See Rock City
As you travel the highways of the United States, billboards advertise countless tourist attractions. Some of these places, due to the unique way they are advertised, have even become legendary. Over the years while traveling in the South, I’ve seen the sides of barns painted with a bold black and white sign that says “See Rock City.” I’ve also seen this phrase on birdhouses and advertising brochures, but I never actually made the effort to go see Rock City. So when I had the opportunity to visit Chattanooga on business, I decided to schedule an extra day to visit with friends nearby and we made plans to see the famed Rock City and other sites on nearby Lookout Mountain, Georgia.
Lookout Mountain is uniquely located where three states converge; at the southern border of Tennessee near Chattanooga, the northwest corner of Georgia, and the northeast corner of Alabama. The 2,392-foot mountain has a rich history from the role it played in the United States Civil War. Today, people who come to Lookout Mountain often visit the three main attractions which are Rock City, the Incline Railway, and Ruby Falls. I’ve always had a fascination with train rides and this Incline Railway has a section which is billed as the steepest grade of any railway in the world at 72.7%. Also, after seeing so many barns and birdhouses with “See Rock City”, part of me actually wanted to find out what it was all about and after being fascinated by photographs, I wanted to see Ruby Falls as well.
Our journey began in Chattanooga at The Blue Plate, where delicious, hearty pancakes gave us energy for the day ahead of us. The drive to Lookout Mountain was well signed and fairly quick from the City Center. It seemed logical to start with the Incline Railway which is at the bottom of Lookout Mountain. We purchased a pass there which gave us a significant discount to the three major attractions. You don’t have to visit all three sites in a single day but in about six hours, we were able to cover them all.
The one-mile-long Incline Railway, which bills itself as “America’s Most Amazing Mile,” was built in 1895 and has undergone some major changes and modifications over the years. The current version features a train car with ample windows and special curved seats that allow passengers to maintain comfortable seating as the steepness of the grade increases. The views from the train were impressive and we could genuinely felt the steepness of the incline as we reached the top of the mountain. We came to realize just how steep the incline was as we disembarked, the floor of the train had become a steep staircase that we had to climb to exit the train.
At the top of the mountain, we took in the spectacular views. Nearby is an area called Point Park that offers a scenic panorama of Chattanooga and the surrounding hills and countryside. The Battles for Chattanooga – Electric Map and Museum has a presentation on local Civil War battles and is not too far from the summit train station. We opted to just enjoy the views from the railway station and eventually made our way back down the mountain on the return train trip. You can drive to the top of Lookout Mountain and enjoy the same views, but the novelty of the train trip made it well worth the time and money.
Rock City Gardens
Rock City Gardens was our next stop and just a short drive up the mountain. A local attraction since 1932, it is essentially a series of trails through rock formations, both at the top of the mountain as well as scenic viewpoints from mountainside cliffs. It was named Rock City because the natural formations are aligned so they seem to form streets and lanes between the towering rocks that look like buildings. The legend of Rock City grew from an aggressive advertising campaign when the owners at the time, Frieda and Garnet Carter, offered to paint farmer’s barns if they allowed them to put a large black and white “See Rock City” sign on the side. At the height of their campaign over 900 barns had been painted from Michigan to Texas.
Each area of Rock City seems to have a story attached to it, and it is obvious that the place has grown and changed over time. The winding trails through the rocks are genuinely fun to navigate. How can you resist trying to make it through “Needle’s Eye” and “Fat Man’s Squeeze?” There is even a cave filled with storybook characters called Fairyland Caverns. The views from the top of the mountain seem to go on forever and we appreciated the relief the mountain breezes gave us from the heat of the day.
We thought our last stop at Ruby Falls would be quick but found there was much more to the complex than we expected. The falls are accessed by entering a castle-like, limestone building, taking an elevator down 26 stories deep into the mountain, then walking 2/5 of a mile on a tour with a very informative and entertaining guide. We entered the cavern with the falls as a group and saw a presentation that featured music and colored lights. The overall effect was impressive and at 145 feet, the falls are even more beautiful than the photographs I had seen. This was really a full cave experience with the added attraction of the falls and even though the cavern was crowded, it didn’t take away from the beauty.
So, at the end of the day, how did I feel about my excursion to Lookout Mountain? Overall was it worth the time and money?
It would be easy to dismiss these places because of all the hype, but I concluded that sometimes the reason places are so well advertised is because they really are unique, interesting, and well worth seeing. We all enjoyed the combination of activities much more than expected, and we marveled that we had never visited it before. Some may complain that these places are a little overpriced, especially for a family. Apparently, the wait to get on the Incline Railway or inside Ruby Falls can also be long, particularly on weekends. And yes, these areas are very touristy (gift shops, souvenir photos, etc.), but each experience is unique, and in my opinion, it was well worth spending an extra day seeing the sites at Lookout Mountain.
So if your travels take you in the vicinity of Lookout Mountain, definitely “See Rock City”. While you’re at it, take a ride on the Incline Railway, and explore Ruby Falls. You will be glad you took the opportunity and you may even take home your own little “See Rock City” birdhouse, just like I did.