Lookout Mountain, named for the view it has over Chattanooga and the Tennessee river, holds historical significance dating back to both the American Colonization of the Native Cherokee people, and a Union army victory during the American Civil War. It boasts numerous adventure activities for families and individuals alike, from the panoramic views of Rock City boasting visibility of 7 states, to the underground waterfall of Ruby Falls; from a zipline course, to single-pitch climbing routes on sandstone cliffs. There are also miles and miles of hiking opportunities on Lookout Mountain, and one of the must-dos is definitely the hike to Sunset Rock.
The views at Sunset Rock are considered some of the most iconic in Chattanooga, and there are numerous ways to access it, whether you just want a short trek to the viewpoint, or if you are looking for a grand payoff to a longer hike.
Sunset Rock Trail Stats
Total Distance: Varies. From upper parking lot: .2 miles round trip. From Cravens House: 3 miles round trip.
Elevation Gain: 491′
Time To Complete: Two Hours
How to get to Sunset Rock in Chattanooga
Because there are multiple trails leading to sunset rock, the trailhead you access will depend largely on how long of a hike you are looking for. The shortest and easiest way of accessing the vista is from a small parking lot off the 400 block of Brow Rd, at the top of Lookout Mountain. The trail from this parking lot is a steep .1 mile; while this may be the easiest trail to the lookout however, parking is extremely difficult, especially the closer to sunset you get. The lot only has 9 parking spaces and they fill up quickly, and as this lot is in a residential area, parking along the street outside the lot is prohibited, and towing is enforced.
Other parking options include parking at Cravens House for a 3 mile round trip hike to Sunset Rock, or parking at Point Park for a 3.5 mile round trip hike. Cravens House has a large parking lot, and there is a fee of $7 at Point Park that also gets you access to the Civil War memorial run through the National Park Service.
The Hike to Sunset Rock
As stated above, the fastest and easiest way to get to the vista can be accessed via a .1 mile trail leading from a parking lot at the top of the mountain. This is recommended if all you are interested in are the views, or if you or anyone in your hiking party has health conditions that rule out the options of a longer hike. Though there is an elevation change of 121 feet, it is a short enough stretch that most able-bodied people can do it provided they bring enough water and take breaks on their way up.
To include a little extra distance in your hike, I recommend the path from Cravens House. Parking is available in a lot behind the house and on Cravens Terrace. Spend a little time looking at the house and some of the Civil War memorials on the grounds, and then head to the back of the grounds to find the trailhead.
The first 150 yards head west past the Cravens House grounds towards an intersection with the Rifle Pits Trail. Turn left for the Cravens House trail, and continue on a steady ascent on a wide, often heavily-trafficked trail. Halfway up you will pass a gorgeous tree with a branch curving over the trail, known as the “trail tree.” From here the trail narrows and gets slightly rockier, but doesn’t change much as far as elevation gain. At the one mile mark, the trail reaches another intersection. The left turn takes you to Point Park, and the right begins the Bluff Trail, and your path to Sunset Rock. If you parked at Point Park this is also where you will pick up the Bluff Trail.
Roughly the halfway point to the viewpoint
From here the trail gets more technical; the drop-off on the right side of the trail deepens to the point there is a cable strung on the side of the trail as a railing. On the left, bluffs rise up, which are a favorite spot for rock climbers in the Chattanooga area. During times of heavy rain water flows down the side of these bluffs in places and can leave the trail wet and muddy, but adds a fun feature if you have small kids with you. You wind beneath the bluffs for close to half a mile before passing beneath your goal; rocks that curve overhead and stretch up to the viewpoint of Sunset Rock. Just past this you reach another intersection. To reach the summit, take the set of steps to the left, for a steep climb of almost 100 feet before the steps turn left again and take you past several smaller viewpoints before arriving at the main attraction. Here you will find open westward views, along with a partial view of the Tennessee River to the north. Stay here for a snack, or to watch the sunset if you have come late in the day, and then backtrack the way you came to get back to the car.
Sunset Rock is an incredibly photogenic site
Sunset Rock, the view, the hike, and why I love it
Sunset Rock is one of the more popular hiking destinations in the Chattanooga area, and with good reason. The views really are incredible, and with multiple hikes of varying length and difficulty to get here, it offers a well-earned end-point no matter where you started.
I love the hike from Cravens House because it’s challenging, but doable for families with young children. This was the first hike my family did together after moving to Tennessee from Virginia; we wanted to do something that was “classic” Chattanooga, and reports from family and other trail guides all seemed to point to Sunset Rock. Our five year old hiked this easily, and my two year old did most of it on his own, although we did put him in his backpack once we passed the one mile mark due to the sheer drop-offs along the Bluff Trail.
Safety barriers on the Bluff Trail
The hike itself reminds me of a lot of trail hikes we used to take in Shenandoah National Park; a well-beaten trail where you can walk two abreast in most places. A trail that is easy without being too easy, with the valley on one side and the forest rising up on the other. The biggest difference here is that you can still hear the city–for someone not native to the area, this is a blessing and a curse. I am still getting used to the cognitive dissonance that comes with hearing traffic sounds while on mountainous hikes, but am thrilled with the proximity to rocky terrain with elevation changes so close to the city limits.
And of course the main draw to this hike are the views. It almost feels like cheating to know you can access it from the shorter walk from the parking lot on top of the mountain. My mom and dad used to make that short trip as a post-work hike all the time when they were newlyweds in the 1970s, and I love knowing that I can share this same experience, while taking advantage of the updates to the Lookout Mountain trail system that offer longer trail options.
- No matter how you get there, Sunset Rock has extreme drop-offs, and there are no railings or barricades at the ledges. Keep a close watch on children and dogs up here, but also be aware of yourself and other adults. The views make this an excellent place to take pictures, but common sense safety measures should be observed at all times.
- Bring plenty of water for the trip to the viewpoint, especially if you are here on warmer days. The trail may be short but the elevation gain, particularly at the end, is steep, and while you should never set out on any hike without water, this is definitely a trip to make sure all members of your party stay properly hydrated. Sunset Rock is in direct sunlight in the later part of the day, and that alone can require some extra water no matter your fitness level.
- Dogs are welcome on this trail–in fact they seem to love it! The steps leading up and down to the vista are steep however, so you’ll want to be aware not just of your dog’s footing, but of their enthusiasm, to ensure your own safety if they want to hurry up or down the steps.
- The viewpoint is usually extremely crowded, especially as the day goes on. While closer to sunset most of the crowds will come in from the shorter walk at the top of the mountain, on weekends, especially if the weather is nice, you will have company on the majority of the trail leading up from Cravens House. In addition to taking care if you have kids or dogs with you, the increase in traffic makes following Leave No Trace principals that much more important.
- This trail and the parking lots are managed by the National Park Service, so plan to be back at your car by dusk, especially if you are there to watch the sunset. Towing is enforced for vehicles left after dark.
In short–if you are new to town or just passing through, and looking for a trail that gives you a classic Chattanooga experience without taking too much of your day, you won’t find a better trail than Sunset Rock.