The Charms of Chattanooga

‘N Sync hasn’t recorded Chattanooga Choo-Choo, so the kids won’t know the words. But for parents, it’s impossible to drive into town without humming “Pardon me, boys…”

Yes, it’s Chattanooga, home of the Choo-Choo. The train is part of the history and one of the city’s attractions, but even without it, Chattanooga is a family playground. Attractions in town are within walking distance of each other or are linked by the free trolley. Outlying ones are clustered nearby. That limits choruses of “Are we there yet?” and most of the sightseeing is done while everyone still has energy.

The Tennessee River flows through the city. Much of the riverfront is open space and a riverwalk that takes advantage of the steeply rising bluffs. The Tennessee Aquarium sits on the riverbank. Devoted to freshwater ecology, it lets visitors vicariously experience the life of the creatures that swim just outside the building. Visitors walk ‘through’ the aquarium via an enclosed winding ramp with plenty of chances to get nose-to-gill through the glass.

Just a short stroll up the street is the Creative Discovery Museum. The discoveries start in the plaza outside the main entrance. Look closely, and you’ll notice that the sculpture of carefree children playing in the sunlight is actually a sundial.

The museum’s philosophy is ‘learning is child’s play,’ but kids can get frustrated here. Not because the museum isn’t fun, but because their parents are joining in – scrounging for dinosaur bones in one display and experimenting with optical illusions in another. The music studio, something not found in many kid-oriented science centers, has a great exhibit. The Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” is heard in its traditional form, but also as a jazz piece, blues, rock, reggae, classical, and other musical styles.

The International Towing and Recovery Museum is the only museum in the world dedicated to tow trucks. Its collection of antique ‘wreckers,’ as the purists call them, is housed – appropriately enough – in an old car dealership. The old workhorses are enjoying a papered retirement; they’re as painted and polished as the Model Ts, Studebakers, and other passenger cars they hauled from ditches and muddy ruts.

Walnut Street Bridge links the north and south banks of the river. At 2370-feet long, it’s the longest pedestrian walkway in the world. Originally built in 1891, it was the only way to cross the river for thirty years. In the early 90s, engineers discovered it was structurally unsafe and closed it.

Rather than see it demolished, residents raised funds to repair and reopen it for foot traffic. Now, bikers, strollers, joggers, and dog-owners peddle, amble, trot, and walk across the river, surrounded by the ornate ironwork of the old bridge.

At the north end of the bridge is Coolidge Park. Named after Charles Coolidge, a Chattanooga resident who received the Medal of Honor, the park features interactive play fountains with squirting animals, an open lawn, and plenty of room for picnics. The main entrance, Medal of Honor Plaza, recognizes all recipients of the nation’s highest military honor.

The park’s main attraction is the Chattanooga Carousel. Rescued from decay in Atlanta, it’s been restored and fitted with 52 hand-carved animals. In addition to horses, the menagerie includes leaping tigers, well-dressed frogs, and friendly dinosaurs.

All of the carousel animals were carved at Horsin’ Around, the country’s only school where the vanishing art of carving carousel horses is taught. It’s a place of sawdust and smiling rabbits, half-assembled elephants and paint samples, the smell of fresh-cut wood and the sound of an old barrel organ.

Horsin’ Around is at the foot of Lookout Mountain, just outside the main part of town. Three of Chattanooga’s oldest and most famous attractions are on top or inside.

The most interesting way to reach the summit is via the Incline Railway. The steepest railway in the world has passengers looking nearly straight down between their feet as the car hauls itself up the mile of track.

The panoramic view from up top is a definite Kodak Moment, but it’s just as impressive inside the mountain. Viewing Ruby Falls means following a guide through caverns to a 145-foot waterfall deep inside the mountain. The falls were discovered by accident by workers who were engineering an elevator shaft in the caverns they already knew existed. They splash into a deep pool while colored lights play on the spraying water.

This is a good spot for lunch or a snack break. The garret of the visitors center, located in a stone building designed to resemble 15th century Irish castle, offers more fantastic views of the Tennessee Valley and a large play area for kids.

“See Rock City.” If there was ever a catch phrase for travel in the south, that’s it! For decades, the black-and-white admonition adorned barn roofs from Louisville to Asheville.

The original American tourist attraction started in the Depression years. Plans to create a mountaintop resort were derailed by the economic crisis, so Garnet Carter and his wife, Frieda, shifted their energies to Frieda’s dream of turning the precipice into an elaborate rock garden.

She laid out winding paths through the rock formations and planted hundreds of wildflowers and shrubs. A lover of German folklore, she imported statues of gnomes and fairytale characters and put them along the path, too. Many of them ended up inside the mountain, where underground grottos hold scenes from fairy tales to catch the imagination of children and their parents.

The rocky, jutting crag of the mountain promises a vista of seven states. Really? Current owner Bill Chapin, Garnet and Frieda’s grandson, grins with the impishness of one of the gnomes. “Depends on the weather and whether or not you want to see them all.”

No gnomes hid on Lookout Mountain in 1863, when Confederate and Yankee Troops fought for control of Chattanooga and the Tennessee River. The fog on the mountain and the smoke from the battle were so thick that the fight became known as The Battle Above the Clouds. That campaign routed the Confederates from the area and set the stage for Sherman’s advance on Atlanta.

The Battle of Chattanooga Electric Map and Museum explains the battles with a three-dimensional lighted diorama that uses 5,000 miniature soldiers, plus lighting and sound effects. It’s at the edge of Lookout Mountain, as the entrance to Point Park, where Confederate and later, Yankee, troops watched the city.

Surrounded as it is by the Tennessee River and the mountains, Chattanooga naturally offers lots of family outdoor activities. The adventures can be as mild as a 90-minute cruise on the Southern Belle. The sternwheeler paddleboat has a schedule of lunch and dinner cruises from April through October, with a limited schedule during the winter months. Family Night serves up prime rib for the parents and spaghetti for the kids. The daily lunch cruise has a “Build-Your-Own” sandwich buffet.

Back on shore, Suck Creek Cycle rents bikes, arranges and leads tours, and dispenses advice for bikers and tourists in the heart of town. It’s adjacent to the Aquarium and convenient to the Walnut Street Bridge.

Hundreds of miles of hiking trails meander their way through the mountains surrounding the city. Point Park, atop Lookout Mountain, has 25 miles of trails. That’s the closest hiking area to the city center. As the name hints, Fall Creek Falls State Park, has numerous waterfalls, including the 256-footer that gives the park its name. Prentice Cooper State Forest and South Cumberland State Recreational Area also boast over 13 miles of trails each.

No one’s exactly sure when the doors first opened, but the Mountain Opry may have started about the time the Sherman left for his march to the sea. Tucked away on the backside of Signal Mountain, it’s a regular Friday night gathering of local pickers, fiddlers, and singers performing authentic bluegrass and mountain music. Refreshments are hot dogs and popcorn; seats were rummaged from old movie houses and churches; the audience knows most each other and greet visitors like family. Admission is free, with a hat passed around on occasion to cover the costs of keeping the lights turned on.

And while they play a lot of mountain standards, no one recalls if any of the pickers every played a bluegrass version of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.”