More than 75 years ago, a Tennessee land developer named Garnet Carter embarked on an ingenious campaign to lure tourists to his mountaintop attraction to see some rocks. Yes, rocks.
“See Rock City” was painted on nearly 1,000 barn roofs in 19 states from 1936 to 1969; millions heeded Carter’s call and made the trek to Chattanooga and the top of Lookout Mountain. Their reward? Breathtaking vistas sweeping across swatches of seven states from a massive outcropping named Lover’s Leap. Fairyland Gardens, a whimsical wonderland created by Carter’s wife, Frieda, an aficionada of European folklore, with German statues of gnomes and well-known characters from fairytales set amidst a profusion of wildflowers and other native plants.
The area had its nickname long before the Carters began wresting a world-class attraction from this ancient geologic marvel. Bucket list adventurers had been coming to this mountaintop wilderness as early as 1823 to experience “the Rock City” and traverse its naturally formed “streets and avenues” by mule. By the close of the decade, Frieda had begun her grand-scale, four-year landscaping project, forging paths among the rock formations.
A mere 100 now-historic barns bearing the distinctively painted black and white slogans remain. Rock City, however, has continued to grow, adding the magical Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village, a 25-foot climbing wall, lots of shops and restaurants – even a Starbuck’s. Wending through the 14 acres and passing a 100-foot waterfall and a 1,000-ton balanced rock is the Enchanted Trail. Its route takes thrill seekers across the Swing-A-Long Bridge, hovering 1,700 feet above sea level and spanning 200 feet.
Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world continue to find their way to Rock City each year, but it isn’t the only draw on Lookout Mountain. Ruby Falls is a 145-foot-high underground waterfall. The Ruby Falls ZIPstream Aerial Adventure is an obstacle course in the sky that includes bridges, tunnels and 700 feet of roundtrip zipping. The world’s steepest passenger railway, the Incline Railway, is a National Historic Site that has been in operation since 1895.
You can grab a seat for the Battles for Chattanooga, a three-dimensional electronic battle map presentation recalling Lookout Mountain’s strategic role in the Civil War through 5,000 miniature soldiers, hundreds of lights, lots of sound effects and narrated video. Afterward, stroll over to Point Park, the site of what is called the Battle Above the Clouds, to see where the battles you just learned about were fought 150 years ago.
Off the mountain, downtown Chattanooga is home to the Tennessee Aquarium – so big it takes up two buildings, their glass peaks stretching into the skyline. In the River Journey building, see freshwater habitats, two living forests and a lots of creatures, including alligators, frogs, prehistoric sturgeon and otters.
This is also where Ranger Rick’s Backyard Safari is located, along with a Eurasian eagle owl, one of the largest owls in the world. At the end of May, the aquarium’s otter exhibit will have been expanded so visitors can see the feisty critters cavorting about a multi-tiered landscape featuring shoreline, pools and waterfalls any time of day.
The Ocean Journey building is where the sharks hang out, along with penguins, jellyfish, squid, cuttlefish and crabs. Its Undersea Cavern reveals panoramic views of a Secret Reef; its indoor rainforest is home to the Butterfly Garden with hundreds of the jewel-hued beauties in free flight.
Straight up Broad Street from the aquarium is The Chattanoogan, a boutique hotel with resort amenities that is offering a Summer Fun Package for families. Choose free tickets either to Rock City and Ruby Falls or to the Tennessee Aquarium and IMAX with an overnight stay.
Kids will be happy to know there is free WiFi, a heated swimming pool and an extensive menu with their kind of eats (chicken fingers, grilled cheese, sliders, pasta, pizza) at the hotel’s Broad Street Grille. Mom and Dad will love the vacation ambience of the hotel, its oversized guestrooms, full-service spa with twinkle-light relaxation area and sunning terrace adjacent to the pool.
The hotel sits on beautifully landscaped grounds with lots of trees shading a courtyard in a neighborhood of museums, shops and restaurants. Lookout Mountain, visible from many of the guestrooms, is 15 minutes or so away.
Eighty-two years after its official opening in 1932, Rock City continues to pull road trippers from the highway to come see what Mother Nature and one entrepreneurial couple created. A visit to Rock City and Chattanooga combines blast-from-the-past fun with today’s adventure in an extremely family-friendly getaway.
IF YOU GO
Chattanooga, 800-322-3344, www.ChattanoogaFun.com.
The Chattanoogan Hotel, 877-756-1684, www.ChattanooganHotel.com. Ask for the Summer Fun package when making reservations. Rates start at $169 per night and are based on a two-night stay for a family of two adults and two children.
Get the adventure guide to don't-miss moments at Rock City and The Chattanoogan Hotel and in Chattanooga here. Get the best luggage for your family vacation.
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