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The Ultimate Guide for the Chattanooga Side Trip (Boating the Tennessee River with travel itinerary)
The Chattanooga side trip of America’s Great Loop is a must-see. There are dramatic landscapes, cute small towns, and some of the most beautiful scenery on the mid-west rivers! In this post, we’ve compiled all of the tips and tricks we learned during our Chattanooga side trip including tips we received for those boating to Knoxville.
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Chattanooga Side Trip Quick Facts
How many miles is the Chattanooga side trip?
The Chattanooga side trip is a total of 250 nautical miles from the Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi border to Chattanooga on the Tennessee River.
How many days should I plan for the Chattanooga trip?
It takes about 5-6 days to travel to Chattanooga on the Tennessee River from Iuka, Mississippi. The trip typically lasts about 14 days in total. Scroll to the end of this post for a sample travel itinerary.
How much further is Knoxville?
Traveling to Knoxville by boat is an additional 184 nautical miles from Chattanooga, making it a total trip of 434 nautical miles. For a boat going between 6/7 knots, that’s about 4 additional days of travel going one way. Extending the Chattanooga side trip to Knoxville would take about 18-20 days, depending upon how many days you take to explore, rest, or not travel.
About the Tennessee River
The Tennessee River was once known as the Cherokee River, by the Cherokee Native Americans as they lived along its banks. Its current name comes from the Cherokee town, Tanasi, located on the Tennessee side of the Appalachian Mountains. The river has cultural and historical significance to the American Civil War which had its first battle along the river in 1862. The Tennessee River is home to over 100 species of freshwater muscles, however, muscle populations have significantly declined due to dam construction, water pollution, and invasive species.
At 652 miles, the Tennessee River is the largest in Tennessee and flows into the Ohio River. The Tennessee River connects to the Mississippi River, making the Tennessee River the Ohio River’s largest tributary. There are over 20 tributaries that are connected to the Tennessee River.
The Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful is a nonprofit that works to keep the Tennessee River beautiful for generations. They host river clean-ups and provide additional community outreach. Check out their events calendar for an upcoming river cleanup. It’s a small way to give back to the waterways we enjoy boating on.
Navigating the Tennessee River
As with any river, the Tennessee River has current working for and against you. Heading eastbound towards Chattanooga, the current will be against you whereas heading westbound, the current will be in your favor. You’ll also notice, that the current will get stronger as you approach each lock and dam heading eastbound, making it slower. Depending upon recent rainfall and water levels, you can expect a 1-2 knot current. Check out the TVA’s website for the most up-to-date information on flow rates and lake levels.
As you travel upstream towards Chattanooga, the buoys will be red on your right and green on your left. As you turn around to make the return trip back to the Great Loop route, the buoys will flip and red will be on your left and green on your right.
Tug and Barge Traffic
As expected on most of these midwest rivers, tug and barges can also be found on the Tennessee River, although they are significantly reduced in size and quantity. Many of the barges going to and from Chattanooga are carrying steel.
There are four locks on the Chattanooga side trip from the Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi border around Iuka to Chattanooga and three additional locks for boaters going all the way to Knoxville. The Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA for short, manages all of these locks. It is a good idea to call this lock ahead to see what the wait time looks like before starting your cruise for the day since the channel going eastbound is a bit narrow for boats, tugs, and barges.
Wilson Lock & Dam | MM 259
The Wilson Lock is the largest lock on the Tennessee River and possibly the largest lock on the Great Loop route with an elevation change of 93 feet. It’s located at mile marker 259 on the Tennessee River and can be reached by phone at (256) 764-5223 or by VHF radio.
Wheeler Lock & Dam | MM 275
The Wheeler Lock has a 49-foot elevation change. It’s located at mile marker 275 on the Tennessee River and can be reached by phone at (256) 247-3311 or by VHF radio.
Guntersville Lock & Dam | MM 349
The Guntersville Lock has a 39-foot elevation change. It’s located at mile marker 349 on the Tennessee River and can be reached by phone at (256) 582-3263 or by VHF radio.
For our full list of boater tips and tricks, necessary gear, and checklists for navigating locks on the rivers and the Great Loop.
We made navigating the locks & dams on the Great Loop easier by organizing them all on one spreadsheet! It includes the names, mile markers, phone numbers, and any of our additional navigation notes.
Nickajack Lock & Dam | MM 425
The Nickajack Lock has a 38-foot elevation change. It’s located at mile marker 425 on the Tennessee River and can be reached by phone at (256) 942-3985 or by VHF radio.
Chickamauga Lock & Dam | MM 471
If you’re continuing past Chattanooga to Knoxville, you’ll lock through the Chickamauga Lock and Dam at mile marker 471 on the Tennessee River. The Chickamunga Lock has a 49-foot elevation change. They can be reached by phone at (423) 875-6230 or VHF radio.
Watts Bar Lock & Dam | MM 530
If you’re continuing past Chattanooga to Knoxville, you’ll lock through the Watts Bar Lock and Dam at mile marker 530 on the Tennessee River. The Watts Bar Lock has a 59-foot elevation change. They can be reached by phone at (423) 334-3522 or by VHF radio.
Fort Loudoun Lock & Dam | MM 602
If you’re continuing past Chattanooga to Knoxville, you’ll lock through the Fort Loudoun Lock and Dam at mile marker 602 on the Tennessee River. The Fort Loudoun Lock has a 72-foot elevation change. They can be reached by phone at (865) 986-2762 or by VHF radio.
Water Levels on the Tennessee River
To find the most up-to-date information on the water levels in the various regions of the Tennessee River, check out the TVA’s Lake Levels website. From there, select the region you’re boating in and view the latest information. You can learn how the TVA manages water levels here.
We used BoatUS to have peace of mind while cruising, knowing help was only a radio call away. Sign up for BoatUS here!
Marinas and Dockage on the Chattanooga Side Trip
We’ve compiled a list of the marinas and dockage on the Tennessee River on the Chattanooga Side Trip. This list can be used for overnight transient dockage or for fuel, however, we do share our fuel recommendations below.
Florence Harbor Marina | MM 256
Florence Harbor Marina has transient slips and a courtesy car. It is conveniently located to Florence and Muscle Shoals – a favorite stop amongst loopers.
Website: https://florenceharbor.com/ Phone: (256) 768-1299
Joe Wheeler State Park Marina | MM 277
Joe Wheeler State Park has been the location of the AGLCA Fall Rendezvous for several years. Transient slips are available.
Website: https://www.alapark.com/parks/joe-wheeler-state-park/marina Phone: 256-247-6971
Ingalls Harbor/Decatur Boat Ramp with Free Docks | MM 303
The Ingalls Harbor free docks are located near the boat ramp in Decatur. They are not within walking distance of any other boater resources or amenities.
Ditto Landing | MM 334
Ditto Landing Marina has transient dockage available with full amenities.
Website: https://www.dittolanding.org/ Phone: (256) 882-1057
Guntersville City Harbor | MM 357
The Guntersville City Harbor has newly constructed free docks with no power or electricity. The docks are conveniently located by several restaurants.
Alred Marina | 357.4
Alred Marina has transient slips, boat repair, and full amenities.
Website: https://alredmarina.com/ Phone: (256) 582-4400
Goosepond Colony Resort and Marina | MM 378
Goosepond Colony Resort and Marina has transient slips available and a looper-favorite marina. Transient dock rates are $1 per foot on all boats. Angler Marine is a full-service repair facility at the marina including a a 50-ton travel lift. They also have a courtesy car available.
Website: https://goosepond.org/facilities/marina/ Phone: (256) 912-0592
Shellmound Boat Ramp and Free Docks | MM 425
Shellmound Recreation Area has two free docks right as you lock through the Nickajack Lock and Dam heading eastbound. Best suited for smaller boats (less than 40 feet), but check the Active Captain reviews for the latest information and TVA for water levels.
Hales Bar Marina & Resort | MM 431
Hales Bar Marina and Resort offers transient slips. This marina is located next to the old Hales Bar Dam. The Dam has been retrofitted into an operating Distillery where you can get tours and taste some of their spirits.
Website: https://halesbarmarina.com/marina Phone: 423-942-9000
Chattanooga City Docks | MM 463
The Chattanooga City Docks are operated by Erwin Marine. There are 4 sets of docks. These docks are the most conveniently located to downtown Chattanooga! The Bluff Floating Dock, the easternmost set of docks, has a gate with security code access. The Bluff Dock does have water and electricity. The Aquarium Dock and Commercial Dock are not floating and are exposed to traffic going by. There are no amenities. The Olgiati docks (the westernmost set of docks), are outside of the marina offices and have access to men’s and women’s bathroom stalls and have water and electricity. They are open 24/7 and require a key code to enter. There are no shower or laundry facilities. We initially stayed at the Aquarium Dock while the Bluff Floating Dock was occupied and eventually moved to the Bluff Floating Dock. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay here, but do wish there were marina facilities.
Website: https://dockwa.com/explore/destination/63c41zz-erwin-marine-riverfront?form=transient Phone: (423) 266-1316
Use our Referral Code 450ZMS3 for a $15 discount on your Dockwa reservation!
Chickamaunga Marina | MM 472
The Chickamaunga Marina has options for wet storage and has full facilities.
Website: https://www.erwinmarinesales.com/location/chickamauga-marina/ Phone: 423-622-1978
Lakeshore Marina | MM 472
Lakeshore Marina offers transient slips for their uncovered docks.
Website: https://lsmarina.com/ Phone: 423-870-2000
Island Cove Marina and Resort | MM 477.5
Island Cove Marina and Resort is a full-service marina.
Website: https://www.islandcove.com/ Phone: 423-344-8331
Harrison Bay State Park | MM 478
Harrison Bay State Park Marina offers transient dockage with full amenities.
Website: https://tnstateparks.com/parks/marina/harrison-bay Phone: 423-344-6214 ext. 0
Harbor Lights Marina | MM 482
Harbor Lights Marina has transient slips for boaters.
Website: https://harborlightsmarinatn.com/ Phone: (423) 842-5391
Euchee Marina Resort & Campground | MM 539
The Euchee Marina has transient docks, with full hook up, and fuel.
Website: https://eucheemarinaresort.com/marina Phone: (423) 334-1004
Long Island Marina | MM 572
Long Island Marina has covered slips with water and electricity.
Website: https://www.longislandmarinatn.com/ Phone: (865) 376-6288
Fort Loudoun Marina | MM 603
Fort Loudoun Marina accepts transient boaters and offers fuel.
Website: https://fortloudonmarina.com/ Phone: (865) 986-5536
Louisville Landing Marina | MM 615
Louisville Landing Marina is managed by Sun Life Marinas and has transient slips for boaters.
Website: https://sunlifelouisville.com/ Phone: (865) 984-9001
Volunteer Landing Marina | MM 648
Volunteer Landing Marina has both covered and uncovered slips with water and electricity. The marina offers both gas and diesel.
Website: https://www.volunteerlandingmarina.com/ Phone: (865) 633-5004
Anchorages on the Tennessee River
The Tennessee River on the Chattanooga side trip has several options for anchorages, however, we primarily stayed at marinas or free docks! We heard some of the best anchorages can be found just beyond Chattanooga for boaters continuing to explore the Tennessee River on their way to Knoxville.
Here is a list of anchorages we stayed at:
- Battery Hill Anchorage – We stayed at this anchorage and liked it (shown below). It was protected as it’s off the channel with the island protecting us from tug and barge traffic.
- Shellmound Recreation Area – While we docked at one of the two free docks, a sailboat anchored near the docks and took their dinghy to the docks to go to shore. So if the docks aren’t free or if it’s too shallow for your boat’s draft, anchoring is another option.
Fuel on the Chattanooga Side Trip
Boaters traveling on the Tennessee River to Chattanooga have several options for refueling along the way. Some of the places where boaters can refuel include the list of marinas listed above. We refueled in Iuka, MS before starting the Chattanooga side trip and again at Goosepond Colony Resort and Marina. We recommended calling ahead to marinas to find out their most current fuel prices!
Provisioning on the Chattanooga Side Trip
Unlike the Nashville side trip, the Chattanooga side trip has several opportunities for re-provisioning. Some of the best spots to re-provision on the Tennessee River include Florence, Alabama since the Florence Harbor Marina has a courtesy van. Another great opportunity is to use the courtesy car at Goosepond Colony Resort and Marina. Lastly, Chattanooga has the greatest variety in grocery stores but you might need to take an Uber or Lyft back to your boat with your groceries. There are no grocery stores within a 1-mile walking distance from any of the destinations on the Chattanooga side trip.
Attractions on the Chattanooga Side Trip
The Tennessee River is beautiful while also holding a deep history and cultural significance. Boaters cruising down the Tennessee River can experience culturally rich small towns, one diverse big city, and take in some stunning landscapes.
Muscle Shoals and Florence, Alabama
offers a variety of attractions for visitors to enjoy. Before you dive into this area’s history, make sure to watch the Muscle Shoals Documentary on Amazon Prime. We found it particularly helpful as it gives crucial context and background to the area. Explore the rich musical heritage of the Muscle Shoals area with a visit to some of the famous attractions:
- 3614 Jackson Highway
- FAME Recording Studios
- Alabama Music Hall of Fame
- W.C. Handy Birthplace, Museum, and Library – also known as “the Father of the Blues”
- Hellen Keller Birthplace
offers countless activities and attractions within a mile walking distance from the Tennessee River. Known for it’s proximity to outdoor activities, Chattanooga has been ranked as One of the Best Cities in the US. Here are some of the best things to do in Chattanooga:
- Ride the Incline Railway up Lookout Mountain: Take in the views as you scale Lookout Mountain which is located close to Rock City Gardens.
- Rock City Gardens: Explore the enchanting Rock City Gardens, known for its unique rock formations and breathtaking views. Walk through the magical Fairyland Caverns, cross the swinging bridge, and marvel at the stunning panoramic vistas from Lover’s Leap. If you’re visiting after Thanksgiving, make sure to see Rock City’s holiday lights!
- Chattanooga Market: Visit the Chattanooga Market, a weekly open-air market where you can find local produce, handmade crafts, artisanal food products, and live music. Explore the stalls, indulge in delicious food, and support local vendors.
- Classic Arcade Pinball Museum: Step back in time at the Classic Arcade Pinball Museum, where you can play a wide variety of vintage arcade games and pinball machines. Relive the nostalgia and challenge your friends to a friendly game competition.
- Chattanooga Whiskey Experimental Distillery: Take a tour of the Chattanooga Whiskey Experimental Distillery and learn about the process of crafting whiskey. Sample different whiskey varieties and discover the rich history of whiskey production in Chattanooga.
- Tennessee Aquarium: A real highlight of Chattanooga! The Tennessee Aquarium is located in two buildings based on exhibits; the freshwater exhibits are in the River Journey building and the Ocean Journey building includes saltwater exhibits. The aquarium is a great way to learn more about the Tennessee River and connecting waterways on which we’re boating.
- Chattanooga Riverwalk: Chattanooga’s Riverwalk spans over 15 miles following the Tennessee River. The riverwalk goes as far north as the Chickamauga Dam, so if you’re not planning on cruising to Knoxville, this would be a great opportunity to walk or bike and see the area.
- Walk the Walnut Street Bridge: Take a stroll across the iconic Walnut Street Bridge, a pedestrian bridge that spans the Tennessee River. Enjoy scenic views of the river and the city skyline as you walk, jog, or bike along this historic landmark.
is home to the Tennessee Volunteers and has a walkable and vibrant downtown! Here are some of the best things to do in Knoxville, TN:
- Visit the University of Tennessee: Explore the beautiful campus of the University of Tennessee, home to the Volunteers. Take a stroll through the Neyland Stadium, visit the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, and enjoy the vibrant atmosphere of the college town.
- Explore Market Square: Immerse yourself in the lively atmosphere of Market Square, a popular gathering place in downtown Knoxville. Discover local shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues. Don’t miss the Farmers’ Market, live music events, and outdoor festivals that often take place here.
- Tour the Knoxville Museum of Art: Experience the rich artistic heritage of Knoxville at the Knoxville Museum of Art. Admire a diverse collection of contemporary and traditional art, including works by local and regional artists. Check out the rotating exhibits and attend special events and workshops.
- Visit the Tennessee Theatre: Step back in time and catch a show at the historic Tennessee Theatre. This beautifully restored venue hosts a variety of performances, including concerts, plays, and film screenings. Take a guided tour to learn about the theater’s rich history and stunning architecture.
- Indulge in local cuisine: Knoxville is known for its vibrant food scene. Sample regional specialties like Southern barbecue, fried green tomatoes, and biscuits with gravy. Explore the diverse range of restaurants, from farm-to-table establishments to international cuisine, and savor the flavors of Knoxville.
These activities offer a taste of what Knoxville has to offer, combining history, nature, art, and culinary delights to create a memorable experience in the heart of Tennessee.
Weather Planning for the Chattanooga Side Trip
Each of the larger bodies of water including Wilson Lake, Guntersville Lake, Chickamauga Lake, and Watts Bar Lake, can get rough with white caps if the wind is strong and oriented in the long direction of the lake. It’s important to review the weather conditions before traveling. We typically didn’t travel if the weather was forecasted over 25 knots, but everyone’s go-or-no-go is based on their comfort zone with their boat.
Chattanooga Side Trip Sample Itinerary
The Chattanooga side trip is not a quick trip and requires a decent commitment to complete it. Loopers usually explore the Tennessee River in the fall when the autumn colors are in full bloom, giving boaters a beautiful view of the Tennessee River, however, the Tennessee River is beautiful year-round. Some boaters choose to spend their summers exploring all the great anchorages, diving deep into the cities and towns along the river, and taking in the summer boating culture on the river. With that being said, this is a sample itinerary based on a boat speed of 6-7 knots for loopers on a one-year loop schedule. If your boat goes faster, you’ll be able to shorten some of these travel days.
Day 1 – Start the Chattanooga Side Trip and cruise to Joe Wheeler State Park
52.5 Nautical Miles | 9:40 Travel Time
Since the AGLCA Rendezvous is often located at Joe Wheeler State Park and many loopers situate themselves at this marina for the Fall Rendezvous, it seemed best to start the Chattanooga side trip here instead of Florence and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Not to worry though, we’ll hit Florence and Muscle Shoals on our way back!
This is a rather long day as it goes through two locks (Whitten Lock and Wheeler Lock)which means it’s crucially important to call the lock masters ahead of time to find out what their wait time is. This will be one of the longest travel days, so it’s best to leave early in the morning to maximize sunlight hours.
Day 2 – Short Travel Day from Joe Wheeler State Park to Decatur Free Dock
22.1 Nautical Miles | 4:00 Travel Time
Enjoy an easy, short travel day from Joe Wheeler State Park to the free dock in Decatur. If you prefer a marina with full amenities, continue cruising to Ditto Landing Marina.
Day 3 – Decatur Free Docks to Guntersville Free Docks
47 Nautical Miles | 8:35 Travel Time
Enjoy this narrow, meandering river as you cruise to the Guntersville Lock and Dam. Take advantage of more free docks on your way to Guntersville! Guntersville has a great riverwalk and there’s a wide variety of restaurants adjacent to the docks including a steak house and a brewery!
Day 4 – Cruise from Guntersville to Battery Hill Anchorage
47.5 Nautical Miles | 8:40 Travel Time
If you have enough daylight or a faster boat, you can try to make it to Shellmound Recreation Area’s free docks just beyond the Nickajack Lock and Dam. The Shellmound Recreation Area is a lot easier with a dog as the docks take you to a grassy area to walk a dog compared to the muddy banks near Battery Hill Anchorage. You’ll want to leave early since there are limited sunlight hours. Alternatively, you can start your morning at ‘Another Broken Egg Cafe’ and get a slower start to your morning as you head to Goosepond Colony Resort and Marina.
Day 5 – Battery Hill Anchorage to Chattanooga!
45 Nautical Miles | 8:15 Travel Time
Soon after leaving Battery Hill Anchorage, you’ll arrive at your final lock on the Chattanooga side trip (unless you’re continuing to Knoxville) – the Nickajack Lock and Dam. Just past Nickajack Lake is one of the most beautiful parts of the Tennesse River as you’re in the Tennessee River Valley! Cruise into Chattanooga to the Downtown docks. Enjoy your first night out in Chattanooga.
Day 6 – Explore Chattanooga
Explore some of the great attractions and activities in Chattanooga such as the aquarium or the riverwalk!
Day 7 – Explore Chattanooga
Continue to explore the city with the Tennessee Aquarium (our favorite attraction in Chattanooga) followed by some pizza at Community Pie. Or enjoy a rest day after traveling 5 long days, 250 nautical miles, and 4 locks to Chattanooga!
Day 8 – Explore Chattanooga
Last day exploring Chattanooga! PS – don’t forget to reach out to the AGLCA Chattanooga Harbor Hosts! Maggie and Bruce are amazing people.
Day 9 – Leave Chattanooga and Cruise to Shellmound
33 Nautical Miles | 6:00 Travel Time
Enjoy retracing your tracks as you make your way downriver, first through some of the most beautiful sections of the Tennessee River! Cruise to Shellmound Recreation Area free dock.
Day 10 – Shellmound Recreation Area free dock to Guntersville
58.2 Nautical Miles | 10:41 Travel Time
This is a very long cruise day, but hopefully, we’ll get some extra speed as we have the current in our favor! Once you make it to Guntersville, enjoy a get-there-beer at the Brewers Cooperative in Guntersville because you deserve it! If this is too far to go in one day, stop at Goosepond Colony Resort and Marina.
Day 11 – Cruise from Guntersville to Decatur
47 Nautical Miles | 8:35 Travel Time
Make sure to call the Guntersville Lock before you leave the dock just in case they are locking through a tug and barge! Retracing our tracks from day 3.
Day 12 – Cruise to Florence/Muscle Shoals
38.5 Nautical Miles | 7:05 Travel Time
Enjoy your second to last day on the Tennessee River with two locks (Wheeler Lock and Wilson Lock) before arriving in Florence for two nights! Take the night off as tomorrow is a full day in Florence and Muscle Shoals!
Day 13 – One Full Day to Explore Florence/Muscle Shoals
0 Nautical Miles | 0:00 Travel Time
Known for its deep roots in music, this is one town that should not be missed on the Great Loop! Make sure to watch the Muscle Shoals Documentary on Amazon Prime before you explore the attractions here!
Day 14 – Rejoin the Great Loop Route
33.5 Nautical Miles | 6:10 Travel Time
Leave Florence and Muscle Shoals to rejoin the Great Loop Route. End your day at an anchorage on the Tennessee River just outside of Iuka. This anchorage is the Waterfall Anchorage, which is a bit of a tight fit for larger boats, however, there are plenty of other anchorages to choose from in this area. If you prefer to stay at marinas, continue to some of the marinas in Iuka, MS.
The book, Tennessee River Cruise Guide by Fred Meyers, is a great guidebook giving mile-by-mile information on the Chattanooga River including the area’s history, attractions, and geological features.
Watch our Side Trip to Chattanooga on YouTube
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