Here’s an idea for someplace to bring your next out-of-town visitor. A 500-acre lake on the top of a mountain, miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails along the bluff of the Tennessee River Gorge, boat ramps and fishing piers on the river, picnic tables and pavilion, volleyball and softball fields, and stunning overlooks of the Tennessee River Valley are free of charge and open year-round—just an 8-mile drive from Chattanooga. It’s also a one-of-a-kind hydroelectric plant in the TVA system. Raccoon Mountain Pumped-Storage Plant exemplifies TVA’s odd dual role as both energy producer and manager of public lands for outdoor recreation.
TVA has sometimes been the good guys, oftentimes the bad guys, in the eyes of environmental advocates. So it might seem paradoxical for this big pollution-generating industry, which admittedly provides the energy we demand, to be the steward of 293,000 acres of public land and the habitats it contains, operating about 100 public recreation areas. But water strongly links the roles as hydroelectric dams create many miles of shoreline and greatly enhanced opportunities for water-based recreation.
There’s a lot to love and play in thanks to TVA, and there’s something for everyone, from developed recreation areas to wild places, whether it’s water or land you want to play on, with boats or camping gear or just the shoes on your feet.
The electrification of the Tennessee Valley changed a lot of lives for the better, but the dams that provide much of that electricity also changed many waterways from fast-moving cold-water streams to slow-moving and somewhat warmer reservoirs, and that changed the kinds of fish that live in those waters. However you might feel about that, the change is here to stay, and boaters and anglers make good use of the open-water habitat. It’s safe to say that TVA has more boat launches than any other type of recreational facility, but the website recreation map isn’t very helpful for finding out where they are and how to get to them. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency website is a better online source for finding boat launches, and the Tennessee Atlas & Gazetteer published by DeLorme is a great printed resource.
The dams also create an unusual experience known as locking through. Locks hydraulically lift or lower boats and barges so they can pass through dams. You might have to wait for a commercial boat or barge to lock through first, but recreational boats are given their turn. Even kayaks and canoes can lock through. Changing your water level by about 70 ft, between Watts Bar and Chickamauga reservoirs for example, takes about an hour.
Dams also create tailwaters below them when generating electricity, and kayakers take advantage of this whitewater action. The site of the only Olympic event ever held in the state of Tennessee is below Ocoee Dam No. 3. When that dam is generating, paddlers can navigate the mile-long historic course of the 1996 Olympic whitewater competition
Some developed recreation areas, most of which are within TVA reservations around dams, have swimming areas with sandy beaches and cordons to separate swimmers from boats, making these places safe even for small children.
Picnic areas, some with pavilions, are at many of the dam reservations and provide grills, restrooms, potable water, and handicap accessibility. Trails are also typically near dams, and some offer city dwellers a wilder walk close to home. For example, Big Ridge Small Wild Area, a 200-acre upland hardwood forest at Chickamauga Dam, gives Chattanoogans a place to walk in the woods just a few minutes’ drive from downtown.
Melton Hill Dam has a campground that is also a TVA demonstration project for sustainable development. It is powered by wind and solar energy and has low-flow showers and toilets to conserve water.
Among all these places where power generation and recreation go hand in hand, Raccoon Mountain is outstanding in its uniqueness and the quality of its facilities. Raccoon Mountain is TVA’s only pumped-storage plant, and it works like a giant storage battery. When power demand is low, water is pumped from Nickajack Lake to the reservoir at the top of the mountain. When power demand is high, water is released from the reservoir through a tunnel drilled through the center of the mountain to drive underground generators before being discharged back to the Tennessee River. In this way, TVA trades low-value energy for the higher-value energy at peak demand.
The plant was built in the 1970s, and at 230 feet high and 8,500 feet long, the dam that holds back the reservoir is still TVA’s largest rockfill dam. The one-way drive over the dam offers dramatic views of surrounding mountains pierced by the river gorge. Even the unusual power infrastructure at the discharge point at the bottom of the mountain, as well as what appear to be extremely large spare parts displayed like modern sculpture, is oddly beautiful. A system of about 20 miles of interconnected trails is shared by walkers and bicyclers, and the area seems to be especially popular with trail riders from beginner-level to advanced.
As byproducts of energy production, TVA public lands and waterways add an important layer to the regional system of recreational opportunities provided by national parks, national forests, and state parks. Mostly free of charge, these places for outdoor play are another way TVA contributes to the quality of life we enjoy in the Tennessee Valley.
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