After an awesome time exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we headed south towards Chattanooga, Tennessee — the southernmost point on our itinerary. We arrived on a sleepy overcast Sunday afternoon, and set up shop at Harrison Bay State Park. Not wanting to waste an afternoon, we drove into downtown to poke around and give ourselves the walking tour. We expected everything to open and hopping — it was a balmy Sunday afternoon with no rain in the forecast — but the town was basically dead. We walked five blocks of downtown before we even saw another person!
After heading back towards the river, we stumbled upon this beautiful water feature cascading down towards the bank. This waterfall is called “The Passage,” and it marks the beginning of the Trail of Tears — the journey of the forced removal of the Cherokee people from Chattanooga to Oklahoma.
The seven, six-foot ceramic disks on the wall tell the story of the Cherokee Nation from hundreds of years of Native American habitation in the southeast. And a ‘weeping wall’ represents the tears shed by the Cherokee as they were driven from their homes and around 4,000 of them died on the Trail of Tears. It was a beautiful and thoughtful monument to the Cherokee tribes!
After spending a while exploring the waterfront and the interesting parks surrounding the riverfront Tennessee Aquarium, we headed back to camp for a quiet evening. The next day though, it was adventure time: we were headed to Ruby Falls — an underground waterfall in a cave system inside of Lookout Mountain, which faces commands a tremendous view of Chattanooga.
Rebecca had done all the research on this one, and she was quiet excited. As it turns out — her anticipation was well-placed. This place was SWEET. And not only that — they had UNDERGROUND WIFI. But not content to have the deepest underground wifi short of NORAD, they even got punny with the motto. “SmartCave: Connect on a Deeper Level.” **Cue rimshot**
We signed up for a tour, and were lucky to get one of the smallest tour groups of the day — about 10 of us with a very fast-moving tour guide …
… so fast, in fact, that after asking us not to straggle behind the group, she promptly lost me as I tried to get pictures of the formations she was showing us. Eventually I stopped rushing and just went at my own pace. There was some cool stuff down there!
One of my favorites was the one shown in the picture below — the Niagara Falls formation. Rebecca and I had just visited Niagara Falls in June for our anniversary, and and it was neat how much the formation looked just like the falls!
We saw a number of other formations, including the “tobacco leaves.” Unlike Carlsbad Caverns and Mammoth Cave, which are both owned by the NPS, Ruby Falls is privately owned and operated, and they have no issues using colored lights to jazz up the caves. Personally, I feel like it made the amazing landscape even more dreamlike and otherworldly, and we enjoyed the theatrics.
Nothing, however, came even close to matching the grandeur and magnificence of Ruby Falls itself. Towering at 145 feet tall, this is the tallest subterranean waterfall in America, and it was awesome.
Here the lights and sounds had been put to work again. When you enter the chamber, it is completely dark. The music starts, and the lighting slowly comes on around you as the music builds. As it reaches its crescendo, the falls are suddenly illuminated, and it is nothing short of stunning. (And with the underground wifi, you can Instagram it immediately!) You get about 15 minutes to enjoy the falls and take pictures, and we enjoyed every minute.
We emerged blinking into a beautiful sunny afternoon, and decided to drive up to the top of the mountain to explore the views. At the very crown of the mountain, we found Point Park, guarded by a beautiful castle gateway.
Point Park is part of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, managed by the national park service. Chickamauga & Chattanooga NMP is a sprawling park site encompassing at least four different sites (we’re still not totally sure!) — and this was the first time we felt let down by a national park website. There was no clear list of the sites, or what to do there, although this map was the best resource we could find.
Anyway, Rebecca actually discovered Point Park online when researching Ruby Falls and its sister attraction, Rock City. Rock City is famous for its beautiful “Lover’s Leap” waterfall, and its panoramic “See 7 States” view. But at $20/ticket, it seemed a little pricey for a view. During her online research, Rebecca discovered a mention on Trip Advisor about Point Park, which several locals recommended as having views just as good as Rock City — without the crowds and pricey admission. We decided to give it a try, and simultaneously check a national park off our list.
There was a $5 fee to enter (or free with your America the Beautiful national park pass!), payable on the honor system at a kiosk inside the gates. Unfortunately since we arrived after hours, the little visitor’s center across the street was closed — so no passport stamp for us. We headed into the park to explore — and we certainly found the views we’d hoped for!
This was a historically significant spot, as it was a military dream, controlling the river and overlooking the city. After the Civil War, it had also helped start the tourism industry in Chattanooga, as painters would bring their subjects to the point and paint or sketch them.
The highway Rebecca and I have driven for years to visit my family in Louisiana runs right alongside the river, and it was fun to marvel at how many amazing things we had been driving right past for years, completely unwittingly.
One more recommendation on visiting Point Park. Inside the park is a 2 mile round trip hike to Sunset Rock, which is apparently a perfect spot to — you guessed it — catch the sunset. We got there too early (and too hungry) to wait for sunset, but I’d definitely love to check it out in the future! The only caveat is that the park technically closes at sunset, so you have to hustle back to your car to leave before the park rangers show up.
The next day was a special day for me — my birthday! I spent a sunny morning relaxing and enjoying Rebecca’s apple cinnamon pancakes. She had a few work items to take care of, but once that was finished, we headed into town to celebrate the day with some indoor climbing at High Point Climbing Gym! Rebecca isn’t much for heights, but after some birthday pleading, she agreed to give it a try with me.
I had done some climbing in high school, but not since. I was excited to see if I was in any kind of shape — rafting and climbing work very different muscle groups!
High Point was an awesome facility, and if we lived nearby, they would definitely be my gym. They had a ton of walls (including some outdoors), areas for bouldering, and they offered yoga classes and childcare! High Point even had a traditional weights gym available as part of your membership or day pass! We had a fantastic time, and would definitely go back.
We capped off the day with dinner at the Big River Grille and Brewing Works across the street from High Point, and headed back to the campground. Thanks Chattanooga for a great birthday!
If you’re interested in more of Chattanooga, we’ d highly recommend checking out the Chattanooga Visitor’s Bureau suggested itineraries. They’ve got recommendations for everything from week long family vacations to weekend girls’ getaways. We know one thing: we only scratched the surface of everything Chattanooga has to offer! Tell us in the comments: what’s your Chattanooga must do/see/eat?