Lookout Mountain of Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee
by Ruby Bayan
Once again, my partner and I packed our bags to drive up north and see some mountains -- those land formations the residents of Florida give up in exchange for the sandy beaches and yearlong warm sunshine.
The map showed that all we had to do was stay on I-75, which would take us through Georgia all the way to Chattanooga, Tennessee. We thought that was far enough -- a day's drive from Orlando was just the right duration for a comfortable road trip to the mountains. We booked a hotel in Dalton, Georgia.
At the hotel, we picked up some brochures of nearby attractions. One location caught our attention -- it boasts three most-visited tourist spots in the region. Lookout Mountain seemed like just the kind of experience we drove out for. We were right.
The Mountain's History
Lookout Mountain stretches northward from northeast Alabama, sideswiping Georgia, and peaking with sheer cliffs facing Chattanooga, Tennessee. Commemorated in colorful displays in The Battles of Chattanooga Museum, the mountainside witnessed many civil wars including the bloodiest battles of the American Revolution in 1863.
Point Lookout, overlooking the Chattanooga valley, was where Confederates held their ground in what became known as the "Battle Above the Clouds." It later became Point Park, part of the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park (the first such park in the U.S.), dedicated in 1895 to commemorate the Civil War battles on the mountain.
After the Civil War, Lookout Mountain's splendid location and panoramic views enticed developers to build hotels and railway access to the top. The grandest hotel built at the peak had burned down in 1907, and all of the railways had closed down except one that draws thousands of tourists to the mountain city.
Incline Railway, Lookout Mountain, TN
Along the east side and steepest part of the mountain, from the base in Chattanooga to the top, is one of the most visited attractions in Lookout Mountain. The Incline Railway opened in 1895 as a way to get to the peak without having to journey four hours along the mountainside trails on horse and buggy.
"The Incline" is now dubbed "America's Most Amazing Mile." With a slope of as much as 72.7%, it is the world's steepest commercial railway and enjoys the prestige of being a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
Ruby Falls, Chattanooga, TN
With the help of the railroads and later the automobile, Lookout Mountain continued to attract developers and explorers. One of them was a famous local spelunker, Leo Lambert. Forming a corporation to reopen an old and sealed-up Lookout Mountain Cave that had been used as a hospital during the Civil War, Lambert drilled an elevator shaft down the limestone mountain into the cave. Along the way he noticed a 2-foot tall opening, which he bravely explored for about 17 hours. His crawl into the tight crevice led him 1100 feet into the mountain and into a cavern with a 145-foot waterfall. Lambert named the falls after his wife, Ruby.
Today, visitors to the Ruby Falls are welcomed at the Irish Castle entrance building by expert tour guides of the 1-hour adventure. The route takes guests through a trail of interesting natural calcite rock formations (like the Cactus and the Candle, the Arabian Drapery, and the Frozen Niagara), and into the awesome Ruby Falls cavern.
The whole cave is at a constant temperature of about 60 degrees F and lit to dramatically highlight the unique rock formations, especially the falls. The guides help optimize the flow of visitors who have come to Ruby Falls for more than 70 years.
After emerging from the caves, Lookout Mountain gives the visitors a whole new perspective at its other favorite attraction, Rock City, Georgia.
Rock City, Lookout Mountain, GA
After the Civil War, Garnet and Frieda Carter acquired a prime piece of property along a cliff edge of Lookout Mountain. Frieda gathered plants and painstakingly developed their 14-acre mountainside into a beautiful rock garden and tourist attraction. Rock City Gardens opened to the public in 1932, and continues to entertain guests with its 400 plant species, remarkable sandstone formations, and innovative Mother Goose Village.
Among the many points of interest in Rock City's 4100-foot trail are: Lover's Leap and Seven States Flag Court, which present a view of seven states (Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia) on a clear day; a 1000-ton balanced rock boulder; narrow split-rock passageways called Fat Man's Squeeze and Needle's Eye; a 180-foot Swing-a-Long hanging bridge; the Fairyland Caverns featuring Mother Goose, Rocky, and Alvin the Rock Elf; and the Cliff Terrace just beside the Carter residence.
Driving Directions and Tickets
To enjoy the three Lookout Mountain attractions, plan on a relaxing whole-day adventure. The best place to start is at The Incline.
From I-75, take I-24 to exit 178 South (Lookout Mountain/Market Street exit). Turn left at Broad Street. The lower station of The Incline is straight ahead on St. Elmo Avenue, and signboards to Rock City and Ruby Falls are clearly visible along most major intersections.
Tickets are available at all the site entrances. You can buy tickets for one, two, or all three places (discounts offered for children and destination packages). Parking is free.