Photo by Mark Wurst
Crested iris. It blooms along streams and on hillsides in April and May.
Granted, the “riding” on the side of Lookout Mountain isn’t typical, especially in this neck of the woods. A winding path that shows an “active” view of the landscape, and a favorite design among mid-18th-century English nobility, it’s not something you’re likely to stumble across while exploring the better known landmarks of nearby downtown Chattanooga.
It may not even be on your list of must-see sites in southeast Tennessee. But when spring arrives, and Reflection Riding – a 300-acre arboretum, botanical garden and historic site “dedicated to the study and conservation of native plant life” – blossoms into one of the area’s most prolific wildflower sites, you’ll be glad you discovered the detour.
Formally established 50 years ago, Reflection Riding is the brainchild of John and Margaret Chambliss, who sheltered an old worn-out farm from the encroaching commercialization and turned it into a respite where they and their neighbors could escape the pressures of city life and enjoy the solace of their own Walden Pond.
When the couple chose to create the “riding,” Margaret Chambliss had two motives in mind when she added the word “reflection”: to draw attention to the natural beauty reflected in the surrounding ponds, and to encourage guests to view the property as a place for personal and spiritual reflection.
This time of year, the riding’s one-way, 3.4-mile driving loop is lush with wildflowers in just about every hue. Pink and white dogwoods flourish along the paved road that, at least for a while, follows the banks of Lookout Creek. Perky blue-eyed Marys nod from the aptly-named Bluestem Meadow. Flame azaleas flash their showy orange blooms from their home deep in the forest. Sunning turtles slip off log perches and lazily slide into ponds. Fire pinks, bleeding hearts and wild irises grow so close to the edge of the lane you can almost reach out and touch them as you pass.
Bullfrogs boom from the Siren Pool at the point where the loop heads back on the elevated return road, toward the Chattanooga Nature Center. (The Center is a destination in itself, with a wildlife rehabilitation hospital, a 1,200-foot Wetland Walkway and a red wolf breeding facility.) “Waybys” tempt drivers to pull off, park and stretch their legs, enjoy a picnic or take a closer look at the wildflowers. Morning is a key time for birdwatching.
Nature lovers who’d rather explore the riding on foot have two major options: the wide, non-automotive upper trails, which take the adventurous hiker all the way to the top of Lookout Mountain, and the lower trails – three paths that show off a sampling of different terrains, from pastures to woodland nooks. A network of smaller spur trails encourage exploration of the Wildflower Cove, Oliver Freeman’s Hollow, the Philp Memorial Garden, the Fern Glade and the secluded pavilion area. Altogether, the upper and lower trails offer 12 miles of hiking and biking paths, punctuated by historic cabins and rustic barns.