Tucked away just a mile or so down Gunbarrel Road from the hubbub of the Hamilton Place shopping area, Audubon Acres is a one of the few remaining natural areas that marks centuries of human habitation in the Chattanooga area.
Where: 900 N. Sanctuary Road
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 1-5 p.m.
How much: $4 for adults, $3 for seniors (60+), $2 for students (5-12), free for children (5 and younger)
As the headquarters for the Chattanooga Audubon Society, the 132-acre site marks the passage of time from the Mississippian era to today, featuring an archaeologically significant area that dates back to the 1400s and 1500s; a reconstructed Cherokee cabin built in the 1770s; railroad tracks installed in the mid-1800s; historical ties to Chattanooga naturalist, author and poet Robert Sparks Walker; and a modern visitors center, gift shop and museum that offers historical context for the landscape with modern-day conveniences.
“We are a little piece of wilderness here in the middle of town,” Kyle Simpson, Audubon Acres sanctuary manager, who joined the staff one year ago, said. “We offer a fun way to experience history and nature in one setting.”
Audubon Acres was formed in 1944 when Chattanooga naturalist, author and poet Robert Sparks Walker purchased the land from his siblings to form Audubon Acres and the Chattanooga Audubon Society. Formerly Cherokee land, the Walker family farmed the land, and Walker was born in the log home on the site, which was built by Cherokee naturalist Spring Frog in 1750.
E.Y. and Elise Chapin also donated toward the purchase of the land, which is why the site is also known as the Elise Chapin Sanctuary at Audubon Acres.
Four miles of trails weave through the historically rich landscape at Audubon Acres. From the visitors center, which is open seven days a week, visitors cross active railroad tracks that date back to 1848.
On a knoll to the immediate right is Spring Frog Cabin, named for Cherokee naturalist Spring Frog. Thought to have been built in the mid-1700s with American Indian construction techniques, the cabin has been modified from its original construction by the native and white settlers who farmed the property over the years. The cabin is open to the public during educational programs and special events.
South Chickamauga Creek bisects Audubon Acres, offering access to one of the area’s most scenic urban waterways. Simpson said visitors are encouraged to explore the creek by foot, tube and kayak.
“Audubon Acres offers about a mile of creek access for swimming, tubing and kayaking, which is really fun in the summertime,” he said. “It takes about an hour to float our section of the waterway, and when you’re done, you can pick up and do it again.”
A short bridge offers easy creek crossing to the archaeologically significant portion of the property, Little Owl Village, thought to be where Native Americans settled in the 1400s and 1500s. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Little Owl Village site is also thought to be where the first contact occurred between local American Indians and the Spanish explorers Desoto, DeLuna and La Porta.
A small museum at Audubon Acres offers historical perspective on the site, featuring artifacts from the property and surrounding areas that include American Indian arrowheads, sewing awls, grinding stones, gaming pieces and pottery, as well as early settler artifacts.
“Most of Audubon Acres is urban wilderness, but it’s amazing to me how much wildlife you see here,” Simpson said. “We have foxes, muskrats, barred owls and great horned owls, turkeys and even a red-shouldered hawk that is nesting on the property.”
On Saturday, March 23, Audubon Acres will host the second annual Little Owl Music and Arts Festival, featuring live music, educational activities, and local and regional artists. Several Cherokee artists from Cherokee, N.C., will participate in this year’s event, including renowned Cherokee potter Joel Queen.
The event, which will take place that day from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., will also feature live music, food and children’s activities. The cost is $7 per person or $15 per carload.
For more information, visit http://www.chattanoogaaudubon.org/little-owl-music--arts-festival.html.
Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge. She enjoys writing about the natural world and exploration opportunities found within the southeastern United States, one of the most biologically and recreationally rich regions on Earth. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.