By Carrie Dunlea
After the blistering heat of Texas’ summer and the deluge of rain in early fall, planning a getaway to enjoy beautiful vistas and an abundance of outdoor activities might be just what the doctor ordered. Pack your bags and drive or fly to check out southern charm and history in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Located in the southeastern portion of the state, this must-see destination is the fourth largest city with a population of around 178,000. Because it’s located along the Tennessee River, there are five auto bridges around the city and the longest pedestrian bridge in the world, the Walnut Street Bridge. Closed to auto traffic since the 1970s, the bridge connects the southern and northern sides of the city.
The river plays an important part of the history of the area and the trip would not be complete without venturing in or on the water in some fashion. Options abound depending on the type of adventure you are seeking. You can rent just about any type of watercraft or simply take a river cruise and enjoy the scenery. While you’re near the waterfront, don’t forget to visit the Tennessee Riverpark, a 10-mile green space where you can enjoy fishing, boat watching or simply bring a picnic and relax. One perk is the park is home to outdoor art pieces, and even a marsh that is great for birdwatching. The end of the park is right within downtown Chattanooga, and it continues all the way up to the Chickamauga Dam.
If you’ve never visited Chattanooga before, one great way to see the highlights is to take a tour. If you don’t mind the exercise and
own a good pair of walking shoes, check out Sweet Magnolia’s two-hour walking tour. This 2-mile walk takes you throughout the city to sites from the past and present to learn what makes Chattanooga so special. Tours offered include “Discover Downtown Chattanooga,” “Art Lovers Paradise,” and “Southside and the Big Nine,” a history of the music scene.
If art is your thing, the city boasts the Bluff View Arts District set atop a hill with views of the Tennessee River, downtown Chattanooga, and the Walnut Street Bridge. Encompassing 1 ½ city blocks, you’ll find an art gallery, two museums, a sculpture garden, a bakery, pasta shop and more. If you venture to the district in the evening, plan dinner at one of the quaint restaurants.
Any vacation involves scoping out places for good eats and drinks. If you want that plus a side of history, be sure to visit MoonPie General Store and Chattanooga Bakery on Broad Street. Founded in the early 1900s, the famous MoonPie was created in 1917, and to this day still has a cult-like following for the crunchy confection layered with marshmallow. Hungry for more shopping? Check out the Chattanooga Market, a popular open-air pavilion filled with 300 vendors selling not only farmers market-type items, but also arts and crafts.
Train cars can not only transport you, they can provide a great place to sleep if you stay in the world-famous Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel. Opened in 1909 as a train depot called Terminal Station, it welcomed thousands of travelers during the golden age of railroads. Today, history and hospitality are at the heart of the Chattanooga Choo Choo with on-site dining, retail shops, bountiful rose gardens and much more. Book one of the hotel’s restored authentic sleeper cars, once reserved for only wealthy passengers years ago. Other options at the hotel include the MacArthur, a renovated building with spacious guestrooms. All guests have access to an indoor heated pool and complimentary coffee.
Staying on track – visit the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, a museum in motion, and learn about the countryside of Tennessee by purchasing a ticket and taking one of the many trips offered. It requires a bit of advance planning, but if you’ve got the time you can enjoy a memorable experience. Options include a 1 ½ hour trip around the area that demonstrates the turntable feature or, if you have time to spare, take a trip to Ettowa through the scenic Hiwassee River Gorge from April through November. Ride options vary by date from a 3 ½ hour trip to an eight-hour excursion to Copperhill, TN with a two-hour layover for lunch.
Are you a fan of military history? If so, you’re in the right place. Visit the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Dedicated in 1895, the park has since served as a model for most national military and historical parks with more than 9,000 acres of battlefields, monuments, and forests, and urban landscapes around the Chattanooga area. The Military Park consists of six distinct places through the greater Chattanooga area; Chickamauga Battlefield (the site of the bloodiest two-day battle of the Civil War), Lookout Mountain Battlefield, Missionary Ridge, Moccasin Bend, Signal Point and Orchard Knob.
You can tour the park on your own or with a park ranger. For those touring the Chickamauga Battlefield, visitors can utilize the park’s self-guided cell phone tour at eight locations around the battlefield and call in and listen to a recorded narration of the battle action. There are two visitor centers, one at Chickamauga Battlefield in Fort Oglethorpe, GA and the other is at Lookout Mountain just outside of the gates of Point Park. The visitor center at Chickamauga has exhibits on the Civil War era and the 1863 Campaign for Chattanooga. The Fuller Gun Collection, one of the best displays of military small arms in the United States, is a big attraction drawing many visitors each year.
Recreational activities are plentiful. The Chickamauga Battlefield contains around 50 miles of hiking trails, and Lookout Mountain Battlefield has around 30 miles of trails. Trail lengths vary from 5 to 14 miles. Lookout Mountain is a top destination when you’re in Chattanooga. It partially separates the state from its southern neighbor, Georgia. There’s a 4,100-foot-long walking trail with impressive views of the entire city and its surroundings, including the river. The battlefield is popular with bicyclists mostly on roads in the park, and a few trails. In addition, some trails are open to horseback riders. It is reported that there is more rock within a 25-mile radius of Chattanooga than Boulder, CO. Rock climbing is permitted at two locations within the park. For those who prefer to explore from the water, two creeks are located in the park’s boundaries and paddlers are welcome.
You can’t travel all the way to Chattanooga without planning to “Ride the Incline Railway,” a 100-year-old railway system that takes you 1-mile up the side of Lookout Mountain at a 72.7 percent incline. In operation since 1895, the Incline is considered a National Historic site and Mechanical Engineering Landmark. When you reach Lookout Mountain, visit Point Park, a ten-acre memorial park that overlooks Lookout Mountain Battlefield and Chattanooga. There is a paved walking path around the park that takes visitors by several historic tablets, monuments, Confederate artillery positions, and a scenic overlook.
Make sure you book a guided tour to Ruby Falls, a cave set inside Lookout Mountain. Both the waterfalls and the caves are referred to as Ruby Falls. The cave version is the deepest commercial and largest underground cave in the country, with a 145-foot-tall waterfall. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, make sure to stop at Ruby Falls ZIPStream Aerial Adventures. You’ll zip through the trees and go through in-air obstacle courses, that require you to climb through the forest, using ladders, nets, bridges, tunnels and more.
Next, check out Rock City. The “City” is only 10 minutes from downtown Chattanooga. It is 1700 feet above sea level with a 100-foot waterfall that cascades down the mountain. Take the self-guided tour along the brow of Lookout Mountain and get a birds-eye view from high atop the mountain. Some of Rock City’s other features include the climbing wall at Lover’s Leap where you can “See Seven States,” plus there is a famous Swing-A-Long bridge that spans nearly 200 feet.
A combo ticket can be purchased at any of the attractions to visit all three – the Incline, Rock City and Ruby Falls. Each attraction has its own unique features, and combined they offer a half-day adventure on historic Lookout Mountain.
Audubon Acres is another destination to add to your itinerary especially if spending time in the great outdoors is important. Audubon is a registered site on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail with five miles of trails on 130 acres. Visitors can take the swinging bridge to cross South Chickamauga Creek, which can be accessed for paddling, swimming and floating. There are two exhibit spaces with archaeological and natural displays including Spring Frog Cabin, the original cabin thought to be built by Cherokees during the mid 1700s. It is representative of a typical Cherokee homestead during the early 1800s. Today, Spring Frog Cabin is open during major events at Audubon Acres including the Little Owl Music & Arts Festival & Walker Farm Pioneer Days.
Another outdoor excursion option is right in the middle of the Tennessee River near the heart of downtown Chattanooga. Maclellan Island is an 18.8-acre wildlife sanctuary that is home to a wide variety of plants, animals, and birds. Originally inhabited by Native Americans, it has 1.5 miles of trails for hiking, bird watching, or just relaxing by the water. It is home to turkeys, raccoons, owls, possums, fox, woodpeckers, and more. The island is considered a great place to watch nesting Osprey and Great-blue Heron and is known as a feeding area for migrating warblers. A Great-blue Heron rookery can be seen at the island’s upper end and Osprey nesting platforms have been constructed at either of the island’s points. A campsite is available for overnight reservation and picnic tables are present for day-use visitors as well.
If the weather doesn’t cooperate, take your family to the Tennessee Aquarium, located on the beautiful downtown riverfront. The aquarium has two buildings for aquatic and terrestrial wildlife, one for a river journey and one for an ocean journey. Habitats featured are from North America and the Gulf of Mexico plus several varieties of exotic plants and animals. The website says plan two hours for your visit, but tickets are good for the whole day, so if needed, take a break and grab some lunch on the riverfront.
With so much to do in Chattanooga and the areas surrounding the city, give yourself plenty of time to explore this Tennessee gem on your next vacation and you’ll see why it’s referred to as the “Scenic City” of the south.