Despite the recent tragic news from Chattanooga, Tennessee, this mid-sized town on the Tennessee River is well worth a visit, as evidenced by the thousands of tourists who are drawn to its state-of-the-art Aquarium, historic Civil War significance, revitalized downtown, scenic riverfront and pure natural beauty.
A view of Chattanooga and the Tennessee River.
The town has grown substantially over the past decade with easy access from just about anywhere. I took my two teenage grandsons for a weekend get-away and found that we ran out of time before we ran out of things to do (no easy feat with teens).
The entrance to The Lost Sea Adventure in Sweetwater.
As you’re heading south to Chattanooga, an easy 90-minute drive from Knoxville on the interstate, be sure to stop off at Sweetwater, Tennessee, seven miles off the Interstate for a visit to The Lost Sea Adventure, featuring America’s largest underground lake, 140 feet below ground level.
The boys, 13 and 16, loved the idea of exploring this registered national landmark by climbing into a boat to glide across an eerily beautiful underground lake. It’s about a three-quarter-mile walk round-trip through the caverns, but the paths are wide and we were gifted with a knowledgeable guide who explained unique rock formations, dates burned into the cave by Confederate soldiers, the “Moonshine area” where white lightning was brewed, and how, why and where the rainbow trout are fed at the underground lake.
Remnants of the “moonshine still” used by locals remain inside the Lost Sea Cavern.
Our guide also explained how best to remember the difference between stalactites (cling “tight” to the ceiling) and stalagmites (“might” grow up from the ground), as well as pointing out the one-of-a-kind formations throughout the cave. The rare and colorful Anthodites, for example, are found in only a few caves worldwide (photograph below left).
In addition to the guided tour, you can step back in time to the Old Sweetwater Village, walk the nature trail, check out the Red Ruby Gem Mine, visit the General Store, or enjoy a simple picnic on the grounds. Open year round, the Lost Sea Adventures can be reached by calling 423-337-6616 or by visiting the website.
Once we arrived in Chattanooga, our first stop was check-in at the historic Read House Hotel (above right). It’s a great location, close to nearly everything downtown, but hotels are pricey in Chattanooga, especially during mid-summer, so shop around. The Read Hotel offers no microwaves or refrigerators in the room, nor is breakfast included in the price. However, just across the street is the awesome City Café, open round-the-clock and featuring a huge breakfast selection not to mention “mile-high” pies and cakes.
Then it was off to one of Chattanooga’s premier attractions, the Tennessee Aquarium, rated among the top aquariums in the U.S. for overall satisfaction. Plan to spend at least two hours checking out the facility’s two main sections: Ocean Journey, where you’ll meet sharks, stingrays and other sea creatures, and River Journey, which follows a single raindrop as it flows from a mountaintop to streams, swamps, lakes and rivers, where alligators, turtles, ducks and thousands of fish are on display.
The Tennessee Aquarium is among the top aquariums in the country.
In addition, there’s an IMAX Theatre and a separate River Gorge Explorer trip aboard a high-tech vessel that takes you on a two-hour ride into the scenic Tennessee River Gorge from downtown. Led by an Aquarium naturalist, you’ll hear all about wildlife and points of interest along the way.
Naturally, the Aquarium gift shop is a favorite among youngsters, even teens who can’t resist a colorful reptile.
For details on the Tennessee Aquarium, call 800-262-0695 or visit its website.
Among the oldest, yet most popular attractions are Ruby Falls, Lookout Mountain and Rock City. Lookout Mountain rises above Chattanooga and is just 10 minutes from downtown. Take in all three attractions for one price, or explore each separately. We chose to go underground to see the majestic Ruby Falls (where temperatures remain 58 degrees year round) discovered by a local cave enthusiast who named the falls after his lovely wife and opened Lookout Mountain Cave to the public in 1923.
It’s a good hour-long trek down to the falls, but well worth it, as lights glow and music plays to announce your arrival.
Majestic Ruby Falls (left) and the view of Chattanooga from Ruby Falls.
Above ground, you can see seven different states from Rock City, take a ride on the Incline Railway, or if you have an adventurous teen along, go zip lining. (There are at least three zip line companies in Chattanooga).
For details on Lookout Mountain attractions, call 800-825-8366 or visit the website.
Zip lining is popular in Chattanooga.
Ruby Falls Zip Stream Aerial Adventure can be reached at 423-821-2544 or at the company's website.
As you’re leaving Lookout Mountain and Ruby Falls, plan a ride down to the riverfront for some of the region’s best seafood. Though Chattanooga is known for its diverse foods – you can find everything from sushi to fried cheesecake – and was named among the “Top Summer Destinations” for the food-minded traveler, we went to the Boat House Restaurant to enjoy the river view.
The Boat House Restaurant by the river.
Not only is the seafood fresh and scrumptious – I had wood-grilled salmon, sourdough bread and just-made coleslaw, the wait staff make a point of memorizing first names for personalized service.
Wood-grilled salmon with the fixins’.
After dinner, take a stroll along the 13-mile Riverwalk as a paddle boat steams by, or arrange to hop aboard the Southern Belle Riverboat offering dinner and sunset cruises.
There’s much more to Chattanooga, so go to the website or contact the Visitor Center at 800-322-3344 and request a current Visitors Guide for complete area listings.