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Two mountain bikers at Mill Creek Loop in the Loyston Point Trails system at Norris Reservoir

Winter Chills, Outdoor Thrills

Cold Weather? That’s the Cue for Wilderness Adventure

On a brisk December morning, TVA recreation strategy specialist Clay Guerry set off on a 30-minute journey to a spot just north of Knoxville.

Sizing up the 30-degree temps, he donned thermals, gloves, a windbreaker and warm outerwear.

And for good measure, a sunny disposition.

Destination? Loyston Point, home of the top-rated mountain biking trails near Norris Reservoir.

“I could live and work anywhere in the country,” Guerry said. “But I choose to live in the Valley region because my chosen recreational pursuits are available year-round.”

He’s in good company.

TVA’s seven-state region is renowned not just for the bounty of summer recreation, but also for cold-weather adventures that add a new dimension of fun to activities like fishing, boating, biking and hiking.

When the Valley region’s creatures are nestled into wintertime burrows, that’s the cue to gear up and head out to TVA-managed lands and waterways.

Top-Rated Trails

About eight years ago, TVA Natural Resources and Recreation Management teams began building the Loyston Point Trails system at Norris Reservoir.

What started as a modest 5-mile loop has grown to about 23 miles of winding trails that have earned rave reviews from mountain bikers nationwide.

“We wanted to create a destination for mountain biking that people of all skill levels could enjoy,” Guerry said.

Owing to its accessibility and meticulously managed trails, the site attracts nearly 1,000 visitors a month.

But when the weather cools, it’s a chance to amp up the adventure.

Fewer people are on the trails in winter, giving seasoned riders like Guerry more freedom to test their skills. Novice riders, too, can build their confidence amid the relative calm.

As with any activity on cold days, the right gear – gloves, moisture-wicking layers and sufficient hydration – will enhance the experience.

“With all outdoor recreation, first-aid kits and safety equipment are essential,” Guerry said. “If you’re going out on the trails, let somebody know where you’re going to be.”

For mountain-biking beginners, partnerships are the way to go.

“Join a club or look for a group ride,” Guerry said. “The mountain-biking community welcomes all.”

Two mountain bikers pass by a sign at Mill Creek Loop in the Loyston Point Trails system

Two mountain bikers pass by a sign at Mill Creek Loop in the Loyston Point Trails system at Norris Reservoir.

Unforgettable Vistas

There’s something special about the slice of Appalachian Trail that winds through the pristine woodlands of western North Carolina.

Toward the southern end of the trail, there’s a favorite milestone for many a thru-hiker – Fontana Dam, the tallest dam east of the Rocky Mountains.

Hikers stop here to marvel at the breathtaking view, and they also get to enjoy the TVA-managed shelter, Fontana Hilton, that offers hot showers and cozy rest spots.

TVA recreation specialist Brian Ross, a former backcountry ranger, has always loved this area.

It’s especially majestic in the winter, when temperatures in the Great Smoky Mountains can fluctuate widely with each change in elevation.

“You can almost experience all four seasons in one day,” Ross said. “I have a lot of good memories being up on the ridge, looking across the mountaintops and getting a full view of the valley. There’s nothing else like it.”

You can’t go wrong with any trail in the Valley region, in any season.

Ross enjoys the moderate trails around Norris Reservoir, such as Songbird Loop near the Clinch River. At higher elevations, in winter, River Bluff Trail offers a clear view of Norris Dam.

“It’s a totally different view up there in the wintertime,” Ross said. “With the leaves gone, wildlife viewing opportunities open up.”

Another benefit to winter hiking? Fewer insects.

But it’s the relationship with nature and other hikers that really pays off.

“It’s my therapy,” Ross said. “The camaraderie is what gets people outdoors, even in the cold.”

Big Ridge Trail near Chickamauga Reservoir in Chattanooga

A paved path cuts through the winter woods at Big Ridge Trail near Chickamauga Reservoir in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Wild Wonderland

TVA photographer Hill Henry has long known a simple truth about winter in the Valley region.

It’s an ideal time to spot wildlife, as the absence of leaves offers an unobstructed view of nests and tree-dwelling creatures.

On a recent drive near Guntersville Reservoir in Alabama, for example, he noticed a large shape in the bare trees. He pulled over for a closer look and saw a large nest, so he grabbed his camera and zoomed in.

What did the nest hold? A mother eagle feeding her chicks.

“I’ve found many eagle nests in December and January while traveling across our Valley region, just by looking for them in the bare trees,” Henry said.

He’s part of a vibrant community of birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts who travel the region for these encounters.

It’s big business, too. Nationally, wildlife-watching contributes about $250 billion to the economy.

“We’ll drive great distances to see those resources, which creates an economic benefit for our region,” Henry said.

Winter visitors can find sandhill cranes in abundance at area refuges and reservoirs. December and January are particularly great for spotting Bonaparte’s and ring-billed gulls at Kentucky Dam.

“There are people out there kayaking in the freezing cold,” Henry said. “What are they doing? They’re looking at the landscape in the wintertime – but they’re also seeing the wildlife inhabiting it.”

A photographer uses a telephoto lens to zoom in on wildlife at Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Birchwood, Tennessee

A photographer uses a telephoto lens to zoom in on wildlife at Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Birchwood, Tennessee.

Winter in the Waterways

Many TVA reservoirs are recognized as worldclass fishing destinations. And if you ask folks in the know, winter is the perfect time to drop a line.

“People view fishing as a summertime activity, and it’s really a year-long activity,” TVA water resource specialist Shannon O’Quinn said. “I can’t speak for everybody else, but I typically catch the most and best fish during the wintertime.”

Winter brings cooler water temps in local rivers and streams, a condition in which trout thrive. The Watauga, Clinch and South Holston rivers, as well Chickamauga and Guntersville reservoirs, are among top-rated spots for bass anglers. 

TVA-managed dams and reservoirs support ecotourism and recreational activities that contribute about $12 billion to the region’s economy each year.

“We’re open for business year-round, which brings people into the area and drives winter tourism,” O’Quinn said.

“Some of these sports are a byproduct of our river management,” Kenneth Weisz, program manager of TVA’s Land Use and Permits, said. “Because of our dams, we now have a controlled river environment for both fishing and paddling.”

Boaters and kayakers should keep a close eye on TVA’s lake levels and release calendars before heading out on reservoirs and tailwaters.

“Double-checking the generation schedule is very important, as waters may rise rapidly,” TVA program manager David Harrell said. “Be cognizant of the water level, be aware of your footing around rocks or obstacles and wear appropriate clothing.”

Kaylee O’Quinn, of Johnson City, Tennessee, smiles as she holds a rainbow trout she caught at Stoney Creek

Kaylee O’Quinn, of Johnson City, Tennessee, smiles as she holds a rainbow trout she caught at Stoney Creek, a tributary of the Watauga River in east Tennessee.

‘Nature All Year’

A leading component of TVA’s mission is economic development – and that entails support for activities that create and preserve jobs.

More than 130,000 jobs depend on water recreation at TVA-managed reservoirs and rivers. Wintertime activities can ensure year-round employment for many of these folks.

At the South Holston River Lodge in Bristol, Tennessee, for example, the cold months are a great time to build new relationships with customers.

It’s an off-peak season – summertime is the big lure – which means it’s an opportunity to get creative with customer outreach.

“We offer people further up north the opportunity to break out of their cabin fever in January and February and come down here to fish,” Jon Hooper, lodge manager, said.

Hooper’s lodge undergoes a six-week rest period from mid-December to January, but it’s back to business come February. He kicks off the season with a month-long Veterans program, offering discounted packages through Project Healing Waters.

In cities like Knoxville, winter recreation is a boon to quality of life.

That’s often a deciding factor for people looking to start businesses and buy homes.

“Being in a natural environment is beneficial both physically and mentally for folks,” Wesley Soward, Knoxville’s urban wilderness coordinator, said. “We have a good quality of life here because we get to be in nature all year.”

Bottom line: The thermometer doesn’t dictate when the fun starts and stops.

“The opportunity for recreation is available year-round,” Guerry said. “I think that’s just another part of what makes the Tennessee Valley region a fantastic place to live, work and play.” 

View of the tree-topped cliffs at a local quarry

Hikers at Big Ridge Trail in Chattanooga, Tennessee, are rewarded with a breathtaking view of the tree-topped cliffs at a local quarry.

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Visit TVA’s Recreation page to learn about winter activities across the Valley region – and find great tips for birdwatching at the TVA Birdwatching 101 page.

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