Last month, Sean had William and Adam over to the apartment for a weekend of gaming. I mentioned this on Facebook and joked that I was thinking about leaving town; Adam’s wife Tricia promptly invited me to go whitewater rafting with her and two of her friends on the Ocoee in Tennessee. How could I pass that up?
I decided to go to Chattanooga the day before and see some sights. Despite reading all about it and even subscribing to the Chattanooga tourism email newsletter, I’d never actually visited Chattanooga. Every time I drove through on my way to or from Kentucky I’d think “I really should stop here someday!” and I never would. Finally I had a plan! So on the morning of Saturday, August 10 I hit the road for Chattanooga, intending to see Ruby Falls, Rock City, and the Incline Railway.
Somehow, the drive seemed really long, and I got pretty tired. A stop at McDonald’s for unsweet tea and cookies perked me up.
When I got to Chattanooga I went straight to Ruby Falls. Sean went there last year as part of a team-building exercise, and ever since I’ve wanted to go. (He went to Nashville on that same trip, and took me there the day after Adam and Tricia’s wedding.)
Ruby Falls is a giant waterfall inside a mountain. Awesome, right? The attraction is very well organized. There are people outside throughout all the parking levels to guide you to a spot and answer your questions. It was easy (and free) to park, and then I took the nice pedestrian boardwalk walkway back up to the entrance.
The building was built at the turn of the 20th century with wood and stone from Lookout Mountain that was removed as the elevator shaft into the cave was created. It has a cool rustic lodge feel. There’s a line to get in and then they direct you to either buy your tickets if you don’t have them yet or wait in another line for a tour. Eventually you are shuttled down deep into the mountain by elevator.
The caves are lit by energy efficient bulbs. There is an evening lantern tour available where they turn out the lights and all you have are small lanterns to see by.
As we assembled and got ready to head further into the cave, the tour guide asked everyone where they were from. There was a family from Chicago, a family from Atlanta, and others. When he got to me and I told him Atlanta, “You’re by yourself?” he asked.
Tour guide: “Sniffle, sniffle.”
Me: “I’m on an adventure!”
Tour guide: “Be careful! It’s dangerous out there, you know.”
Finally the sexist tour guide moved on down the line, which was a relief as I was starting to feel embarrassed by my perfectly legitimate life choices. But then, after more elevator groups had arrived and our group had filled out, he started yelling from the back of a huge line of people:
“Hey, where’s that lady who was by herself from Atlanta?”
I responded cheerfully, but inside I was nervous and a little angry. “What’s up?”
“There’s a man back here who’s by himself too. Want to get together?”
Seriously? “I’m married.”
“Oh, I thought I figured something out. Sorry, sir! She’s married!”
At this point I turned to the group from Chicago and remarked, “He just won’t get outta my business!”
On the way into the caves there was a little boy behind me. I’m going to guess he was between four and seven, but I’m not sure. He would not stop talking, much to the chagrin of his grandparents and the tour guide, but I loved it.
At one point when the ceiling was particularly low he yelled to me, “Duck, woman!” :D
He kept asking if there were diamonds or gold in the cave. He also reacted very loudly and excitedly to all the different rock formations with exclamations such as “Whoa, what’s that?” or “That’s crazy!”
He was a considerate kid, always letting his grandmother know about any dangers ahead. “It’s slippery ahead, Grandma!” After awhile I started interacting with him, asking him questions, pointing out rock formations, and trying to explain stalactites and stalagmites.
Among the fascinating formations in the cave are naturally-formed rocks that look like steak and potatoes. There’s a section in the ceiling that looks like bacon. There are beehives, a dragon’s foot, a turtle, a fish, and more. Some of the stone is smooth and shiny.
Finally we emerged into a large cavern filled with multicolored lights and music, at the end of which was the main attraction: the waterfall. Each tour group gets seven minutes to look and take pictures.
The experience was okay–the colors were neat–but I would have liked to have been in the chamber alone, in complete silence but for the cascading water. I wonder if such a thing is possible.
My flash photos seemed to be catching a lot of spray, so I took many photos without the flash. I thought about asking someone to take my picture in front of the falls, but before I could muster up the courage, it was time to head back out.
You head out the way you came in, so other than a few side tunnels, the view was the same. Eventually we were back at the elevators waiting to go up. The tour guide pointed out a different cave that’s used in the fall for a spooky Halloween tour ranked sixth in the nation by the Travel Channel. It’s also the emergency exit if the elevator ever breaks down.
After we emerged from the elevator, I tipped the tour guide (he was sexist, but he was good otherwise) and then headed up to the observation platform. The view was okay, but filled with power lines and industry, so not ideal. Then I went down into the gift shop and purchased the picture of myself that was taken in the cave. I also got a Ruby Falls magnet.
By this point I was starving, so I grabbed a turkey sandwich and a water from the refreshments counter before heading back to my car.
The lady at the counter inside had said to do Incline Railway next, but a guy in the parking lot advised me to do Rock City first. He sounded like he understood my timetable, so I took his advice and drove around Lookout Mountain until I finally found the place. (GPS was telling me to do some weird stuff; I finally just turned it off and followed the many signs.)
I didn’t have a good idea of what Rock City was before I arrived. I had seen billboards and looked briefly at the website, but my impression had been that it was a nature trail in the mountain that led to a cool lookout point. The second part is correct; there is an awesome view with a waterfall called Lover’s Leap, and that’s what you see in all the pictures. But the way to get there is not a nature trail. Rock City is actually an elaborate, meandering garden of stone and plant life. You walk down a paved stone trail through cliffs and rock formations and view carefully tended shrubs, flowers and trees. There’s music at the entrance to the garden. At first I was a little disappointed; it seemed cheesy. But once I got beyond the music and deeper into the gardens, I started to appreciate the effort that had gone into designing this beautiful area.
The trails curve around, up, and down, so that you’re often doubling back but you’re higher or lower than you were before. There are stone bridges and an extraordinarily fun bouncy bridge.
There are also gnome statues in various playful poses throughout Rock City. At one point there’s an entire gorge filled with them.
Of course, the main attraction is Lover’s Leap, which is as beautiful and breathtaking as the pictures. You get good viewing angles of the outcropping from various points in the garden.
Past Lover’s Leap is another observation area called Eagle’s Nest, and a small wedding ceremony was taking place there. Everyone was dressed in white and black and at least one of the maids of honor was wearing elf ears, in honor of the fairytale theme of Rock City.
At this point I thought I was pretty much done, but the gardens continued. The trail curved back around through more formations and sights, including a slim passage called “Fat Man Squeeze” and a deer sanctuary. Eventually it came back out to an alternate view of Lover’s Leap with a better angle for photos of the waterfall.
And there was more to see after that. Winding through the garden trails, eventually you get to a cave with a fairytale-looking entrance. The designers of Rock City were German and were very into folktales. They built this part of the garden to celebrate fairy stories of all kinds. At first you see gnomes and fairies in playful scenes here and there. Then you come to Mother Goose Village, where actual nursery rhymes and fairy tales are reenacted in dioramas. Everything is illuminated with black lights, making the colors on the models shine an unearthly neon.
One little girl was so excited about each fairytale scene that she kept screaming at her family, “Come on! You have to see this!” It was so cute.
Eventually I emerged back into the sun, very close to the entrance of the park. On my way out, I stopped at the candy shop for some “Elfin fudge”. I knew I’d be out and about and the candy would probably melt, but I bought some anyway: a thick slice of peanut butter fudge, a ball of divinity, and four raspberry truffles. The fudge and the divinity actually held up rather well, but when I finally pulled the truffles out the next day, they had completely melted.
The guy at Ruby Falls had recommended I do the Incline Railway from the base of the mountain. He said this was better for people who were scared of heights, but it also sounded like it would mean saving the more exciting experience for last. So I drove down Lookout Mountain and back into Chattanooga to the lower station. For the first time, I had to pay for parking, but it was only $3, so I didn’t mind so much.
The little train station was cute. I checked in with the lady at the window, then walked around the track to the other side, where a photographer took my picture in front of a green screen. (I didn’t opt to buy the result.) Then I joined the line of people waiting for the next train. It didn’t take too long.
Though I was behind quite a few people in line, no one sat at the very end of the train where you could see down and out the best, so I sat there. I wondered if I should have sat at the back and watched the progression upward instead, but ultimately I really enjoyed seeing the train station and then the city slowly recede.
The ride was slow and not scary in the least. At times the train passed over a road or valley, but for the most part it ran right along the ground all the way up Lookout Mountain. I had a hard time capturing the height the train reached and the steepness of the track in photos. I get the impression it looked far more impressive in person than it ever will in a still.
The top station has a larger gift shop than the bottom station. It also has two levels of observation platforms from which you can view the city below. I went up and took some pictures, then wandered around for a bit wondering what to do. This was the last thing I’d planned, and it didn’t seem like a very impactful way to end the day.
I went outside and looked around. The top station is smack in the middle of a nice mountaintop neighborhood. What at first appeared to be a beautifully manicured park entrance was actually someone’s front yard. I noticed a sign pointing to “Battles for Chattanooga / Point Park”, so I headed that way. The walk was lovely; lots of nice houses and flowers and grass and trees. There was also a large open area next to the train station with lots of “No Trespassing” signs; whoever owns that land has a lovely view.
Eventually on the left I saw a Civil War museum. Advertisements boasted of a 3D Electronic Battle Map, which sounded really boring to me at the time. In retrospect, it probably would have been neat to see, but I guess I was in an Outside sort of mood. I passed the museum and headed to the end of the street, at which I found Point Park. The site of some hard-fought Civil War battles, the park has a walking trail alongside amazing Chattanooga overlooks. I paid the small entry fee, then wandered in and found plenty of places for photos.
As you round the curve to loop back to the entrance, another trail branches off to the Ochs Museum. I headed down to see what that was. It turned out to be another military fort building with an air conditioned room containing Civil War photographs from the area, as well as some memorabilia. The museum is named for the philanthropist who established Point Park. Beyond this room is a broad semicircular area overlooking Moccasin Bend in the Tennessee River.
Point Park has some of the best views I saw in Chattanooga. I’m so glad I wandered down the street instead of just getting right back on the train.
For the return trip down the mountain, I got on first and went straight to the front. I wanted to see if the experience of going down would be more exciting, and if I could get a different sort of picture or video. Ultimately, though, the trip was so leisurely that I got my fill of photos fairly quickly and then took the opportunity to check Facebook.
At the bottom I took a quick spin through the gift shop, but nothing really caught my eye, so I headed out to the street to look for dinner.
There are a few restaurants in the area of the lower station. Right across the street is Mr. T’s Pizza and Ice Cream. I actually saw it on my drive in and thought it looked cool. However, I strolled around a few blocks to make sure there wasn’t something else I wanted. The seafood restaurant, 1885 Grill, was extremely busy, with a line out into the street. The burrito place looked a little too much like a bar. Other places were only open for lunch. Finally I decided Mr. T’s would be fine; there was no line, and freshly-made pizza sounded pretty good. I went in and ordered an 8″ Classic, which is your standard tomato sauce and cheese pizza with a bunch of meat. It was delicious. I also got a side salad.
I thought about having some ice cream for dessert, but I was pretty full after all that pizza (I couldn’t finish it), so I decided it was time to find my bed for the night.
This trip was my first experience using AirBnB. I stayed in the second bedroom of a woman’s apartment. She never came home, so it was like having an apartment all to myself. The place was beautifully decorated and felt very welcoming. I watched a little cable TV, as I enjoy doing whenever I’m away from home, and then turned in for the night. I knew I had to leave the Chattanooga area by 10, so I set my alarm for the latest time I should get up, 9.
I had some trouble getting to sleep, perhaps due to being in a strange bed, perhaps due to excitement, but eventually I managed it. I awoke at 6 feeling pretty refreshed, so I went ahead and got up. Since I had a few hours, I decided to go explore downtown Chattanooga.
I’d found a restaurant on Yelp that sounded decent, so I put its name into Google Maps and headed in that direction. It was near the aquarium. At first I pulled into a paid parking lot, but then I noticed that street parking was free at the time, so I quickly moved the car.
Not feeling particularly hungry yet, I decided to walk around a bit and take pictures. On my way into town I’d driven over an awesome bridge with sidewalks called P.R. Olgiati Bridge, so I headed back that way and strolled across.
I got lots of pictures of the river, the riverfront, and the John Ross pedestrian bridge across the way, which I decided to use to get back. I headed into the north end of town, turned right, and walked down Manufacturer’s Road, snapping pics of storefronts. I noticed a restaurant called Good Dog was open, and then I realized I was hungry, so I stopped in and had their sausage and gravy breakfast sandwich. It was delicious.
A group of people in t-shirts were at a table across the room having beer cocktails. It was 8 o’clock in the morning.
Back out on the street, I considered walking down into Renaissance Park; I’d gotten some good overhead views of it from the bridge and it looked interesting. But I was eager to get to the pedestrian bridge, so I passed on the park and kept going.
The pedestrian bridge was everything I’d hoped it’d be, a long boardwalk with an intriguing overhead structure and great views of Chattanooga and the river. I smiled at everyone who was out biking, jogging, and walking dogs. There are so many cyclists in Chattanooga; it’s awesome.
Once across the river, I turned left toward the art museum, which sits atop a dramatic bluff along the river. The museum appeared to be closed that early on a Sunday, but I got some exterior shots. I also found a sign with a downtown map that led me further away from where I’d parked, to an overlook area with a sculpture garden. It was lovely.
After that I meandered back into town. I walked past a children’s science center and the baseball stadium, then found my way back to my car just in time to set out for my next adventure…whitewater rafting on the Ocoee River.
I’d say my first visit to Chattanooga was a resounding success!
Check out all my pictures from this trip here.