By Kathie Farnell
Rock City—the Chattanooga-area attraction is almost more famous for its barn-roof advertising than its extensive rocky gardens. Today the venerable site is reinventing itself as a picturesque spot for a wedding or an executive retreat. All this, and Lover’s Leap too.
Like many Southerners, I was taken to Rock City as a child to, as the slogan says, See Seven States. We still have a black and white snapshot of my mother, who is afraid of heights, trapped in the middle of the Swing-a-Long suspension bridge, unable to advance or retreat.
The bridge is, happily, still in operation and still scary if you get on there with some fool who makes it bounce. Other favorites–the crevice Fat Man’s Squeeze and Lover’s Leap with the seven-states view–continue to please the crowds.
Technically, Rock City is in Georgia, but its stone’s-throw proximity to Chattanooga makes it a natural side trip for anybody visiting the riverfront city. Rock City Gardens was the brainchild of Garnet and Frieda Carter who in the 1920s began developing a large walk-through garden on their rocky property.
Originally, the area surrounding the Carter property was intended to be developed as a subdivision named, weirdly, Fairyland. The Depression put an end to the ambitious plans, but in 1932 Rock City Gardens opened to the public. Garnet Carter, an entrepreneur who also invented Tom Thumb miniature golf, began advertising his gardens on area barns in the mid 30s. The barn-painting campaign is still going strong, though the original painter, Clark Byers, retired after a barn-related incident involving a bolt of lightning
In addition to the barns, ads for Rock City can be seen painted on the roofs of birdhouses—more than 25,000 at last count.
The Gardens, 1700 feet above sea level, are home to more than 400 species of native plants along a 4100 foot walking trail winding through massive rock formations. Spring features thousands of tulips, as well as azaleas, rhododendrons and bluebells. May 21, 2003, marks the 71st anniversary of the Gardens’ opening; celebration plans include brunch on Lovers’ Leap.
Frieda Carter, a German, had a thing for garden gnomes, the vast majority of which have now been rounded up and relocated to Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village, both of which feature 3-D scenes from fairy tales.
The present owner of the Gardens, Bill Chapin, is a descendant of the Carters; he has introduced innovations to the property including the Enchanted Garden of Lights every December, a summer Rock Climbing Wall and a 10 acre Corn Maze. He has also bought a mansion, Grandview, adjoining the Gardens, for use as a meeting, party and wedding facility. The two-story home was built in 1928 and features meeting and breakout rooms as well as a spectacular view. Across the street, the 17-room Chanticleer Inn, originally a 1920s-vintage stone-construction tourist court, has been restored and features elegant rooms, some with Jacuzzi tubs, a common area anchored by a vintage fireplace, and a pool.
Another Chattanooga icon, Ruby Falls, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. The cavern features one of the world’s longest underground waterfalls. Local entrepreneur Leo Lambert began drilling into Lookout Mountain in 1928 with the intent of reopening the historic Lookout Mountain Cave. Instead, he crawled through a forbidding-looking opening in the rock to discover a 145-foot waterfall, along with spectacular rock formations. He named the falls for his wife, and in 1929 opened to the public. Today, an elevator takes groups 260 feet down into the bowels of the Earth for guided tours. The cave, a constant 60 degrees, has a plentiful supply of fresh air brought from aboveground by the falls. This water is a mystery—no one has quite figured out where it comes from or where it goes—though the theory is that it’s surface water and that it eventually ends up in the Tennessee River. Meanwhile, 350—400 gallons per minute roar down from an opening high in the cavern wall.
The spectacular rock formations, many of which have poetic names like the Onyx Jungle and Hall of Dreams, are formed by calcium-rich water dripping from cracks in the cave ceiling.
The attraction has recently undergone a beautification which included building an impressive new entrance and burying utility lines to make the place more photogenic.
The Falls attracts visitors of all ages—our guide, Brent, remembered an 83-year old woman who said this was her first time in a cave. He asked why she had decided to take up cave exploration at this late date. “The first time I go underground, “ said the lady, “I don’t want to be in a box.”
If you’re going to take a family-friendly trip to Chattanooga, you may as well go all out and stay at the downtown Chattanooga Choo-Choo Holiday Inn, a train-fancier’s dream come true featuring the 1909-vintage railway station as its lobby, hotel rooms in converted passenger rail cars, and a 3,000 square foot, automated Model Railroad Museum. And of course the Choo-Choo itself, reposing on Track 29. Rates for double rooms begin at $129; traincar rooms start at $150. Packages are available which include tickets to Rock City and Ruby Falls, among other attractions.
Chattanooga is located approximately 100 miles northwest of Atlanta, Georgia, via Interstate 75. The area is served by U.S. Airways Express, American Eagle, Delta Connection, and Northwest Airlink, all of which fly into Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport.
For more information on Chattanooga attractions, call the Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-322-3344 or visit their website at www.chattanoogafun.com