Cloudland Canyon

Now that winter is upon us, I’m finally finishing up this post on our fall adventure to Cloudland Canyon. Because you know I like to keep things timely. (Insert heavy sigh here.)

Falls at Sitton's Gulch
Just one of the views that makes the trek into the canyon worth the climb back out.

At any rate, it seems Camp Granola has gotten in the habit of getting our Georgia autumn fix at Cloudland Canyon State Park. It was never some sort of tradition or mindful plan but for the last several years, we’ve been making the trek to Georgia’s extreme northwest corner during October.

The original attraction, aside from the astounding beauty of the canyon, was the smattering of autumn-themed events hosted there by the state park powers-that-be. Particularly when Fred and George were younger, things like hayrides and hot dog cookouts got their little granola engines revved up. But even as they’ve inched up, both in years and height, and the lure of hayrides has faded, we’re still drawn to the fabulousness of Cloudland.

Memory lane…

I’ve have been exploring Cloudland since my budding geologist days in college a couple of decades ago. The fact that I can say I’ve been doing anything for a couple of decades is more than a little disconcerting mind you, but indeed we’ve been fans of this park for a very long time. Because of this lengthy relationship, we’ve got a whole trove of memories we can thank Cloudland for. I suppose it’s that collection of memories that makes us feel connected and keeps drawing us back for more.

Granted, last year involved Jester’s eye getting into a scuffle with a sharp stick (the stick won) and a seven-year-old George running naked through the middle of the campground (long story). But despite Camp Granola’s penchant for odd excitement, it really is a gem of a park that has proven to be worthy of multiple visits.

Hanging Rock
Iconic hanging rock on the trail to the falls.
George in the Boulders
George exploring the boulders.

Lay of the land…

Cloudland is tucked in the northwest corner of the state on the west side of Lookout Mountain and only about a half an hour from Chattanooga. As you may have noticed by the name, it is a canyon which means it’s got a west rim, an east rim, and a lot of down in the middle where the river and waterfalls create a wonderland of breath-taking scenery. Obviously being in the southeast, many of the rock faces are covered by vegetation but she does give you a good tease as to what’s under all of that brush with some dramatic rock exposures.

Aside from scenic overlooks, the trails here are amongst my favorites. I could spend days exploring all of the nuances of Sitton’s Gulch in particular. The rim trails give excellent views of the canyon walls and, in fact, have you treading upon the the very rocks that make up those walls so you get to see them up close and personal. There are exposed boulders rife with crevices and cracks to explore the rocky goodness. (Sorry… a little bit of latent geologist just slipped out.)

Again, make no mistake that this is a canyon. It’s a long way down and an even longer way up. The stairs show no mercy but the views are not to be missed. There are several water falls to visit if the rain has been sufficient. It is a readily doable to hike rim-to-rim and Sitton’s Gulch in one day and have plenty of time to enjoy the canyon.

Two Little Stooges
Fred and George exploring Cloudland's every nook and cranny.
Fred on a rock
Fred camouflaged on a rock.

Camping…

While the park has two campground areas, one on the east rim and one on the west rim, we always opt for west rim. In my mind it has the has the best access to trails and, if you know which sites to pick, you can position yourself right next to some small, hidden fields. Many a quidditch match has been played by Fred and George in those fields in the breaks between exploring the canyon.

Sitton's Gulch Trail
Sitton's Gulch Trail...all sorts of groovy granola goodness.

Our adventure…

After our hiccupy trip to Cumberland Gap, it was comforting to take a trip that was mostly a known quantity…we know where everything is, we know what to expect from the campsites, we know what we like to do there, etc. In other words it’s an easy trip for us and was a step towards getting our travel mojo back to say the least…particularly for me since I typically run the show and needed to regain some confidence in my traveling abilities.

And it did bode well for my self-esteem that we managed to arrive, get a fabulous site, and set up camp before the rain set in with time to spare before dinner prep was necessary. It’s nice when a plan comes together. I even managed to knit myself a new, cozy winter hat that afternoon.

With a smooth arrival, we set out exploring the next day with a spring in our collective step. We initially stuck to the rim trails with the fabulous boulders to explore. Fred and George were smitten, and with their active imaginations, were able to spend a ridiculous amount of time exploring and getting lost in their otherworldly fantasies. In fact, with our selection of site, we were just a couple of minutes down the trail to the boulders, which, as you can imagine, meant we payed multiple visits.

West Rim Trail
Along the west rim trail.

Detox for Mommy…

As homeschoolers, the boys and I spend a lot of time together. On the one hand, it’s wonderful…on the other, did I mention we spend a lot of time together? Oh, and Fred is in full-blown tween mode. Did I mention that?

At any rate, the point is that I took the opportunity to sneak off for a little alone time…just me and my 50D. Leaving all four boys to their own devices, I set off to grab some sunrise shots of the canyon. They were horrible. But I did it and learned that I have a lot more to learn. I was impressed that I got my night-owl self up early enough to do it though. That in itself was a pretty big victory.

Not to be deterred from an unproductive morning, I ventured off to Sitton’s Gulch hoping to capture all of the awesome of Cloudland Canyon on my own terms. My familiarity with Cloudland allowed me to go directly to the spots I wanted to shoot. Along the way I met lots of lovely folks exploring and reveled in the time I had to focus on photography instead of cramming it in between various child-centered activities. It’s my version of blowing off steam.

Lost in Imagination
George in the field, lost in his imagination.

The take away…

The remarkable aspect of repeat visits to any place, is that it takes away the pressure to “do” everything. It let’s you branch out into other activities instead of feeling like you must hit the high points before you have to leave. There’s simply a different rhythm to the familiar. After your first time someplace, the nervous excitement of the unknown gently shifts towards the comfort of knowledge. You can better balance the time you take to relax and read a book (or whatever) with the time of getting out to explore. Plus, knowing what to expect from a destination allows you to mentally plan ahead.

Both experiences, the new and the familiar, are worthwhile in their own rights, just different. It’s important to allow yourself both as a traveler and Cloudland is our repeat indulgence.

What place always draws you back for a repeat visit?

And now for your moment of green…

Beginnings of autumn at Sitton’s Gulch are worth visiting again and again.

8 thoughts on “Cloudland Canyon

    1. Cloudland is great isn’t it? I love Chattanooga too, particularly the aquarium. Can’t do it with the pup along for the ride though so we had to stick to the park.

  1. I recently stumbled across Cloudland Canyon while doing some research for an upcoming Appalachian Trail hike and now I’m thinking about a changing my plans and heading to Cloudland Canyon instead. I enjoyed your article and pictures and can’t wait to see it for myself.

  2. Hey Val. Like your post, here. I grew up in Chattooga County, which is just below Cl. Canyon. Spent many a day on this ridge. It is such a beautiful place and I’m glad to call it home.

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