North Chickamauga Creek Gorge State Natural Area
A picturesque view of bluffs along Cain Creek with chokeberry in the foreground
During September and October of 2013, staff from the Tennessee Ecological Services Field Office enjoyed opportunities to assist botanists from the Tennessee Division of Natural Areas – Natural Heritage Program as they monitored populations of the federally listed threatened plant Virginia spiraea (Spiraea virginiana) in Tennessee. This species is found in the states of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia on flood-scoured cobble and boulder bars and bedrock outcrops, shaped by streams draining the rugged terrain of Southern Appalachia. One such place where botanists monitored this species is North Chickamauga Creek Gorge State Natural Area – a place with a story that demonstrates the importance of partnerships for recovering species listed under the Endangered Species Act.
A thriving Virginia spiraea colony on a cobble and boulder bar.
North Chickamauga Creek Gorge is a 7,093-acre natural area located in Hamilton and Sequatchie Counties. It is an outstanding deep gorge cut into the sandstone plateau of Walden's Ridge on the Cumberland Plateau. The gorge is approximately ten miles long with steep slopes, sandstone bluffs, and rich coves. A high diversity of plant and animal habitat exists in the gorge. Nine state and/or federally listed plants occur here, in addition to Virginia spiraea, including the federally listed threatened large-flowered skullcap (Scutellaria montana). Bald eagles and peregrine falcons have also been reported here. We’re happy to report that we found the Virginia spiraea population at North Chickamauga Creek Gorge State Natural Area in good condition during 2013, having remained stable since it was last monitored during 2007 - and we found the species in one new location in the natural area where it hadn’t previously been documented.
The Vortex Rapid, peaceful at low flows, becomes a popular challenge for daring whitewater paddlers when Cain Creek rises.
The story of the North Chickamauga Creek Gorge State Natural Area provides an example of how the Service, when it collaborates with partners in State agencies and the private sector, contributes to strategically protecting habitats in the right places to recover listed species and conserve the nation’s rich natural heritage. The North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy began working to establish a foothold in the watershed in 1993 and negotiated an agreement for a final sales price for 3,573 acres with the Tennessee Waller Trust in 1997. Financial contributions by The Conservation Fund, the Maclellan Foundation, the Lyndhurst Foundation, and others were combined with $750,000 from the State of Tennessee to raise the $2.5 million needed to close the deal in 1999. The property was officially designated as a State Natural Area in June 1999. But things were just getting started for this natural area.
North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy and the State purchased an additional 152 acres to add to the natural area in 2000, increasing its size to 3,825 acres. Next, the State signed a conservation easement with Z. Cartter Patten, a member of the Conservancy’s advisory board, adding 1,039 acres in the Mossy, Cain, and North Chickamauga creeks area, and raising the total to 4,864 acres. In 2004, the Service awarded the State of Tennessee a $562,500 Recovery Land Acquisition grant to acquire 1,400 acres of land from Bowater Inc. that would protect populations of large flowered skullcap and Virginia spiraea. When the dust settled and the deal was completed, this phase of land acquisition added 2,229 acres to the natural area – 551 acres donated by Bowater Inc. and 1,678 acres purchased by the State of Tennessee.
Tennesseans will enjoy the benefits of this 7,093-acre natural area for generations to come. The waters of the North Chickamauga Creek Gorge State Natural Area are popular with whitewater enthusiasts who dare to test themselves on its technical class-IV and V rapids. And for those who enjoy a nice, if strenuous, walk in the woods, the natural area will offer a trailhead for the Cumberland Trail State Park, which will pass through the gorge. When completed the Cumberland Trail will be 300 miles in length, traversing 11 Tennessee counties on its way from its northern terminus at the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park south to the Signal Point near Chattanooga.
For more information follow these links:
The North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy
Tennessee Division of Natural Areas
Learn more about Virginia spiraea
Friends of the Cumberland Trail
**The North Chickamauga Creek State Natural Area is managed by the Cumberland Trail Scenic Trail. It is advisable to call the park office at 865-207-0060 before you visit to get up-to-date announcements on potential closures.