If you have ever been on a road trip in the Southeast, there is a good chance you have seen the painted barns inviting you to “See Rock City” or “See Ruby Falls” on Lookout Mountain. Well, they were as enticing to me as they have been to millions of others over the last 80 years. So, after 12 years of living in Tennessee, I finally made it to Chattanooga to take in the sights. Although I visited Lookout Mountain last year for hang gliding, there was sadly no sightseeing on that trip. For a little weekend getaway, I hopped in the car with a friend and trekked down to see Ruby Falls, see Rock City, and ride the Incline Railway.
Photo by Scott & Sherry Moore
Our first stop was at Ruby Falls. We showed up at 9:00am after a failed attempt the day before (as in we showed up too late in the first day and didn’t want to wait 90 minutes in 100 degree heat). Luckily, at Ruby Falls the early bird gets to walk right on to the tour.
The tour started with a 260-foot elevator ride down into Lookout Mountain. Despite it being a hot Tennessee summer outside, it was only about 60 degrees inside the cave. Luckily, I brought a sweater. I remembered visiting Luray Caverns in Virginia as a child and that caves stay cool year round. I might be the only person who carries a sweater everywhere in the summer, but I am always prepared.
The tour lasted a little over an hour and winded about a mile through the cavern. There were your typical stalactites and stalagmites, but also other formations that looked like fish, a leaning towner, chandeliers, and steak and eggs. Of course, there where other parts that just looked like a cave.
The main attraction, and where Ruby Falls gets its name, a 145-foot underground waterfall located more than 1,120 feet beneath the mountain’s surface. The exact origin of the waterfall is apparently a bit of a mystery, but it is fed both by rainwater and natural springs. In fact, if it rains too much, it can flood the cave.
It was absolutely beautiful and definitely worth the trip and the tour. When I saw it, all I could think about was what Leo Lambert, the guy who discovered it, thought the first time he saw the waterfall. I tried to imagine what it sounded like as he got closer and closer to the falls during his first trip into the cave. I tried to picture what it was like to see America’s largest underground waterfall by lantern light. I might not be able to put myself into his shoes, but I could definitely appreciate it as a modern day tourist.
When we emerged from the cave, we climbed to the top of the Ruby Falls Castle to see the view of Chattanooga. It really made me miss the hills of East Tennessee. There are no mountains in Nashville.
Rock City Gardens
Our next stop was at Rock City. I’m really glad we made this our second stop because your tour is self-guided which meant, again, no lines! However, the heat made me long for the coolness of the cave.
The journey winds though the Rock City Gardens, comprised of unique rock formations and local flora, up to Lovers Leap for beautiful scenic views of the valley below. Supposedly you are able to see 7 states, though the veracity of that is questionable. (Regardless, it was a good excuse to use the iPhone panorama feature. You can click the pictures to enlarge them.)
Rock City also has a large waterfall which gives the view a little life. I imagine it is absolutely gorgeous in autumn.
There are also a few narrow passages on the trip which have very fitting names like “fat man’s squeeze” and “needle’s eye.”
During our tour of Ruby Falls a woman in front of us said that she didn’t take her young son to Rock City because they have “creepy gnomes” there. Frankly, at the time, I thought her son looked too old be scared of gnomes . . . until i saw them. At the end of the Rock City trial is Fairyland Caverns. It was like Walt Disney on acid. It is filled with disturbing blacklight gnomes and scenes from classic fairytales. Perhaps her description tainted my view of the experience, but I have to say that she was spot on.
Lookout Mountain Incline Railway
Our last stop was the Incline Railway. It is one of the steepest incline railways in the world (it has a 73% grade) and takes you a mile up and down the mountain.
The ride lasts about 15 minutes each way, though it feels much faster than that (in a good way). There is an audio track played on the trip up an down. One direction plays the history of the incline and the area, and in the other direction you learn about the incline itself. The Incline opened in 1895. Which seems like a miraculous feat of engineering. At least to me.
The bottom of the incline had cute little stores and restaurants, including an ice-cream shop. But, due to the heat, we basically just turned around and when right back up the hill.
Once again, the sights were utterly breathtaking. There does not seem to be a bad view from the mountain.
I’m glad I finally gave in to the beckoning roadsigns and barns and went to see the attractions on Lookout Mountain. They definitely out lived the hype. One piece of advice though: Get there early, it will made a big difference in your day.