Is there anything more fun than classic kitsch and offbeat museums? Chattanooga (or, as we like to call it, The 'Noog) is a town that's not afraid to embrace the odd. Take a walk on the weird side with roadside attractions like Ruby Falls and Rock City Gardens, or learn something you never knew you never knew at a one-of-a-kind tow truck museum or rollickin' Civil War dinner theater show. Anything goes on this adventure, and the less expected, the better!
Deep inside the heart of Chattanooga's Lookout Mountain, you'll find one of America's tallest and most incredible natural features: Ruby Falls. A hike through the mountain's cave system takes you right to the base of the 145-foot waterfall, which is believed to be the result of 30 million years of erosion through the limestone rock. Water from rain and natural springs gathered and worked its way through the mountain's core to form the falls, which collect at the base and wind their way through and out of Lookout Mountain to join the Tennessee River.
The waterfall remained a hidden secret locked within the mountain until the mid 20th century. Few people dared to enter the cave system to explore, and the natural entrance was eventually closed to build a railway tunnel. It wasn't until the 1920s that a local spelunker named Leo Lambert decided to open up the caves again and raised money to drill into the mountain. By 1928, he was ready to begin cutting in. As he and his team dug further into the mountain and did some exploring through the natural cave system, they discovered the magnificent falls. Leo decided to name the falls after his lovely wife Ruby (cue the 'awwws'). It proved to be a popular tourist attraction; it was one of the first caves to have electric lights, and an elevator was eventually put in as well.
Fun fact: Highways in the region are famously lined with billboards proclaiming "SEE RUBY FALLS." Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison co-wrote a song called "See Ruby Fall" inspired by the ubiquitous ads plastered on barns and billboards across Tennessee and beyond.
Buttonwillow Civil War Dinner Theater
For a break from your normal dining experience, it doesn't get any better than dinner theater. Located in a historic church, Whitwell's Buttonwillow Civil War Dinner Theater serves up Southern cookin' alongside a funny and heartwarming show about two relatives on opposites sides of the Civil War in 1864. Enjoy chicken with cornbread stuffing and biscuits, sweet tea, and blackberry cobbler (inspired by a recipe belonging to Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis). It's all served to you by waiters in period dress while you hear the tale of the Gipson cousins, which was inspired by true events. Buttonwillow also has a Civil War-themed gift shop where you can stock up on 19th-century-inspired souvenirs as well. With all of the Civil War history surrounding Chattanooga, this is a fun and quirky way to get some insight!
Ruby Falls isn't Lookout Mountain's only attraction; the feature is also home to Rock City Gardens. Like Ruby Falls, billboards painted onto barns encouraging people to "SEE ROCK CITY" are a staple around the region, and it's just as fun to visit. The 7-state view from Rock City's Lover's Leap is famous, but the history of Rock City Gardens is much more than just a scenic overlook. Rock City had been a well-known overlook for years before a man named Garnet Carter decided he wanted to develop the area around Rock City into a residential community called Fairyland in 1924.
Carter wanted to include a golf course at Fairyland, and to appease those who wanted to play golf while he figured out how to build the course, he constructed the country's first mini-golf course, which he called Tom Thumb Golf. He even franchised out the popular concept. In the meantime, Frieda, his wife, decided to develop Rock City itself into a rock garden "to end all rock gardens.” She forged a trail out to Lover’s Leap, today known as The Enchanted Trail, and added flowers, plants, and gnome statues along the way.
Despite the attraction's slow start in the middle of the Great Depression, it has grown into an iconic roadside stop (thanks to Carter's innovative barn advertising). Rock City Gardens is now home to Fairyland Caverns, filled with statues from European fairy tales and folklore, a 180-foot-long Swing-a-Long bridge, restaurants, a calendar of popular annual events, and tons more. It's the kind of classic roadside gem that the whole family will love, and the nostalgic touches are sure to bring out everyone's inner child.
The International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum
If you're looking for an attraction that's so odd that you truly won't be able to experience anything like it outside of Chattanooga, then stop by the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum. Yep, that's right: a museum dedicated to tow trucks. Most people don't think about them unless their car breaks down, but the towing industry is actually a fascinating slice of automotive history. What started as a historical display and hall of fame exhibit in a semi trailer that traveled to towing and recovery trade shows and events has morphed into this well-curated museum. The highlight of the museum is their huge collection of antique tow trucks of all shapes and sizes, all in pristine condition. You can also see blueprints for the first-ever tow truck (invented in Chattanooga in 1916, just down the road from the museum), check out the collection of model trucks, and pay tribute to those who gave their lives for their jobs at the Wall of the Fallen.
Incline railways were once a staple on hills and mountains across the country, but in more recent years, they started disappearing. One that's still going strong is Chattanooga's Lookout Mountain Incline Railway. The retro, trolley-style cars take riders on a scenic journey a mile up (and down) the 72.7% grade slope of Lookout Mountain. While in the past, opulent grand hotels had been located at the top of the mountain, these days, you'll find all kinds of stuff to see and do, on either side of the incline. The bottom station is in the historic and quaint town of St. Elmo, which is home to galleries, boutiques, eateries, and an awesome old-school ice cream joint. The top gets you access to some of Chattanooga's most famous attractions: Point Park, Ruby Falls, Rock City Gardens, and the Battles for Chattanooga Electric Map & Museum.
Old-school roadside kitsch, the most interesting museum you would have never guessed existed, a slice of serendipitous Civil War history (with a side of cobbler), and more make The 'Noog an offbeat city worth exploring. From the famously quirky attractions to the lesser-known gems, discovering the unique fun in town is a great way to learn some history and experience Chattanooga.
Welcome to Chattanooga! Also known as Scenic City, it's the perfect blend of small-town charm and big city fun. Chattanooga's picturesque location and Southern soul give it a unique atmosphere. Explore its offbeat side, experience its history, or explore the boundless outdoor adventure available.
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