Lookout Mountain: A City in the Clouds
March 19, 2009 by Ashley Strickland
Welcome to a place where natural beauty meets historic mystery in a captivating paradox. It is something shared by Georgia with her neighbors of Alabama and Tennessee, bringing all of them together. And it is filled with unusual wonders unlike anything else in the world.
This is Lookout Mountain.
This “mountain” is actually a plateau, which allowsit to reach into the northwest corner of Georgia and the northeast corner of Alabama while extending along the southern border of Tennessee, namely Chattanooga. But it has always been called Lookout Mountain and it remains a reliable destination for people all over the world. The name is said to have come from a Cherokee term that describes “two mountains looking at each other.”
An entire world exists on Lookout Mountain. Since before the Civil War, people recognized its potential as a destination and getaway. Besides being home to four different attractions, a city rests on the ridge of the plateau. Once you find yourself at the top of the mountain, it truly does feel like visiting a town. Beautiful homes sit on the precipice of the brow, overlooking views more scenic than oceanfront property. You can find almost anything you could need here at the top, from Starbucks to a gym and spa. If you’re interested in hang-gliding, the Lookout Mountain Flight Park and Training Center is Georgia’s sole destination for this adventurous sport. There is also the widely visited Christian Covenant College and and if you want to extend your stay in this beautiful place, the charming Chanticleer Inn or serene Garden Walk Bed and Breakfast Inn are nicely situated on the ridge. To explore the entirety of Lookout Mountain, I suggest you start at the bottom and work your way up, beginning with Ruby Falls.
The majestic mystery of Ruby Falls is located at the midpoint of the mountain. It is the largest underground waterfall accessible to the public. It has a long and fascinating history, starting with the original Lookout Mountain Cave. Stories were told about a legendary cave between the foot of the mountain and the banks of the snaking Tennessee River. It was rumored to have lengthy, wending passages and massive chambers. Over the centuries, it has been home to Native Americans, explorers, outlaws, soldiers and even President Andrew Jackson during times of war. When the Southern Railroad came through Tennessee in 1905, they were forced to build a tunnel that sealed off the cave’s natural entrance. Many who had spent their childhood playing in the entrance of the cave were devastated. This inspired Leo Lambert, who had explored the cave before it was closed to the public.
An adventuresome sort, Lambert decided to drill an elevator shaft from a separate point on the mountain down to where he believed the cave to be located. In 1928, one of Lambert’s workers discovered an opening in the rock gushing air. Lambert and a small crew disappeared inside of the 18-inch by 5-feet wide opening for 17 hours, crawling through tunnels and discovering beautiful stalagmites and stalactites, streambeds and wending passages that had never been seen. Then, they discovered the true wonder of the waterfall and Ruby Falls, named for Lambert’s wife, was introduced to the public. Tours have been offered of the Ruby Falls Cave ever since. The entrance to the tour is located in “Cavern Castle,” a building made from the limestone excavated to construct the elevator shaft and widen the cave’s natural trails. It is an intriguing structure modeled after a Fifteenth century Irish castle.
Ruby Falls is 1120 feet below the mountain’s surface and the falls extend for 145 feet before falling into a pool at the base. The source of the water that flows now is unknown, although it is believed to trickle down into the Tennessee River at some point. The water has naturally shaped the smooth sides of the cave walls and soft lighting highlights the cave’s unusual features. Natural formations fill the space where water once rushed through to hollow out the cave. When the water table shifted, it created the perfect conditions for stalactites and stalagmites. The tour to the underground waterfall showcases Ruby Lambert’s Hall of Dreams, where a “chandelier” formation hangs from the ceiling of the cave as you pass along reflecting pools and drapery formations called “angel wings.” See if you can spot the “donkey,” “fish,” “beehive,” “Leaning Tower,” “turtle” and “Ruby’s Drapery.”
When visiting Ruby Falls, plan to spend at least two hours. Bring your camera because you can snap some incredible pictures inside the cave, even without a flash. Weather is never a factor, but rain will enhance the volume of the waterfall, and the temperature is always a comfortable 70 degrees due to natural humidity. Wear comfortable walking shoes, because once you take the elevator ride 260 feet down to the cave, you will walk about a mile round trip. And just remember: don’t drink the water. The mineral content in the waterfall is so high that it cannot sustain living conditions for any type of fish. The return elevator ride will deliver you to the gift shop as well as places for refreshment. There is also an incredible view from the observation point at Cavern Castle.
From this point, you have two choices on how to make your way to the top of Lookout Mountain. You can either continue driving up the steep, skinny road with breathtaking views along the way or drive down the mountain to the Incline Railway Station. Either one affords scenic views, but the Incline Railway is definitely unique. Operating since 1895, it is the world’s steepest passenger railway. Whether you choose to ride it first or last on your trip, make time for this attraction. You travel up the sharpest slope of the mountain gazing out at the view. A clear, windowed ceiling and sides allow you a panoramic view of the city, valleys and even mountains in the distance. It is a slow, steep ride of observation, not a fast rollercoaster. Along the way, you will also learn the curious history of this technical marvel and all of the purposes it has served over the years. When you reach the halfway point, the two cars operating on the pulley system will “switch,” which allows the cars to ride on a single track. You will arrive nearly among the clouds, even reaching a steep 72.7 percent grade of the track at the top. The trip down is just as breathtaking and even more thrilling because of the sheer height where the Incline begins.
Once at the top of Lookout Mountain, especially if traveling by the Incline Railway, there are many intriguing points of interest. Plan to stay and visit for a while here. Just three blocks away from the Incline Railway Station is famous Point Park and The Battles for Chattanooga Electric Map and Museum. Just keep in mind that Rock City is about three miles from this point, so you can either take on the strenuous walk or just plan to drive up the mountain for this adventure. Many visit Point Park and then ride the Incline down to their vehicle.
While visiting Point Park, your first stop may be The Battles for Chattanooga Electric Map and Museum. It will explain the history of the battlefields you encounter later. This is not your average Civil War museum. While there are relic and weapon collections to delight any Civil War enthusiast, there is also the 3-D map, which allows you to hear and see the battles as they originally took place. 5,000 miniature soldiers combine with 650 lights and sound effects that literally take you through the battles that “sealed the fate of the Confederacy.” Afterwards, if you are still curious, visit the bookstore and its collection of well-known works on the “War Between the States.”
Point Park is a historic place to visit and one that many have romanticized. It was here that the famous “Battle Above the Clouds” was fought in November 1863. While this battle during the Civil War was not actually fought among the clouds, the soldiers named it so because of a unique weather phenomenon that still occurs on the mountain. During the morning hours after dawn, the top of the mountain is at its coolest temperature. Fog from this occurrence descends the mountain but stops halfway down and remains for some time. This just happened to occur in tandem with the battle, which is why it is so romanticized. The park is full of history and awe-inspiring views from this vantage point on a precipice of the brow. You can even stand on the bluff where General Ulysses S. Grant once stood during the battle.
Then, there is the grand belle of Lookout Mountain’s generous offerings: Rock City. Its name has been immortalized on barn roofs and birdhouses, a classic of America’s culture. Missionaries once called it a “citadel of rock” because of the naturally formed pathways and the namesake has remained. Lookout Mountain has long been home to entrepreneurs of attractions as well as wealthy families. Rock City began with them as well. During the late 1920’s, Garnet and Frieda Carter decided to develop an expansive walk-through garden on their private estate. Frieda took balls of string to mark the original path in 1930. Because of the Great Depression, the Carters decided to open the completed garden to the public in 1932. The Enchanted Trail with its natural, curious rock formations, over 400 varieties of plants and flowers and a 140-foot waterfall became a destination for families eager to escape the overwhelming Depression.
The gardens are home to all types of fascination, including the claustrophobic Needle’s Eye and Fat Man’s Squeeze, 180-foot Swing-A-Long Bridge, 1,000-Ton Balanced Rock, Fairyland Caverns, Mother Goose Village, legendary Lover’s Leap, See Seven States Summit and even Deer Park, a habitat for rare white Fallow deer. The best view is the summit of Lover’s Leap, where you can also view the sculpture of the Eagle’s Nest. It is believed that you can see Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, the Carolinas, Tennessee and Virginia from this historic point. Lover’s Leap so named because of a tragic love story. A brave, Sautee, fell in love with Nacoochee, a Cherokee maiden. Their tribes were at war, so they ran away together. Once discovered, Sautee was thrown from the tip of Lover’s Leap. A heartbroken Nacoochee leapt right after him. From an observation point, you can see the side of Lover’s Leap, its waterfall and a formation on the cliff called the “stone face.” Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village will bring out the child within as you travel through Frieda Carter’s fascination with old folklore, including scenes of mischievous gnomes and glowing renditions of Cinderella’s castle. There are simply too many uniquely beautiful spots along the Enchanted Trail to describe, but know that it is a visit you will cherish for a long time.
While visiting Lookout Mountain, if you have the time, be sure to stop in historic Chattanooga, Tennessee. The famous Chattanooga Choo-Choo is there with old trains and a lovely visitors center and restaurants. There are also plenty of other shops and restaurants throughout this city on the Tennessee River. You can even ride the Southern Belle riverboat cruise, which offers lunch or dinner and a relaxing tour of the city. To make your trip to Lookout Mountain easier, parking is free (except at Point Park and the top station of the Incline Railway). At Ruby Falls, many different guides are stationed throughout the lot to easily direct you to a free space. Tickets for the attractions are also available online in combination packages, providing a nice discount and exemptions from state taxes. If you decide to make Lookout Mountain a daytrip, check the estimated amount of time spent at each attraction and closing times. It is best to go early to avoid possible lines. After all, you don’t want to miss anything! And remember, Lookout Mountain is scenic all year round. Don’t forget to consult the calendars for each attraction because the mountain hosts many events, from the Ruby Falls Haunted Cavern at Halloween to Rock City’s Enchanted Garden of Lights during the holidays.
Come to Lookout Mountain, whether for a day or a vacation, and rediscover your belief in the natural wonders of the world. This place of resilience and hope will never disappoint.