How Chattanooga's RiverRocks Festival was Born

The RiverRocks Festival takes full advantage of Chattanooga's riverfront.
The RiverRocks Festival takes full advantage of Chattanooga's riverfront. Downtown Chattanooga
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In 2009 Mike and Stormy McGualey felt Chattanooga’s renaissance had reached a point where “the community was ready to embrace a celebration of all that we have going on.” That included the growth of outdoors sports like trail running, rock climbing, mountain biking and paddling, in addition to more cultural elements like sustainable farms and local musicians.

Originally intended as a celebration of outings, events, and opportunities in Chattanooga throughout the year distilled into a 10 packed days in October, the RiverRocks festival featured a calendar of both informal, volunteer-lead events and more formal races for virtually every type of sports enthusiast. In addition to athletic pursuits, participants could listen to local musicians, choose from guided educational hikes and nature walks, and eat locally grown food served in restaurants celebrating sustainable farming.

RiverRocks took tremendous effort on the part of the McGualeys, who recruited friends, community leaders and outdoor groups to help “create a platform for engagement that would be healthy for the community.”

In 2010, the festival’s first year, the McGualeys and their original board of stewards (Paul Brock, Joe Ferguson, Joe Jacobi, Tom Griscom, Randy Whorton, Josh McManus, and Cindy Todd) managed to coordinate more than 100 events. The overall intent was to allow visitors and locals alike to enjoy the outdoor opportunities available in Chattanooga and to foster a more active and healthier lifestyle throughout the year.

The Urban/Nature 10K is just one of the RiverRocks events to highlight Chattanooga trails.
The Urban/Nature 10K is just one of the RiverRocks events to highlight Chattanooga trails. Rock/Creek, Katharina Handwerker

The vision for the festival shifted slightly as organizers attempted to consolidate options so participants could manage the events and races more effectively. Each year, the festival added new events and rethought other activities. After three years of heading the successful festival and helping adjust the vision for its future, Mike and Stormy stepped down.

It was their plan from the start, as they believed their full-time commitment would have a limited duration. Plus they hoped the community would adopt the festival as its own, taking up the responsibility of helping others learn to enjoy their surroundings and be good stewards for our natural world.

Dawson Wheeler and Paul Brock, longtime supporters of Chattanooga’s transformation, took leadership of the festival and its development. Wheeler notes that RiverRocks was crucial in helping to brand Chattanooga as a city for outdoor recreation and instrumental in getting people from outside of the area to come to spend a night—or several—and enjoy the city’s amenities.

In its most recent iteration, the RiverRocks’ board is headed by Max Poppel, co-owner of the boutique hostel Crash Pad. He cites the festival’s many successes, not the least of which is a continuation of the original vision of “getting the community off the couch and outside doing something.”

RiverRocks has events, including mountain bike races, through the entire month of October.
RiverRocks has events, including mountain bike races, through the entire month of October. Rock/Creek Katharina Handwerker

He notes that people can feel good about participating because RiverRocks donates a percentage of its revenue to several nonprofit organizations. In its first three years, RiverRocks donated $100,000 to conservation and land-trust groups such as Cumberland Trail Conference, Tennessee River Gorge Trust and Lula Lake.

Poppel says the athletic event portion is still crucial, but there’s a growing desire to add to” the community celebration of—and interaction with—the outdoors, so we shifted our focus last year, bringing some music and movie nights to the public. The movie nights were a hit and we're bringing those back this year.”

While RiverRocks has evolved from its original form, the goal of helping transform the community continues to be successful. Wheeler says RiverRocks has played a significant role in bringing to light “our city and surrounding natural resources. It played a supporting role in our branding Chattanooga as a great outdoor city. And it is a great way to inspire and make the outdoors accessible.”

The McGauleys’ desire “to develop the festival as something unique to our region, to Chattanooga and the resources we have,” is ongoing. So in October when you peruse the calendar, try new activities, and explore new-to-you local places, you can judge how successful RiverRocks has been in transforming Chattanooga—and your lifestyle.

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