues.
For people who don't want to break a sweat, or who want to cool down, there will be an array of other activities by the river over the course of the festival -- great music, interesting food, and activities that are fun to watch or participate in.
These will include hot-air balloons and tethered rides, a show by the German Sky Diving team, canoe jousting, kite-making and kite-flying, a canoe-and-kayak relay race, a River-Rocking local bands night, a family festival and treasure hike, and an IMAX film festival, among other events.
A river-front center
Walkers and birders will find scheduled history and bird watching walks. And all comers will get to enjoy other scheduled events downtown over the two weekends. The first weekend in October, for example, the Three Sisters Bluegrass Festival will return, and the annual Wine-over-Water fund-raiser, a ticketed event on the Walnut Street Bridge, will take place.
There are literally dozens of events spread over the 10 days of the festival. We've just suggested the outline here to encourage area residents and visitors to find out more.
The back story of the festival -- how and why its founders and sponsors came together to create this event -- is equally compelling.
Mike McGauley may have kick-started the festival, but the idea he sowed more than a year ago has grown exponentially as more visionary advocates and sponsors have pitched in.
A slew of benefits
The kernel of the idea was a festival that would showcase and celebrate the city's and region's premier natural attractions, encourage more residents to take up the activities they inspire, and foster commitment to the conservation ethic that is necessary to protect and sustain this environment.
The festival's organizers, who have formed a public board of trustees, also seek to encourage the health and educational benefits of an active outdoor lifestyle, and to boost the local economy by drawing positive attention to the city and our natural environs.
Organizers hope that within a few years, the festival will attract more than 100,000 attendees and 3,500 participants, generate more than $5 million in fresh economic impact, and raise more than $1 million in support for designated local conservation organizations which have worked long and hard to generate conservation easements and expand public land and access.
These worthy organizations include the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, the Lookout Mountain Conservancy, the Lulu Lake Land Trust, and the Trust for Public Land, Cumberland Trail, Friends of Moccasin Bend, North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy and Reflection Riding.
Many of the festival activities will take place on land protected by these organizations, earning them new friends and patrons and furthering their environmental and conservation missions.
Festival organizers also want to generate funds through the festival for an annual legacy project, or projects, over time. Suggested projects include a playground at Renaissance Park, a docking facility at Williams Island, new segments of the Riverwalk to the Moccasin Bend Interpretive Center, bicycle racks and refreshment stations along the Riverwalk and other local public spaces, and trail head facilities at Stringer's Ridge.
Festival organizers are aiming high, and deservedly so. The work they've begun, moreover, is a fabric to which many more threads -- more activities and venues -- can be added. Advocates, for example, might one day want to add our rich equestrian and caving resources to their list of activities.
Former mayor Bob Corker once proclaimed Chattanooga the "Boulder of the East," a reference to the outdoor amenities of Boulder, Colorado, a renowned gateway to the natural wonders of the Rockies. His was an appealing and well-rooted vision. RiverRocks may yet lead the way to that title.