We set out in the morning towards out next fun-filled destination; Chattanooga, Tennessee!
Before we left the state of Alabama, there was one more stop we had to make. About 45 minutes from downtown Huntsville is the amazing Cathedral Caverns State Park, which not only holds TripAdvisor’s “Certificate of Excellence,” but also named by MSN as one of the “Most Spectacular State Parks.”
The caves’ history dates back to a time when Native American peoples used it as a home. It wasn’t until the early 1950’s when a man named Jay Gurley fell in love with the property and purchased it. A few years later, Mr. Gurley opened the newly-dubbed Cathedral Caverns to much fanfare. People flocked from all over to take a tour of the majestic Cathedral Caverns. Since its heyday, the property changed hands often, offering varying public access. In 1987, the cave was sold to the state of Alabama and reopened for tours in 2000 as a new Alabama State Park.
The first thing one notices when visiting Cathedral Caverns is the massive 126-foot wide, 25-foot high natural entrance; so large it holds a worlds record! It was a very warm day so we waited for our tour guide just within the massive opening where cool cave air offered a respite from the heat.
After a brief introduction, we reverently followed our guide into the massive cave. It is hard to find words to describe the immense interior beyond “wow.” Unlike most caves where walking paths can become very narrow, Cathedral Caverns boasts wide paved paths throughout the tour allowing visitors to spread out and enjoy their own space. Our first stop was to admire “Goliath,” a column formation measuring 45 foot tall and 243 foot in circumference; a worlds record.
Another mind-blowing feature was the stalagmite forest. This “forest” covers 3 acres within the cave and is otherworldly in its beauty. Next was my favorite formation, the flow stone “frozen waterfall.” Standing 32 foot tall and 135 foot long, it is another immense feature of Cathedral Caverns. The tour guide also pointed out a wooden bridge and carved paths in the walls below; remnants left from Mr. Gurley’s cave tour days.
Our tour lasted about 1 ½ hours and we walked 2.5 miles, however, we were so engaged by our tour guide and our surroundings, it felt like we had just gotten started! It truly is a spectacular cave to visit.
Tips: Cave maintains 60 degree temperature year-round so you may want to bring a light jacket or sweater. This cave is stroller and wheelchair-friendly. Guides also offer the tour by golf-cart for those in need.
After a short time on the road, we crossed into Tennessee. Had I studied our route a bit more carefully, we would have made a stop in South Pittsburgh, home to Lodge Cast Iron! By the time I saw the sign advertising the Lodge Factory Store, it was too late to exit. I have added this to my Tennessee “to visit” list.
Less than an hour later, we arrived at Raccoon Mountain RV Park & Campground and Caverns (we didn’t get an opportunity to visit the caverns so another addition to my “to visit” list). After our speedy check-in we drove to Site 68 to get set-up. This campground has an open feel with campsites nicely spaced and clean. We prepared our dinner, enjoyed a little time playing Bocce Ball outside and then it was bedtime.
Tip: Raccoon Mountain RV Park also offers quaint camping cabins. Park amenities include free Wi-Fi, pool, playground, mini-golf, basketball hoop and other outdoor games. We used the laundromat which was very clean and functional.
We were all very excited to be spending our first day in Chattanooga visiting multiple Lookout Mountain attractions. Our first stop of the day was the iconic Ruby Falls, named one of the “Ten Most Incredible Cave Waterfalls on Earth.”
Tip: Combination tickets are a good choice if planning to visit multiple Lookout Mountain attractions.
Ruby Falls is a very popular Chattanooga attraction so there were lot of people waiting. Even so, it was a short wait as tours start frequently. The tour began with an elevator ride that lowered us over 1,000 feet below the surface of Lookout Mountain. Once everyone exited the elevator, our enthusiastic tour guide greeted us and he got right to it. There are planned stops along the route where pre-recorded information was given. To add a personal touch, guides add their own fun facts, jokes and point out additional cave features. The cave is lit mostly by colored spotlights which offers a beautiful effect, but also is a bit tricky to photograph.
Finally, we arrived at the stunning Ruby Falls. There is “mood” music playing and once everyone in the tour group was ready, lights were turned on to illuminate the falls. It was awe-inspiring! Water pours from rocks 145-feet above before cascading down into a small pool. Standing at the rail, you can feel the mist and hear the power of the water. There is ample time to take photos and enjoy the falls before starting the journey back.
After the tour, the elevator takes visitors up to the Lookout Mountain Tower where sweeping panoramic views of the Tennessee River Valley can be enjoyed. There is also a snack bar on this level where we enjoyed lunch before heading to our next stop, the Incline Railway.
Tips: Ruby Falls tour is great for kids of all ages, but not stroller-friendly as pathways are narrow. The “Fun Forest Playground” is adjacent to the snack bar and it’s easy to watch kids while sitting in the shade. Other activities including Gemstone Panning and the Zip Stream Aerial Adventure (offers a children’s course) are also located here. Visit website for more details. Allow at least 1 ½ hours for this attraction.
The Incline Railway is said to be the world’s steepest, traveling at an incredible 72.7% grade. We started our journey at the top station, just up the mountain from Ruby Falls. After a short wait, we hopped on-board a trolley-like car for our ride down “America’s Most Amazing Mile.” The tracks are tree-lined providing dappled light as visitors slowly move down the mountain. The cars also provide incredible scenic views of the valley below. During the journey, we learned that this rail line has been in operation since 1895 and in all that time, only the rail car technology has changed.
Tip: Want to see how the Incline Railway works? Stop by the machine rooms located at both stations to watch the giant gears that move the railway up and down the mountain.
Once at the lower station, everyone must disembark the railway. This station is located in the historic town of St. Elmo and visitors can explore an eclectic collection of shops and restaurants all within walking distance. This station houses Clumpies Ice Cream Co. which was a popular stop for many railway riders. After a short wait we re-boarded the Incline Railway and made the journey back to the top of the mountain.
Tips: Railway cars do have stairs and are not wheelchair or stroller-friendly. There is a snack bar and gift shop available at the Top Station. Allow 1 hour for this attraction.
Our last attraction of the day was Rock City; the most intriguing on Lookout Mountain. The history of Rock City is long, going as far back as Native American peoples living here. Although the geological features had been named “Rock City in the early 1800’s, the cultivating of this interesting area didn’t happen until the late 1920’s. The Carters, owning the estate, worked hard to develop “a large walk-through garden holding over 400 different varieties of plant life.”
Even reading a little about it in advance, I was not prepared for how incredible Rock City really is.
We started out on a shaded path leading us to towering rock formations along both sides called the “Grand Corridor.” The path is clearly marked and the map you receive and number markers ensure you don’t lose your way. We visited “Gnome Valley, “Mushroom Rock” and “Goblin’s Underpass.”
One of my tour favorites was walking across the “Swing-A-Long Bridge” which led to the stunning “High Falls,” also known as “Lover’s Leap.” This may be a man-made waterfall, but it is incredibly impressive none-the-less. Both the bridge at the top of the falls, and the lookout point below provide breath-taking views and great photo opportunities.
Our walk weaved through slot-like canyons including the aptly named “Fat Man Squeeze” and tunnels until we arrived at ”Fairyland Caverns.” In this artificial cave structure, visitors find dioramas of gnomes in a variety of scenes. This leads right to “Mother Goose Village,” a black-lit room with scenes portraying Mother Goose stories. The kids really enjoyed it!
The walking tour ends back where you started. Here you will find Fudge Kitchen and Big Rock Grill. On the day I visited, Georgia Winery was offering free wine-tasting. Don’t forget to visit Woodland Wonders, a unique garden and gnome shop. I loved Rock City so much, I plan to visit again when our travels take us back to Chattanooga!
Tips: There is an ADA/Limited Access Trail perfect for strollers! Special activities for kids are available seasonally and include a climbing wall and gem panning for an extra fee. Allow approximately 1 1/2 hours.
Note: Lookout Mountain also offers points of Civil War interest, including Point Park; otherwise known as Lookout Mountain Battlefield. Paid admission here also provides entrance to the Chickamauga Battlefield (located in Fort Oglethorpe, GA). Both locations are part of the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park.
It was a very long enjoyable day and we were beat. We picked up some take-out for dinner and headed back to camp. We don’t do this often, but we turned on the TV and enjoyed a fun night in.
More of our Chattanooga adventures coming soon!