As mentioned in our previous post, the name “Chattanooga” is a Creek Indian word meaning “rock coming to a point.” This is a reference to Lookout Mountain, which begins in Chattanooga and stretches through parts of Alabama and Georgia. We drove a portion of the mountain while in Alabama a few days ago, following the scenic Lookout Mountain Parkway. Now we’re doing the scenic drive on the northern end, which overlooks Chattanooga.
While moseying along, we noticed several advertisements for attractions on Lookout Mountain. Although they looked a bit “touristy” to us, the RV park offered a discount for a three-attraction package, and we had a spare day to kill. So, we gave in to the hype and spent a beautiful day experiencing “the big three not to be missed while in Chattanooga” – Ruby Falls, Rock City Gardens and the Incline Railway.
Another thing we noticed while driving past these attractions was buses full of screaming school children being unloaded at them. That left no doubt that we would be at the biggest attraction – Ruby Falls – at 8:30am when they opened the next day. Our strategy worked, and with only 6 other people on the first tour we descended into the cave via elevator with our guide, prepared to be amazed.
Each cave and cavern we’ve visited during our travels (Oregon Caves National Monument in Oregon, Lava Beds National Monument in California and the Kartchner Caverns in Arizona) has had its own fascinating story of discovery. Ruby Falls is no exception and is rather unique because of its towering underground waterfall.
The story goes that the original Lookout Mountain Cave had been discovered and used by Native Americans, then by Union and Confederate soldiers, over many decades. But when a railroad tunnel was constructed nearby through the mountain in 1905, the cave entrance was sealed off. Then, in 1923 a local cave enthusiast named Leo Lambert decided to drill an elevator shaft 420 ft. straight down into the mountain to gain access to the cave. His plan was to open it to the public as an attraction – for a small fee, of course.
It was during this drilling that a worker felt a rush of air when he reached a depth of 240 ft. A small team led by Mr. Lambert spent 17 hours crawling around the previously unknown part of the cave, and during that fateful trip they discovered a spectacular waterfall 145 ft. high, 1,120 ft. below the peak of the mountain. After taking his wife Ruby into the cave to see the waterfall for herself, he named it after her.
Getting to the Falls involved almost a half mile of walking, parts of it through narrow, tight spaces with low ceilings, unlike other caves we’ve explored that were made up mostly of large and small caverns. I chuckled at the way many of the formations in this cave were labeled with big signs, leaving little to the imagination.
Finally, the climax of the trip occurred at the end of a very narrow path where we heard water thundering in the dark. As we stood in place the lights began to come up…
…and, viola! The multi-colored lights were accompanied with music as everyone gasped in awe at the waterfall. Wow! But we had only a few minutes to snap our pictures, as the next group was due to show up soon.
Although the tour was fun and the waterfall awesome, my comment is that this place is just a little too commercialized for us. Fortunately we got out of there before the first big group of kids arrived!
Our next attraction was the Rock City Gardens, a geological wonder described by two missionaries in 1823 as a citadel of rocks. This was another beauty, featuring massive natural ancient rock formations with some man-made enhancements. The long, convoluted rock trail was lined with gardens and contained hundreds of labeled local trees and plants. The formations here reminded me of similar ones we saw at Bilger Rocks in Pennsylvania and Nelson-Kennedy Ledges in Ohio – but this was on a smaller scale.
Although there were several features we enjoyed here, the inevitable arrival of school buses with screaming kids made us realize it was time to move on. But we had to admit that the breathtaking views from Lover’s Leap at the end of the trail made it worth the stop.
Our final attraction of the day was a mile-long ride from the top of Lookout Mountain to the bottom, at a maximum incline of 72.7% grade. The Incline Railway is billed as the steepest passenger railway in the world, and we rode on it along with a group of kids on a field trip. Fun, fun!
Considered a technological marvel at the time, “The Incline” was originally built to quickly whisk people and supplies up and down the steepest part of Lookout Mountain. The original coal-burning steam engines were replaced by two 100-horsepower motors in 1911, but other than that the railway hasn’t changed very much in its more than 100 years of operation.
All of these out-of-the-ordinary attractions are located high above the city skyline, on top of Lookout Mountain. Except for the crowds and some of the man-made “enhancements”, we must admit that we enjoyed our day exploring the mountain’s natural beauty and rich history.
How to best enjoy Chattanooga on a rainy day? Well, even though I’m not really big on aquariums, when Mother Nature throws rain at me I can either hide away at home or go out and do something fun indoors. Since shopping isn’t really my thing anymore, I took a tip from the folks at Wandering Dawgs and ventured out to the Tennessee Aquarium for a few hours. I was on my own, as Steve decided to skip this one and catch up on some other stuff. He would have been happy to know that I didn’t take many pictures during this excursion, for it was dim inside the building and I still have to work on my indoor photography skills.
The diverse collection of water animals at the River Journey Building fascinated me. What struck me the most were the Turtles of the World and River Giants collections, and the adorable Sea Horses.
The colorful Freshwater Stingrays caught my attention at the Ocean Journey Building.
I couldn’t get a good shot of the mesmerizing jellyfishes, so I instead captured a display of colorful glass sculptures which were a part of the Jellies in Art collection. It depicted the shape, rhythm and movement of the various jellies.
We rarely miss an urban biking opportunity, and Chattanooga offered up the 13-mile Tennessee Riverwalk. The riverside path parallels the Tennessee River from its beginning at Ross Landing to the endpoint at Chickamauga Dam. We liked this trail a lot, for it was very picturesque and well maintained, with art sculptures displayed along the way. Several points of interest and rest areas were provided along its length, and we had a fabulous lunch at The Boathouse, a great restaurant that overlooked the river.
Our feathered friends were everywhere to entertain us, including several Great Blue Herons. There were many fishermen at Chickamauga Dam, and the GBH’s were nearby waiting for their “cut”. We saw one of them trying his darndest to swallow a large fish, but he ultimately had to give up and leave it for a lucky Osprey to take away.
A leisurely sunset cruise aboard the Southern Belle capped our fun-filled visit to Chattanooga. It was unfortunate that this particular tour was not narrated, but since it basically followed the path we had taken along the Riverwalk earlier in the day, we were really here to just relax with a glass of wine and hopefully capture a nice sunset over the city.
Considering that we were here for a week with only one day of rain, we felt like we really experienced this scenic city. We would highly recommend that folks spend some time here, if it’s anywhere near your route of travel.