A National Park Story
A National Park Story
A summer thunderstorm had just crossed the Tennessee River and was drenching downtown Chattanooga. I watched the natural event from my perch on a stone observation platform high above the city at Point Park on Lookout Mountain. But did you know Point Park is actually a part of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park? Shortly after leaving this stunning view behind I discovered this national military park has so much more than I ever knew.
My first visit to Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park was a the main location in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. After all this is the address given for the park’s location and it is certainly the largest part of the park to explore. One that particular day I picked up a map, embarked on a driving tour, and then left the park behind without ever knowing about two other places called Missionary Ridge and Point Park.
When I returned a year later a friendly park volunteer filled me in on the parts I had missed. My jaw hung wide open, my eyes wide, as I realized there were other parts of this park to explore that took just a little bit more effort with a great reward.
Today I think of the park as having four different driving tours, although only one is official. I follow pretty much the same route when I visit now, starting with the main park and driving out from there. This, of course, is only my humble suggestion for a way to experience this national military park. But at the very least you’ll know what I know when you finish reading this.
The Battlefield Driving Tour (red route) is the most-visited part of the park. The leisure drive takes about 20-30 minutes to drive through with several places to stop for historical information, rustic buildings, and artillery displays.
The Missionary Ridge Driving Tour (green route) takes visitors from the park’s visitor center along South Crest Road across the ridge. There are a few satellite locations of the national military park along this road, ending with Sherman Reservation.
The Chattanooga Driving Tour (blue route) guides you to Orchard Knob, the National Cemetery, and the Confederate Cemetery. While not officially part of the national military park it completes the experience.
The Point Park Driving Tour (brown route) passes through downtown Chattanooga, ascends Lookout Mountain past popular tourist spots Ruby Falls and the Incline Railway, and ends with a small parking area at the entrance to Point Park.
The rather gorgeous visitor center the the park’s main location was a great place to start my exploration. I chatted with the park volunteer, browsed through the gift shop where I picked up a copy of William Lee White’s Bushwhacking on a Grand Scale, a retelling of The Battle of Chickamauga, and lastly collected my National Park Passport stamp. I thought I was ready to go until the lady behind the desk asked a rather innocent question, “Did you visit our gun room yet?”
That caught my attention and a few minutes later I was walking through one of the greatest collections of antique firearms I had ever seen. The Fuller Gun Collection has over 300 firearms spanning decades of history from the most rustic single-shot musket to a “modern” bolt action rifle. The guns were arranged in chronological order so it was neat to be able to walk through time and see the development of firearms that would be used in the Civil War.
The Battlefield Driving Tour is mostly a one-lane, one-way route through the largest portion of the Battle of Chickamauga. There are canons on display around ever turn, several rustic buildings to explore, and many large monuments dedicated to different state’s companies and individuals. White’s book makes a good companion for this driving tour as he explains in further detail the ebb and flow of the battle. It took me about three hours to complete the tour while skimming through most of the book.
The most surprising stop on this tour was Wilder Tower, near the south end of the driving route. The tower was named after Colonel John Wilder whose brigade, nicknamed the Lightning Brigade, were a major part of this battle. The 85′ tower is more than a monument; visitors can ascend the spiral staircase to the top for a pretty good view of the surrounding battlefield.
This unofficial driving tour takes visitors along South Crest Road across the ridge to several satellite locations of the national military park. These smaller areas are worth visiting, most particularly because of the Ridge Overlook about halfway down the road. It’s a pleasant drive that only takes about twenty minutes as the narrow road winds through neighborhoods.
The “reservations” along the road are areas that have been set aside as memorials for the various people involved in the Battle of Chickamauga. One of the first along the road is Bragg Reservation, named after Confederate General Bragg who commanded the forces during this battle. At the end of the road is the Sherman Reservation, named after Union General William Sherman whose forces assaulted Missionary Ridge and forced Bragg to retreat to Georgia.
Orchard Knob, Chattanooga National Cemetery, and the Confederate Cemetery are located inside the more dense areas of Chattanooga just below the ridge. Orchard Knob was exactly that; a little knob outside the city limits at the time that provided Union General Grant the viewpoint he needed to direct his campaign.
The cemeteries are located near each other and, while not part of the national military park, are still interesting places to explore during your experience here.
Despite the beautiful overlooks of Missionary Ridge and Wilder Tower along the Battlefield Driving Tour, Point Park is my favorite part of Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park. Getting there is even half the fun; the best route is to take Scenic Highway from the base of Lookout Mountain at the Tennessee River and climb the steep and winding road to the top. Along the way you’ll pass Ruby Falls and the see the Incline Railway overhead, two of Lookout Mountain’s attractions, before reaching the top yourself.
The Battles for Chattanooga Museum is privately owned and located a short walk from Point Park. It’s a good place to visit if this is your first time on the mountain. The small museum lays out the various battles that happened here during the Civil War and helps you get a good sense of the scale and significance of these battles.
After visiting the national military park twice in two years I finally learned about this park. I stopped by the visitor center across the street from the entrance gate to learn more about the “Battle Above the Clouds”, the nickname given to the battle that happened here during the Civil War. I picked up a copy of Six Armies in Tennessee by Steven E. Woodworth, a book describing how the battle here was “marked by muddle and blunders” leading to a costly Confederate victory.
I hopped across the street to the entrance gate. While the rest of the park is free to the public there is an admission fee of $7 per person over 15 to enter this park. Never really did find out why there is an admission at just this one point, but I didn’t mind it. Just don’t make the same mistake I made; the admission is good for a week, so don’t buy one every day for three days in a row like I did my first time here.
Point Park was the site of several Confederate batteries that attempted to prevent Union forces from crossing the Tennessee River and climbing Lookout Mountain. Today there are a few paved sidewalks through the park to explore and several batteries to see. Garrity’s Battery was one that attempted to prevent the river crossing during the battle and today offers one of the most breathtaking views of downtown Chattanooga.
But my favorite part of Point Park is the view from Ochs Memorial Observatory. Climb down a few steps, walk along a primitive path, and you arrive at the small stone building at the very northern tip of Lookout Mountain. The observatory itself has some interesting history to read about and nice photos to admire. But really it’s the view from the observation platform that is the real winner. Far below is Moccasin Bend, called “The Bend” in the Tennessee River. Far to the right is downtown Chattanooga in all its glory. Far to the left you can almost see the Raccoon Mountain Dam and Reservoir, and interesting piece of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
I’ve been to Chattanooga a few times over the years and each time I have visited Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park. Each time I learn a little more history, I see something new, and I find something amazing. Point Park is one of my favorite places in the Southeast, and I seriously doubt anything will ever knock it off the Top 10 list (when I actually write the list).
There was so much more to this national military park than I knew and now that I know I keep coming back.