Chattanooga: Fun metropolis known for outdoor activities, natural beauty

April 27, 2015
Ruby Falls underground waterfall, during lightshow.

With nicer weather finally reaching the frozen tundra that is the Northern United States, many people are looking forward to a change of pace and scenery.  While it has been warmer recently, itís not quite "spring" north of most of the Mason-Dixon. This year, why not head to the "Scenic City" of Chattanooga?  This fun and funky metropolis located in Southeastern Tennessee is known as such for itís bevvy of outdoor activities and natural beauty.

Long considered "The Gateway to the South," this little city is also a short distance to Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina borders.  Slightly further away are Kentucky, South Carolina and Virginia. All of these are a few hours drive or less.

If youíd like to see an amazing view while experiencing some beautiful surroundings, head to Rock City Gardens.  This 13-acre outdoor garden first opened in 1932, when Frieda and Garnet Carter developed the property into one large "rock garden."  The motto of Rock City is "Created by God and enhanced by man."

The site is "natural" in that it is set in nature and is quite scenic, with amazing geological formations, waterfalls and lovely gardens, but has been cultivated to be what it is today.  You and your family can walk the paths around ancient rock formations, view the botanical delights of gardens with more then 400 species of plants, visit the gnomes and fairies that inhabit Rock City, read the legend of the tragic Native American "Loverís Leap," gaze at a waterfall you wonít even  know is there until you turn the right corner, and stare into the aforementioned seven states at once from panoramic mountaintop scenery.

You will see signs on barns, birdhouses, and more advertising the destination as you get closer to the gardens ó the souvenir "See Rock City" birdhouses are some of the most popular sellers in the gift shop.

If you havenít had your fill of rocky scenery, head to Ruby Falls. While you may have been on cave tours before, this one is fairly unique in that it holds an underground waterfall.  Your tour begins with an elevator ride into the caverns of Lookout Mountain that Leo Lambert discovered in 1928.  As you are guided through the cave, you are given not only the story of the cave and of those who discovered it, but shown various formations as you head toward the waterfall.

Sadly, and strangely, pieces of the cave were broken off  as  "souvenirs" for some time, and you are able to see that as well.  One interesting formation is hollow, and when you thump on it (yes, you are told where it is, and are allowed to do so) it sounds like a drum.  This is extremely unusual, and very unique.  Of course, you also see the "cave chips" and "bacon" and get "cave kisses" as you walk along.

You hear the waterfall before you see it.  At the end of the trail, in almost complete darkness, you and your group will "discover" the waterfall.  As you get closer, your guide will push a button, and for several minutes lights will flash on the waterfall and music will play. While that would be a great end to the tour, it isnít ó you still have to go back.

The interesting part is that you donít go back exactly the same way, so you will see some new treasures as well as a few repeated favorites (such as the formation you can drum on).  This is a fun way to get your children interested in speleology ó and unlike Mr. Lambert, no one has to crawl their way through the caves, although you can see where he did.

No trip with kids is complete without a trip to the local zoo, and the Chattanooga Zoo at Warner Park will not disappoint. Smaller then some zoos, the exhibits are well kept and the animals are friendly and interactive, which is quite an experience.  It is set up so that visitors are able to easily view the animals from many sides and angles, which is great for "little zoologists" who, for once, wonít need to be lifted onto mom or dadís shoulders regularly.

The animals must feel at ease, because they were not skulking in far off corners of their habitats, but almost always front and center, some seemingly trying to get the attention of viewers (waving, poking the glass, following people back and forth, etc). Witnessing so many animals behave in such a friendly and open manner was surprising and very endearing. Children can also ride camels or an "endangered species" themed carousel (and for less then you might think).

A rainy day might drive you indoors, but if the kids still want to visit animals, head to the Tennessee Aquarium. More then your average aquarium, it has two separate buildings and both are quite large and impressive. One building is dedicated to fresh water, the other to salt water inhabitants. Not only can one visit the fish, crabs, manta rays, and other various underwater life, but also interact with parrots, butterflies and visit a beautiful indoor garden.

There is, of course, a "touch tank" where kids can interact with non-threatening species under the watchful eye of an aquarium employee (for the children and the animalís protection), which all the little ones love.  Hand sanitizer is abound, so if you have forgotten yours, not to worry.

Experience even further with the "Ranger Rickís Backyard Safari" exhibit, which includes groundhogs, lizards and more, as well as the "River Giants" exhibit that displays fish that can only be found in the most remote areas and lakes in the world.

To add a little local culture to your trip, be sure to visit the Hunter Museum of American Art. Your visit will begin before you enter, as there are three buildings that make up the museum, each unique and themselves part of the collection. Overlooking the Tennessee river, the structures are a 1904 classical revival mansion, a French Brutalist building added in 1975, and the latest modern structure designed by Randall Paul Stout in 2005.

Once inside, you will see art spanning from the Colonial period to the present day, and in every kind of medium.  View paintings, sculptures, blown glass, photography, and more.




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