Want to see an underground waterfall? Pan for gold? Spot seven states from one vantage point? Sleep on a real train car? Meet sharks face to face? You’ll find all this and more in and around Chattanooga, Tennessee, where history, nature, and fun converge to create an ideal family destination. The city’s revitalized downtown right beside the Tennessee River features multiple family attractions, and the surrounding area is known for amazing outdoor fun. Throw in a few old-timey roadside attractions and some high-energy bluegrass music, and you’ll discover why Chattanooga is synonymous with family fun.
SEE ROCK CITY
Barn roofs for miles around shout “See Rock City,” enticing families to point their cars toward this historic attraction just outside of Chattanooga. Situated atop Lookout Mountain, Rock City features colorful gardens, ancient rock formations, a stunning view of seven states, and fairytale magic that appeals to kids of all ages.
The highlight of Rock City is the Grand Corridor, massive rock walls that tower above and crowd in on both sides. In places, you have to turn sideways to get through the narrow openings. The rewards are amazing vistas at every turn, including from Cliff Terrace, which is 1700 feet above sea level. On a clear day you can see Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia. Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina—nearly one-seventh of all 50 states from one spot!
Next head for nearby Ruby Falls. This is not just any ordinary waterfall, but an underground one that (gulp) requires taking an elevator down 260 feet and carefully walking along a narrow pathway through dimly lit caves into the heart of Lookout Mountain. At the path’s end thunders Ruby Falls, a 145-foot underground waterfall that looks like diamonds falling.
Unless your kids are afraid of heights, the Incline Railway, also on Lookout Mountain, is worth a visit. “The World’s Steepest Passenger Railway” takes you from 2000 feet above sea level down a heart-thumping grade of 72 percent to the valley below. The view of Chattanooga and the surrounding valley is breathtaking.
Chattanoogans love nature and the outdoors, and active families will find tons to do including hiking, biking, kayaking, whitewater rafting, rock climbing, fly fishing, and more. One great place for families to enjoy an up-close encounter with flora and fauna is the Chattanooga Arboretum and Nature Center, where you can tour wetlands and meet wildlife spread across 300+ acres.
The center is home to a variety of animals unable to return to their natural habitats due to injury, including a breeding pair of rare red wolves. Make sure you take a stroll along the Blue Heron Boardwalk, where you’ll stumble upon a large whimsical tree house cradled in the arms of an old oak tree. The founding director of the center envisioned a tree house in this spot and sought a builder who could create her dream. Not only did she find the right builder, she married him in this darling tree house.
If you and your family are history buffs, you’ll want to spend some time at Chickamauga Battlefield, where a crucial Civil War battle was fought in 1863 that marked a turning point in the war. You can watch a free movie, explore exhibits at the visitor’s center, and tour the battlefields with a free cell phone audio tour.
Back in town, Chattanooga serves up a full plate of activities for families who want to combine education and hands-on fun.
In 2005 Chattanooga completed a large-scale revitalization project including a scenic Riverfront area that overlooks the Tennessee River. The Tennessee Aquarium, also renovated and expanded, is now housed in two stunning buildings along the Riverfront, one featuring freshwater exhibits, the second offering a 500,000-gallon saltwater exhibit. Also downtown is the Creative Discovery Museum, a child’s wonderland with hands-on exhibits, themed areas, and cool stuff for kids.
A jazzy pedestrian bridge now links downtown with the Bluff View Art District, home of the Hunter Museum, with its fine collection of American art. The arts district is a cozy enclave of art galleries, restaurants, B & B’s, and coffee shops, where visitors can dine al fresco overlooking an outdoor sculpture garden, views of the river, and the city skyline.
If your family enjoys bluegrass, head up to the hills to nearby Signal Mountain, Tennessee, where a Friday night tradition attracts people from around the world. In an unassuming white building called the Walden Ridge Civic Center tucked in among houses and swing sets, the world-renowned Mountain Opry takes place. Here bluegrass music is at its purest, and people in the audience wear expressions of deep contentment as they listen to the soul-stirring tunes.
Chattanooga also hosts free outdoor concerts beside the river all summer long. Spread along the Riverfront, the weekly concert series (every Friday night through October) features regional and national acts as well as children’s activities and plenty of food and beverage concessions.
ADMIRE THE VIEWS
If you and your family love nature, here are a few unique ways to enjoy the scenery.
• Take a cruise into the Tennessee River Gorge. Choose to cruise aboard the River Gorge Explorer, the Blue Moon, or the Southern Belle Riverboat.
• View the beautiful landscape as you bike along the 13-mile paved Riverwalk along the Tennessee River. You can rent bikes from the Chattanooga Bike Share System with 30 locations and 300 bikes throughout Downtown.
IF YOU GO
Where To Stay:
• Families will love the Chattanooga Choo Choo, a former train station that’s been reinvented as a family resort where you can sleep in real Victorian train cars. www.choochoo.com
• Another downtown property is The Chattanoogan, an upscale urban resort with excellent restaurants and a spa for Mom! www.chattanooganhotel.com
• Atop Lookout Mountain is The Chanticleer Inn with cozy cottages constructed of local mountain stone. Families welcome. www.stayatchanticleer.com
For general information about Chattanooga and environs, visit: www.chattanoogafun.com or call 800-322-3344.