After finding my seat inside The Incline Railway car I noticed I was at a slightly awkward launch position, almost laying on my back even though I was sitting upright in my seat. But just a few minutes after the railway car began the mile-long climb up a thousand feet to the top of Lookout Mountain I realized why the seats were at such an odd angle on flat land. The railway eventually reached a maximum 72.7-degree climb angle, making it one of the steepest railroads in the world, and just one of the reasons I would enjoy Lookout Mountain so much.
The rest of the week I would take the journey on the railway a few more times to enjoy the views. Eventually I would drive to the top so I could explore the infamous “See Rock City” attraction, take a tour inside the deepest waterfall in the country, and enjoy spectacular sunset views. Lookout Mountain stretches across the Tennessee-Georgia border near Chattanooga, and ended up being my favorite place to spend time in the area.
Here are five ways you can enjoy Lookout Mountain. These are listed in no particular order, but I want to point something out that was helpful during my visit. Rock City and Point Park are outdoor attractions that are affected by weather, while Ruby Falls and The Incline Railway are great ways to enjoy a rainy day. Either way, I hope you enjoy each of these attractions as much as I did!
Rock City is perhaps the most famous of all the attractions on Lookout Mountain, mostly because of the “See Rock City” barns. In 1935 founder Garnet Carter sent Clark Byers on a journey across America, offering to paint old barns for free so long as the owner agreed to Byers painting a short advertisement in bright white on the roof of the barn facing the highway.
Visitors today can enjoy long, leisure walks through the winding paths along the bare rocks, through narrow crevasses, and across swinging bridges. Garden gnomes decorate the paths and provide frozen moments of action (I’m sure they’re busy at work when people aren’t around). The temperature drops nearly ten degrees as you descend into the shadows of crevasses and narrow passes. And there is even a psychedelic cave filled with black light neon painted scenes (if you fell into the rabbit hole, I imagine this is what Wonderland would be like).
At the very top of Rock City, and a sort of midway point of intersecting paths, is a large area called Lover’s Leap. From here you can “See Seven States” on a clear day, grab something to eat at Café 7, and relax at one of the covered tables on a patio at the edge of the mountain. To top it off, just around the corner is a magnificent waterfall viewable from a couple of spots along a path winding through the rocks.
Part of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, this small park at the northern tip of Lookout Mountain is a fun walk to enjoy with some amazing views of Chattanooga and the Tennessee River. You enter the park through the gates of a massive stone castle that was built in 1904 and modeled after the US Army Corps of Engineers insignia.
Once inside the park, you can follow one of several concrete paths that loop around the point of the mountain. Along the paths you will find a few scenic overlooks with canons marking locations used during the Civil War battle. Continue down a flight of stairs onto another path and you’ll reach the northern most tip of the island and the Ochs Memorial Observatory. Inside this one-room memorial you’ll find lots of history about Civil War signaling and photography. From the stone and concrete observation deck in front of the memorial you can also enjoy a spectacular view of downtown Chattanooga, the Tennessee River, and Moccasin Bend.
It’s easy enough to drive to the top of Lookout Mountain, but why drive when you can ride? The Incline Railway is a fun, easy way to get to the top of Lookout Mountain. When you first board the railway cars you are almost sitting back in a launched position, facing away from the mountain. It’s a little awkward at first, but the position doesn’t last long. Once the car begins the journey up the tracks, the incline gets steeper. When it reaches the maximum 72.7-degree incline (making it one of the steepest railroads in the world) you are finally sitting in a normal, upright position. Of course, that is also the moment when you look out the front windows of the car and realize you are practically riding up an elevator in a train car and you can’t even see the ground beneath you.
But if you need more reasons to ride the railroad, here are a few. The bottom station is in a suburb called St. Elmo, just ten minutes from downtown Chattanooga. At this station you can find a few places to shop and eat, including the 1885 Grill and St. Elmo Deli & Grill. There is a large, free parking lot to leave your car safe and sound while you enjoy the ride. You also get to avoid the curvy drive up the mountain that some may not enjoy.
The top station features a large gift shop, a deli with simple foods like pizza and soda, and two observation decks above. The top most observation deck gives you a beautiful 180-degree view of the sprawling city below, and you can watch the incline cars come and go.
The top station of the incline is near the northern end of the mountain. You can’t walk to Rock City or Ruby Falls from here, but you can enjoy a couple other attractions. Just a ten-minute walk along a sidewalk from the station is the Battle for Chattanooga Museum, an interesting small museum about the famous Civil War “Battle Above the Clouds”. Then, right next door to the museum is the entrance to the Lookout Mountain Battlefield & Point Park.
Exploring the top of Lookout Mountain can be fun, but what about exploring inside the mountain? At Ruby Falls that is exactly what visitors get to do while exploring a series of caves that leads to a massive underground waterfall.
On the surface Ruby Falls is a sprawling attraction that adds a few more highlights every year. The Lookout Mountain Tower gives you a chance to see some amazing views of the city of Chattanooga below. Next door is Zipstream Aerial Adventure, a recently-opened zipline adventure through the treetops.
But what everyone really comes here for is the tallest, deepest waterfall open to the general public in the country. A quick ride down an elevator (with ears popping several times along the way) takes visitors deep into the caverns beneath the mountains. Tour guides take groups of around thirty through the narrow passageways, explaining the history of the attraction, and pointing out the geology of the caves. Several of the geological formations have been given clever names, and some of the inner caverns have been named (such as the Hall of Dreams).
As you shuffle along the dirt path, admiring the beautiful formations on the walls and ceiling of the caves, you turn a corner and suddenly you hear it. It’s faint at first. A dull, continuous roar. The closer you get, the louder it gets. The temperature picks up a few degrees because the humidity is increasing. Your clothes cling to you. And then you immediately forget everything as you enter the final room of the caverns and catch sight of the towering, thunderous Ruby Falls. Nothing has prepared you for this moment, and even those eager to capture a photo are awe-struck for a few moments before whipping out cameras and phones to capture the scene.
Lookout Mountain has no shortage of breathtaking views that are easy for you to enjoy. Lookout Mountain Battlefield & Point Park featured a few scenic overlooks to enjoy, but there are a few more further down the mountain in Georgia. These overlooks are right off the highway, and offer fantastic sunset views.
Getting to this particular scenic overlook is part of the fun. There are two ways to reach the top of Lookout Mountain from Chattanooga: Scenic Highway and Ochs Highway. Scenic Highway takes you past Ruby Falls, while Ochs Highway takes you past Rock City. Then both highways meet in the town of Lookout Mountain, Georgia. This is where your tiny adventure begins.
Drive south along Scenic Highway. You will pass Covenant College on the right, which sits right on the edge of the mountain. Continue 7.5 miles from the intersection until you see a small area on the right side of the road to parallel park. It’s a simple dirt area, nothing fancy. If you pass the Lookout Mountain Hang Gliding business you have gone too far.
Once parked, look toward the edge of the mountain just a few feet away for a series of boulders beneath the trees. There are a few comfortable places to sit here with an uninterrupted view west for the setting sun. During the summer months hang gliders will frequently fly across the sky, beginning from a small grassy airfield far below.
Take a snack or a drink with you, sit back and relax, and enjoy the view of the sunset from this location. It’s an easy, peaceful 30-40 minute drive from Chattanooga. This also makes a great way to end your day of adventures on Lookout Mountain.