I had driven past billboards urging me to “See Rock City” several times over the past decade on my journey through Chattanooga from my home in western Kentucky to where my father lived in Aiken, South Carolina. When my dad recently moved to be closer to my sister in Connecticut, I worried my window of opportunity to see Rock City may be closing. Spurred by the desire to see what all the fuss was about, my husband and I planned a Smoky Mountain vacation that would also check white water rafting and Dollywood off my bucket list.
Situated along the Tennessee River in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, it’s easy to overlook Chattanooga as a tourist trap. However, this southeastern Tennessee city makes for a fantastic day trip or weekend getaway.
In addition to natural beauty, Chattanooga is known for its rail history as well as being a Civil War battleground. Train aficionados will enjoy the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, while history buffs should check out Point Park. The 10-acre memorial park was our first stop atop Lookout Mountain. It was educational and offered stellar views of Moccasin Bend below.
Before heading to Ruby Falls, one of the other big attractions, we made our way to finally see Rock City! Located six miles from downtown Chattanooga atop Lookout Mountain, Rock City is named so for its giant ancient rock formations. It also features over 400 native plant species, panoramic views, and more. Here’s what we saw at Rock City.
First thing’s thirst. Water bottles are allowed, so feel free to bring your own. However, if you’re parched upon entry, skip the vending machine and take an immediate left into Fudge Kitchen to treat yourself to a freshly squeezed lemonade. We did get some of the icing-like fudge on our way out and spent the rest of the trip trying to ensure it didn’t melt.
Upon entry, guests receive a map detailing points of interest throughout the gardens. Rock City’s 4,100-foot long Enchanted Trail winds its way through majestic rock formations, cool caves, and sweeping panoramic views. Mosey your way down the trail at your own pace as it meanders through the 14-acre property. At a couple of points called Fat Man’s Squeeze and Needle’s Eye, visitors must turn sideways to pass between the immense boulders.
Ancient, Monumental, And Unique Rock Formations
As the name suggests, geological marvels abound at Rock City. Formations have apt appellations based on what they resemble. For instance, the 8-foot-tall sandstone balanced rock above has been dubbed Mushroom Rock for its shroom-like shape.
Like much of our country, this land was once inhabited by Native Americans. Eventually, Garnet and Frieda Carter came to own this piece of Lookout Mountain. In 1924, the couple launched a new community called Fairyland, named after Frieda’s obsession with European folklore. Its 700 acres included Rock City, where Frieda set about creating an award-winning garden.
Frieda planted wildflowers and other plants along the trail that she had marked with string. These days, over 400 native species of plants, trees, and shrubs add texture and color to the landscape. We visited at the beginning of July when everything was quite green, but I can only imagine how beautiful it would be covered in spring blooms or fall foliage.
Beautiful stone bridges dot the property. You can take the one pictured above to Lover’s Leap, or brave souls can take an alternate route…
Daring sightseers can traverse the 180-ft long suspension bridge. This couple in front of us distracted me from my own fear of heights. The woman was holding onto the rails for dear life, causing the bridge to sway, and blaming it on her partner. “Stop, Jerry! Jerry, stop!” she pleaded the whole way across. I couldn’t help but giggle seeing that Jerry was clearly just calmly following his frantic companion.
Traveling with my husband is always a treat because of the way he marvels at how things work and/or were built. For instance, how on earth was this Sky Bridge constructed? This lovely man-made wonder takes folks over to Lover’s Leap, providing a close-up view of High Falls along the way.
Rock City is home to one of the 8 Stunning Must-See Waterfalls In Tennessee. High Falls cascades 100-feet down the mountain. While the waterfall is wonderful, it is somewhat disappointingly man-made. For the real deal, head down the mountain and make reservations to walk a mile to see breathtaking Ruby Falls, 260-feet below ground.
Views from Lover’s Leap make it obvious why it’s called Lookout Mountain. The observation deck was named after a Native American legend of Shakesperean-sounding star-crossed lovers.
Sautee, a young Chickasaw warrior, fell madly in love with a beautiful Cherokee maiden named Nacoochee. Tribal feuds forbade the love affair, yet the two eloped anyway. A war party followed the newlyweds, capturing Sautee and throwing him from Lover’s Leap. But it’s called Lover’s Leap, not Lover’s Toss. While the tribe’s attention was turned toward this tragedy, Nacoocheee followed her love over the cliff, leaping to her own demise.
See Seven States
Lover’s Leap is home to the legendary “See 7 States” view. Rock City is located on the eastern side of Lookout Mountain in Georgia, and you can certainly see Chattanooga, Tennessee in the distance. Apparently, on clear days from certain vantage points, with a good set of binoculars, you can also see five other states. Since you can’t see state lines, I’m not sure how this would be proven. Alabama is 25 miles away, North Carolina is 50 miles away, Kentucky and Virginia are 120 miles away, and South Carolina is 80 miles away. Seven states or not, the view from 1,700 feet above sea level is still spectacular.
In addition to each state flag, 7 States Flag Court at Lover’s Leap features stonework of the seven (supposedly) viewable states.
As you walk through Rock City, you may notice birdhouses painted like barns along the way. You see, when the mountain-top attraction opened in the 1930s, it was advertised on barns in lieu of persuasive billboards. Garnet hired Clark Byers to paint farmers’ barns for free as long as he could write “See Rock City” on it. You may even remember seeing the black-and-white signs from the highway. Now, miniature birdhouse barns pay homage to this early creative advertising.
Whether chiseled from stone or sculpted out of wood or metal, a plethora of outdoor art installations decorates the gardens.
Here, you can see Jack Denton’s Villa Aviana, the artist’s take on the iconic See Rock City barn birdhouse.
Speaking of birds, this bald eagle sculpture looks ready to take flight from his nest of rocks, perched above spectacular sweeping views.
Gnomes are another recurring theme throughout the gardens. Original gnomes that belonged to Frieda Carter hide throughout the garden’s exhibits, along the trail, and in random spots. Can you spot the gnome on this cliffside?
Along with Frieda’s famous fairytale characters, most of the gnome statues were imported from Germany 100 years ago.
Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village
As previously mentioned, the mountain-top community that Frieda and Garnet Carter built was called Fairyland due to Frieda’s fondness for folklore. Along with gnomes, Freida collected her favorite fairytale characters to decorate the property.
Now Frieda’s favorite characters are displayed at Rock City. See hand-crafted scenes from popular fairytales and dioramas of classic nursery rhymes rendered in retro glowing paints at Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village.
Dining At Rock City
There’s no reason to eat at Rock City — it only takes about an hour to tour the whole place. We loaded up on carbs at the Maple Street Biscuit Company before heading up the mountain. However, if you do get peckish, Rock City offers plenty of dining. Located by Lover’s Leap, Cliff Terrace offers hot dogs, nachos, pizza, and the like, plus a patio with a view to enjoy it on. Café 7 features modernized Southern cuisine. Located at the entrance of the gardens, Big Rock Grill serves soup, salad, sandwiches, burgers, and chicken fingers.
Parts of Rock City are ADA Accessible
Rock City is partially handicap accessible. Referred to as “Legacy Lane,” the blue trail that cuts through the gardens is meant for guests in wheelchairs or those with limited mobility. Round-trip, the trail is about half a mile long. Points of interest on the map are also color-coded to show which are ADA accessible, such as Lover’s Leap and Seven States Flag Court.
Bring Home A Souvenir
Remember your trip to Rock City by bringing home a souvenir from one of the many gift shops. Prospector’s Point offers unique leather goods. Kiddos will enjoy panning for gemstones. Pick up a gnome of your own at Woodland Wonders on the way out.
Any four-legged friend — dog, cat, or goat — is welcome to walk the Enchanted Trail with you, as long as it’s on a leash. Café 7 even has a pet section and offers a pet-friendly menu!
It may go without saying, but wear comfy walking shoes. I had on my Hunter wellies since the forecast called for rain, and boy were my calves telling me about it the next day! Thankfully, there are plenty of spots to stop and rest your tootsies along the trail.