Why drive to the top of Lookout Mountain when you can ride one of the steepest railroads in the world? That’s exactly when I did when I hopped on The Incline Railway for an exciting ride to the top of the mountain overlooking Chattanooga, Tennessee. But it was far from the only exciting thing to do up there.
The first place I ever visited in Chattanooga was the Hunter Museum of American Art. I wasn’t there to visit the museum, it had already closed for the day, but rather I was there for a sunset photo across the Tennessee River. One of the first things that struck me about Chattanooga was the looming mountain standing a thousand feet above the otherwise flat landscape.
During that first 10-day trip to Chattanooga I visited the Big Three Attractions on Lookout Mountain, found one of my favorite scenic overlooks in the country, and then found one of my second favorite scenic overlooks. Here are 5 exciting ways to enjoy Lookout Mountain stretching across the border of Tennessee and Georgia.
1. Explore Ruby Falls
The folks at Ruby Falls claim the waterfall is the “tallest and deepest underground waterfall open to the public” in the country. I’ve heard of some other competing waterfalls over the years, but despite that a visit to Ruby Falls is one you won’t soon forget.
The adventure to his towering underground waterfall begins with an elevator ride straight down 26 stories. The guided tour continues through the series of caves along a narrow path for about a mile. Along the way your tour guide will explain the very clever names given to different geological formations and caverns, like the Hall of Dreams.
You’ll hear the thunder of the crashing water long before you see it. Nothing could possibly prepare you for it, though. As you enter the massive cavern a series of powerful lights beam onto the waterfall as it crashes before you. You get about ten minutes with the waterfall during a playful light show and a moment of pure darkness to savor the sounds.
Ruby Falls 1720 South Scenic Highway, Chattanooga, TN | 423-821-2544 | https://www.rubyfalls.com
2. Visit Point Park
At the very northern tip of Lookout Mountain is Point Park, part of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park. Visitors enter the park through a massive stone castle gate that was built in 1904 and modeled after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ insignia. Admission to the park is $7, but that’s good for three days; don’t make the mistake I made and pay $7 every day for three days straight.
Inside the park concrete sidewalks wind through the thick trees leading to several scenic overlooks and monuments. At Garrity’s Battery look across a Civil War-era canon onto downtown Chattanooga far below. The New York Peace Monument towers in the center of the park.
One of my favorite scenic overlooks in the country is located inside Point Park. Follow a path down a flight of stairs at the far end toward Ochs Memorial Observatory. The one-room building has an exhibit about Civil War signaling and photography. Just outside the observatory is a stone observation deck atop Umbrella Rock. From here you look down onto the bend in the Tennessee River and downtown Chattanooga.
Lookout Mountain Battlefield Visitor Center 110 Point Park Road, Lookout Mountain, TN | 423-821-7786 | https://www.nps.gov/chch
3. Ride The Incline Railway
Why drive when you can ride? That has long been my motto for travel; I prefer to drive to my destinations but once there I love riding local transportation so I can spend more time looking around. The Incline Railway was the most exciting way I have ever gone for a ride after parking my car.
The Incline Railway Bottom Station is located in St. Elmo about fifteen minutes from downtown Chattanooga. At the bottom you’ll find plenty of free parking and a safe place to leave your car. There’s plenty of great local places to eat at the bottom like Mojo Burrito and Clumpies Ice Cream Company.
When I boarded the trolley car at the bottom I thought something was wrong. The fixed seats were leaning backwards at a rather odd angle. It was like trying to sit in a reclining chair that was already reclined! It wasn’t until the trolley car started climbing the mountain that I realized why the seats lean backwards.
The one mile climb up Lookout Mountain travels along a railroad at a staggering 72.7% grade! It’s one of the steepest railroads in the country. With a glass top and large pictures windows all around the view from the trolley car was beautiful, and the ride so very exciting!
The Upper Station is a destination on its own. There is a small deli with burgers, hotdogs, and pizza by slice, a gift shop with tourism trinkets, and you can walk around the machinery on the bottom level to see the massive 100 horsepower winches that pull the trolleys up the railroad. Be sure to visit the very top level of the Upper Station where you can watch the trolley cars coming and going.
Incline Railway Bottom Station 3917 St. Elmo Avenue, Chattanooga, TN | 423-821-4224 | http://www.ridetheincline.com/
Incline Railway Upper Station 827 East Brow Road, Lookout Mountain, TN | 423-821-4224 | http://www.ridetheincline.com/
4. See Rock City
Rock City is the most infamous attraction on Lookout Mountain, and it’s all because of a marketing ploy that created hundreds of “See Rock City” barns across the country. In 1935 Rock City founder Garnet Carter sent Clark Byers on a journey across America to advertise his small mountain top attraction. Byers visited hundreds of farms and offered to paint their roadside barns for free, so long as the owner agreed to let Byers pain “See Rock City” in vibrant white paint on the roof. The rest is marketing history.
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Today visitors to Rock City can enjoy long walks through narrow crevasses and across swinging bridges, admire the intricate garden gnomes, and enjoy the breathtaking view of seven states from the Lover’s Leap Overlook. Along with a few shops , Fudge Kitchen, and three small restaurants it is entirely possible to spend an entire day at Rock City.
Rock City 1400 Patten Road, Lookout Mountain, GA | 706-820-2531 | https://www.seerockcity.com
5. Discover Amazing Scenic Overlooks
One of the interesting features of Lookout Mountains is the steep slopes on all sides. It’s a rock climber’s paradise, but also leads to several scenic overlooks on top of sheer cliffs where visitors can see the world. There are three specific scenic overlooks I think are the absolute best.
The first I already mentioned is Ochs Memorial Observatory at Point Park. At the northern tip of Lookout Mountain visitors standing there can look down on the bend of the Tennessee River and downtown Chattanooga. It’s a gorgeous overlook, but unfortunately Point Park closes at sunset and it’s a little difficult to watch the sun set and get out of the park on time.
The second amazing scenic overlook is called Sunset Rock. This exposed piece of rock on the east side of Lookout Mountain has become a local favorite for watching the sunset. But as the popularity has increased, so has the difficulty in reaching it. There is a very, very small parking lot with room for maybe six vehicles at the trailhead. Parking is not allowed along the street because it is narrow and windy. If you want to see this overlook get there early.
The third scenic overlook on Lookout Mountain has been near the top of the list for my favorite overlooks for years. It’s always been peaceful out there, but I’m finally about to spill the beans and tell you all about it.
About ten miles from where Scenic Highway reaches the top of Lookout Mountain, and seven miles from the intersection of Scenic Highway and Ochs Highway, is a perfect scenic overlook. It’s just down the road from the Lookout Mountain Hang Gliding building and overlooks the Flight Park far below on the valley floor.
This exposed, undeveloped scenic overlook has a pretty amazing view of the flight park below, which is really nothing more than a grassy field where the light aircraft take off with hang gliders in tow. From the perch on the rocky outcropping visitors can watch the hang gliders detach about five hundred feet above the mountain and slowly descend.
It’s also a fantastic place to watch the sunset and one of my favorites in the country. It’s remote, though, so be prepared for the journey. It takes about thirty minutes from Chattanooga long the winding two-lane roads to get there. There are no restrooms, trails, benches, or really anything. And that is exactly what I love so much about it.
Where to Stay
There are lots of great places to stay in Chattanooga, but only one place on Lookout Mountain. I figure if you’re gonna have to drive anyway might as well recommend some great hotels wherever they may be. Here are three areas with hotels I would recommend while visiting Lookout Mountain.
The Chanticleer Inn Bed & Breakfast is my top recommendation for where to stay while exploring Lookout Mountain. It’s within walking distance of Rock City and less than ten minutes from all the other attractions on the mountain. The B&B has an outdoor swimming pool, private patios, and rooms with either a single king or queen bed.
Interstate 24 Exit 174
Exit 174 off Interstate 24 is a great place to find hotels while visiting Lookout Mountain. It’s only a 3-mile drive to Scenic Highway and the beginning of the climb up the mountain at Ruby Falls.
The Hampton Inn is my top recommendation for all-season lodging in Chattanooga. This fantastic hotel has an indoor swimming pool and an outdoor swimming pool with slide and water features because why not? The hotel includes King Rooms, Queen Rooms with two queen beds, and a King Suite with sleeper sofa perfect for families. The Hampton Inn chain also has some of the best breakfast included with rooms I’ve ever come across.
The Fairfield Inn is another rather nice hotel for an overnight stay with an indoor swimming pool and outdoor patio with chairs and tables facing Lookout Mountain. The hotel includes King Rooms and Queen Rooms with two queen beds.
Country Inn & Suites is a third great option at this location. The hotel has a small indoor swimming pool with a special lift to help disabled people in and out of the water. The hotel includes King Rooms, a Studio Suite with two queen beds, a King Suite with sleeper sofa, and a One Bedroom Suite with two queen beds and a sleeper sofa.
The Edwin Hotel, located near the Tennessee River in downtown, is one of the best luxury hotels in the city. The hotel has on-site parking, restaurant, and a bar, with an optional breakfast for an additional fee. The hotel includes King Rooms and Queen Rooms with two full beds.
The Residence Inn by Marriot is in a great location at the edge of downtown, has an indoor swimming pool, and has on-site parking. The hotel includes a Queen Studio with a sleeper sofa and full kitchen for longer stays.
Hampton Inn & Suites is a third great option for downtown Chattanooga lodging. This hotel is a fantastic modern chic escape right in the heart of downtown. The outdoor swimming pool is on a private patio and along with on-site parking and an excellent free breakfast you’ll enjoy the stay here. The hotel includes King Rooms, Queen Rooms with two queen beds, and a King Suite with sleeper sofa.
The Crash Pad Hostel
Although I have stayed in hotels in Chattanooga before, my preferred place to stay is The Crash Pad Hostel. For travelers not accustomed to the hostel life you’ll find a Queen Room, Double Room, and Deluxe Family Room each with a private bedroom and bathroom. For hostel travelers like me the pods in the dormitory are the most comfortable I’ve ever used. The Crash Pad includes a common living room and full kitchen; in the mornings all the ingredients you need to make your own fantastic breakfast are included for free.