Nature’s Path: City on a Hill

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Outdoor adventurers and regular folk find Lookout Mountain park the perfect place for rock climbing, exploring or just enjoying an astonishing view.

by RANDY GRIDER AND OLIVIA GRIDER

It’s a rare Sunday afternoon when you can walk through the maze of towering rock formations collectively known as Cherokee Rock Village without seeing dozens of climbers scaling the rocks. But with a 60-percent chance of showers in the forecast, only the most dedicated are scattered about, dodging the occasional raindrops that have yet to wash out the day.

Among the teams of climbers are Molly Uhlig, Katie Urquhart and Andrew Satriano, all 24, who have traveled from Atlanta to enjoy one of the Southeast’s favorite climbing spots. Uhlig, an avid rock climber and member of the Southeastern Climbers Coalition, has brought beginners Urquhart and Satriano to Cherokee rock Village, the first place she climbed.

“It’s just a really great area to start climbing,” Uhlig says. “It’s really accessible, too. Other places are really spread out and you’re doing a lot of hiking. Here everything is back to back.”

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Not only does the park offer a wide breadth of climbing grades (around 5.6 to 5.13), which are measures of technical difficulty based on the number of features on a rock facing, but similar grades are grouped together, Uhlig says. anchored top-rope and bolted sport-climbing routes are available.

Urquhart is climbing for the first time today and is about to attempt a 5.7-grade, top-rope climb (a type of rock climbing in which a rope runs from a person belaying the climber at the foot of a route through an anchor system at the top of the rock face and back down to the climber). “I love it,” she says. “It’s beautiful here.”

Uhlig says experienced climbers as well as beginners like Cherokee rock Village because it offers plenty of challenging routes and “car camping,” which allows them to camp right next to their cars and walk to climbing spots in seconds.

Around the corner from the Atlanta group, 20-year-old Kaziar Rawls and her mother, Pam Rawls, 43, of Cullman, Ala., are top-rope climbing with Caleb Dobyns, 21, of Chattanooga, Tenn., and Gabrielle Clifford, 20, of Nashville. They are more into bouldering (climbing without ropes or harnesses to the top of a boulder typically less than 33 feet high), and laud the park’s diversity in that area as well.

“This is my favorite place to climb,” says Dobyns, who was introduced to Cherokee rock village through a bouldering and basic rock-climbing course at southern adventist university in tennessee and now teaches rock climbing at Camp Alamisco in Dadeville, Ala. “i like it because of the array of difficulty.”

Clifford, who notes the “gorgeous” views and that the rock has “really good grip,” adds there are a lot of different types of bouldering climbs. “If you get tired of one, you can try a new one,” she says. Bouldering grades range from V0 to V9.

Soon the party packs up its rock-climbing gear and heads to an outcropping on the mountain’s brow. Free-climbing, they quickly scamper up the boulders and stand atop them, taking in the view of Weiss Lake and the valley below.

Cherokee rock village – unofficially dubbed Little rock City (a reference to the popular tourist attraction near Chattanooga) – is a nearly 400-acre public park located atop Lookout Mountain in Cherokee County, Alabama, near the town of Sand Rock. With its stunning views, the park is not just for rock climbers. People of all ages and walks of life enjoy the park and its magnificent vistas, which are accessible to nonclimbers, as a great place to get back to nature.

After doing a traffic-count study three years ago, Cherokee County officials were surprised to find the most popular use of the park wasn’t rock climbing. “The main use was people going to look at the view,” says Dave Crum, a member of the Cherokee County Park Board. The county has owned Cherokee rock village since 1974.

Today, a scattering of college students, parents with children and a couple of retirees are exploring the twists and turns of the many passages that weave between house-sized formations (well, some really tall houses as some boulders are more than 100 feet high). even on a day when the most popular boulders are more congested with climbers, it can be hard to gauge the entire crowd at the park because the trails create a feeling of isolation as they meander among the soaring stones. you can literally be within rock-throwing distance another party or individual without realizing they are near.

Until about four decades ago, the general public knew little of the site because there was no easy access. But even before a public road was built, rock-climbing enthusiasts were drawn to a well-traversed trail forged by Native Americans, who are believed to have used the area as a ceremonial meeting spot. (Crum notes there is no evidence of this because no archeological digs have taken place at the park.) according to the encyclopedia of Alabama, Cherokee rock village “lies along an old Indian trail that later became a route for white settlers. The trail was used by both Northern and southern troops during the Civil War and is now known as Lookout Mountain trail.”

Michael Taylor, 29, who is enjoying the scenic view with wife Jessica Taylor, 26, grew up in the town of Sand Rock and remembers coming to Cherokee rock village to climb and hike when it wasn’t accessible by vehicle. Now residents of Albertville, Ala., the couple makes the 1-hour trip to the park fairly regularly. “it’s like a little vacation,” Michael Taylor says. “There’s nothing else like this in the area.”

While there were some efforts to develop the land as long ago as the 1930s, it wasn’t until the ’70s that the tourism potential of the area caught the attention of local officials and they began negotiations in earnest with the former Georgia Kraft Company to purchase the site. in 1974, the paper mill and timber products company donated approximately 20 acres encompassing the majority of the rock formations with the stipulation the county develop the site into a park and build an access road for the public. The Nature Conservancy acquired 200 acres for $15,000 in 1977 to protect the entire area, then transferred title to the land to Cherokee County.

Completion of an access road in the 1980s paved the way for Cherokee rock village to become one of the southeast’s most popular rockclimbing destinations. The area has been unofficially “adopted” by the Southeastern Climbers Coalition, and SCC volunteers have picked up litter and cleaned parking areas.

During the past four years and thanks to an Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs grant and land donations, Cherokee County acquired 200 more acres, including land surrounding a 60-footwide, 7.6-mile, logging-type trail winding from the mountaintop to the abandoned Tennessee Alabama Georgia railway bed 1,000 feet below. a portion of the railbed parallel to a 45-acre private lake also became part of the park and recently opened for primitive camping. “a railbed is a flat, wide area that’s very good for camping,” Crum says.

Many of the recreation and tourism possibilities that were foreseen in the 1970s have just begun to come together. Over the summer, Crum and two other members of the Parks Board – scooter Howell and Jeff Wolfe – sat down with Lookout Alabama to discuss the changes. in addition to the new trail, access to water and electricity were recently added as well as a drivable loop road, a pavilion, a park office and on-site management staff.

Along list of projects are set to be completed in the next few years (see details below). Permanent bathrooms and showers, an emergency helicopter pad, improved RV camping space and a handicapaccessible observation deck are among the projects slated for completion within a year. “disabled people have never been able to go to the edge and enjoy the view,” Crum says.

And while the county began charging modest user fees in august, the view remains free for all sightseers visiting the park less than two hours. “We recognize we shouldn’t be charging for that view,” Crum says.

Hollywood pays a visit

Some of the outdoor scenes for the 2006 romantic comedy “Failure to Launch” starring Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker were filmed at Cherokee Rock Village.

The park (along with nearby Little River Canyon National Preserve) was also shown in the Smithsonian Channel’s popular “Aerial America” series, in the 2012 episode featuring a tour of Alabama.

Upcoming Park Improvements

The following projects are on Cherokee County’s to-do list. • Permanent bathrooms and showers • An emergency helicopter pad • Improved campsites including utility hookups for RV spaces • A handicap-accessible observation deck • Free Internet access • A safe room for use during storms • A fireplace next to the pavilion • A rustic playground • An amphitheater for lectures, concerts, meetings, weddings and other events • A zip line • Disc golf and ultimate Frisbee spaces • Mountain bike trails (for fun and competition)

If You Go

Getting there: Cherokee Rock Village is located at 2000 County Road 70, Leesburg, AL 35983

Park use Permit: Not needed for stays of two hours or less; 1-9 passenger vehicles, $3 for 1 day, $5 for 2 days, $7 for 3 days

Liability Waiver Permit (required for all climbers): 1 day – $3 for individual, $6 for family; 2 days – $5 for individual, $10 for family; 3 days – $7 for individual, $14 for family

Overnight Permit: $5 for 1 night; $9 for two nights; $12 for 3 nights; $26 for 7 nights (maximum stay)

More Info: http://www.ccparkboard.com/ http://www.cherokeerockvillage.org/ 256-927-7275

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