10/06/2021

Climbers Create Chattanooga’s Newest Crag as a Haven for Families

As a child, Sandy Kinzalow had free reign to ramble and roam wherever she pleased on the wooded parcel of land her family owned on top of the Cumberland Plateau. She scrambled up boulders, played with bugs, jumped over crevasses, and hid in stony caves from dawn to dusk. In the 1970s, the land was wild and unkempt compared to the popular tourism sites such as Rock City and Ruby Falls just south in Chattanooga. Her countryside neighborhood rarely saw visitors, and no one seemed interested in exploring the vast ridgeline.

But decades later, outdoor enthusiasts contacted Kinzalow’s father and asked if they could develop boulders on the property. What Kinzalow always considered “playing” seemed to have become a serious sport called climbing and bouldering by Chattanoogans. Little did she know the private playground of her childhood would soon open up for hundreds of climbers and hikers to enjoy.

White sandstone cliffs at Dogwood West. Ancestral lands of the East Cherokee, Shawandasse Tula (Shawanwaki/Shawnee), and S’atsoyaha (Yuchi).

In 2018, the Access Fund contacted Kinzalow to purchase and conserve her beloved backyard. Her family avidly supported selling the land for conservation and recreation purposes. “It was important for us to protect the land,” Kinzalow says. “If it’s not protected, it really will only benefit a few people.”

A year prior, the Kinzalows sold a portion of the property to the Cumberland Trail to help connect one of the sections. The Cumberland Trail has over 210 miles of trail from Chattanooga all the way up to the tip of Kentucky. The route follows the dramatic rocky ridge along the Cumberland escarpment and, once completed, will boast over 300 miles of unbroken trail. Well-known boulderfields and crags such as Pep Boys, Dayton Pocket, Laurel Falls, Buzzard Point, Deep Creek, and the Obed all border the pathway.

The Access Fund’s purchase of the Kinzalow property, now called Dogwood West, was another critical access point to the Cumberland Trail and home to an underrated climbing spot.

“We didn’t quite know how popular it’d become,” says Access Fund’s vice president of programs and acquisitions, Zach Lesch-Huie. “Once our property survey was complete, we realized we protected a really big chunk of the cliff line, so what became more of a bouldering access point turned into a sport climbing access point, too.”

With short approaches and easy access to the top of each route, Dogwood is a family-friendly destination for anyone, including children climbing outside for the first time. Now kids can experience the alluring landscape just as Kinzalow did years ago.

Since the Cumberland Trail State Park and Southeastern Climbers Coalition were both busy acquiring and fundraising for other land parcels, the organizations gave Access Fund the green light to spearhead the Dogwood West project.

Within the course of several years, the Access Fund Conservation Team and local SCC volunteers built a parking lot and trail system while local developers bolted new routes.

In 2021, Dogwood West was sold to the park. This Cumberland Trail State Park purchase meant every penny of the initial Access Fund purchase went back into the organization’s revolving loan fund program to preserve future crags. “Dogwood is an ideal project where we were able to not only recoup our loan but reinvest and grow the fund for the next climbing area purchase,” Lesch-Huie says.

Christian Leblanc, the owner of the Dogwood East campground, was one of the main route developers for the cliff line. He and local developers bolted over 30 routes, ranging from 5.6 to 5.13a.

The cliffs are around 50 feet tall, making Dogwood a great place for top roping or high volume days. The rock is full of unique features such as patina incuts, technical slab, and bulbous slopers.

“This region is littered with some of the highest quality stone,” Leblanc says. “It’s that bullet-white sandstone that’s just so solid.”

With short approaches and easy access to the top of each route, Dogwood is a family-friendly destination for anyone, including children climbing outside for the first time. Now kids can experience the alluring landscape just as Kinzalow did years ago.

Scattered below the cliff line is a collection of boulders ranging from moderate grades to V9, with a few FA potentials in between. Between Dogwood West, East, and other neighboring sectors, the boulderfield is almost as big as Rocktown.

In wintertime, the boulders are becoming more and more popular for climbers seeking less-trafficked crags. Lesch-Huie says Dogwood is “serving Knoxville quite well” because the area is one hour away and much closer than Stone Fort or Rocktown. Nashville and Chattanooga climbers are also close by, making Dogwood an opportune crossroads for all Tennessee climbers to meet.

Local brewery owner Kirby Garrison has seen a surge in visitation ever since he and his father opened Monkey Town Brewery in Dayton in 2015. “It makes the trip more worthwhile for [climbers] to come up here because we’re here,” Garrison says. “We never thought climbing would get as big as it did, but we did know there was an untapped resource of outdoor recreation here in Dayton.”

The family-owned brewery has collaborated with climbers, fishermen, and runners on local events and projects since opening its doors. While the SCC hosted trail days at Hell’s Kitchen in the summer of 2018, climbers came to Monkey Town afterward for beer discounts after breaking a sweat building the trail systems for Dayton’s newest boulderfield.

Similar to the symbiotic relationship between local restaurants and climbers, Leblanc established accommodations for visitors with his campground, which is nestled next to all the Dogwood climbing. Now it’s convenient and easy for climbers to visit Dayton to camp, eat, and climb for a weekend in a scenic low-key climbing area.

“I’ve always been passionate about climbing’s people, community, and subculture, and to see it happen up here organically is a blessing,” Leblanc says. As the Chattanooga climbing community grows, Dogwood has proven to be a noteworthy escape from crowds for climbers of all ages, levels, and disciplines.

“It’s been extra meaningful to see the growth of new faces and people wandering into the climbing and just enjoying the heck out of it,” Lesch-Huie says. “I watched Dogwood go from nothing to something, and it turned into a really valuable thing. It’s an affirmation that this work is appreciated and worth it for crags both small and large.”

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