Chattanooga, Tennessee - My Family Travels

There's more than a choo-choo train in Chattanooga, an example of what the U.S. News and World Reports dubs a "Smart City" — a city that exemplifies extraordinary and successful efforts to improve the quality of life for its citizens while protecting its resources. Since the 1970's, through sheer tenacity and pride, its leaders and citizens, along with private interests and investors, have totally transformed Chattanooga into something you really have to see to believe.

Located in the southern Appalachians on the sinuous Tennessee River, Chattanooga is pleasantly remote but not too far away. We think families will best appreciate its delights, because the city has attractions for children of all ages.

Exploring Downtown Chattanooga

Explore first with the free and efficient public electric bus departing from the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel (800/872-2529) to the waterfront. Circle the streets and admire the renaissance of building and commerce and entertainment downtown. If the weather permits, take a walking tour starting with Ross's Landing Park and Plaza, where downtown meets the Tennessee River. Follow the Tennessee River Walk to the Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge over the river. True to Chattanooga's recycling renaissance, this renovated 110-year-old bridge was rescued from demolition to become the longest pedestrian bridge in the world. At the Convention and Visitor's Bureau Office across from the Aquarium, you can pick up information and maps.

Six-acre Coolidge Park – on the other side of the river – has a fully restored 100-year-old carousel of 52 animals carved by Horsin' Around, the only carousel carving school in the U. S. People from all parts of the country come here to learn, and you may observe carvers at work before you experience the vintage organ music and the undulating, hand-crafted figures, for $1/ride. Most fountains in other cities are for aesthetics only but in Coolidge Park they are sculpted animals you can play on when the day gets hot. 

Touring the Chattanooga Arts District

Avid walkers can venture onward to see downtown's new shops, restaurants, Theatre Centre and the Star Riverboat. This community of working artists, chefs, museums, historic inns, cafes and gardens offers many relaxing ways to end your day. Upon returning from the North shore, continue on the River Walk to the Bluff View Art District, where you'll experience the city's cultural renaissance. Then stop at the south's largest collection of American art, The Hunter Museum. Comprised of a century-old revival mansion as well as an adjacent contemporary complex, the museum houses over 1,500 works, including glass sculptures. Ask about art classes for kids (423/267-0968). From 12-5pm on the first Sunday of each month, admission is free for all guests and there are special activities for kids.

Across the street, experience the Houston Museum of the Decorative Arts, a renovated Victorian residence with a fine collection of American antique glass, furniture and ceramics from the 18th to the early 20th centuries. (Do this one without rambunctious youngsters due to frail display mountings and cramped quarters.) Owner Anna Houston amassed the "collection" as wife to at least nine different husbands, then left the estate to the people of Chattanooga upon her death in 1951. Refresh the young ones at Rembrandt's Coffee House in the River Gallery, an extensive collection of art in a beautiful turn-of-the-century home, then take in the view of the river while strolling through the River Gallery Sculpture Garden.

Favorite Family Attractions in Chattanooga

If it were up to my family, visiting the Tennessee Aquarium (800/262-0695) would be a legal requirement for all out-of-town residents. Credited with priming Chattanooga's renaissance pump, this truly spectacular showpiece hosts 9,000 specimens and more than a million annual visitors. Anyone who loves freshwater fishing, or was a childhood collector of stream critters, and even channel surfers caught watching an underwater nature documentary, will enjoy this visit to the aquatic world.

Begin your journey at level four, the top level. The first gallery is the Appalachian Cove Forest representing the Tennessee Rivers' source in the Appalachian high country. Next is the Tennessee River Gallery, followed by the Mississippi Delta in the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, enjoy side trips and diversions such as the Rivers of the World Gallery representing Africa, South America, Siberia and Asia. The remaining gallery, Discovery Hall, features changing exhibits with unique themes such as venomous animals. To round out the experience, explore a 60' high central canyon that is a self-contained riverine ecosystem. To pursue more study and exploration for the kids, inquire about opportunities at the Aquarium's Environmental Learning Lab. Finish off the experience with a film at the nationally renowned 3D IMAX Theater.

For children, another highlight of Chattanooga is the Creative Discovery Museum (423/756-2738). Especially appreciated for a rainy day, children will be delighted to discover that touching is actually encouraged. The museum offers hands-on learning experiences designed to foster creative thinking in the sciences and arts. Do not be surprised if you find yourself more involved with tinkering and playing than your children. The sciences are well represented by an Excavation Station and Inventor's Clubhouse. Here, children can investigate with microscopes and computers, dig for bones, manipulate motors, pulleys and magnets and create their own inventions. The Musician's Studio and Artist's Studio allow the kids to experiment with sculpting, painting, printing, musical instruments and a recording studio.

A treat for gear-headed guys (and gals) who are at one with cars and engines is an unexpectedly delightful sliver of automotive history at the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum (423/267-3132). I learned the difference between a tow truck and wrecker and I learned that Earnest Holmes built the first tow truck in Chattanooga by replacing the back end of a 1913 Cadillac touring car with a hoisting device. Show the kids trucks of all shapes, colors and sizes, some modified antique autos, and some custom designed. The oldest truck is a 1919 Holmes 485 Wrecker, whose 485 model number was the sticker price. 

Railroad Buffs Love Chattanooga

Be sure to stop at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum (423/894-8028). Best enjoyed as a family activity, the Museum, which includes a fully operational train ride, is an ideal excursion into the Golden Age of Railroading. Referring to itself as "Tennessee Valley's Rolling Time Machine," the TVRM is the largest operating historic railroad in the South. You could take a quick 55-minute tour, or spend a day riding the 6 hour tour.  A 1952 steam locomotive with passenger cars runs on 40 acres of track laid during the Civil War, including four bridges and a tunnel through historic Missionary Ridge. Visitors can hop aboard the restored coaches and hear the authentic engine hisses that inspired "The Little Engine That Could."

For the short tour, after the 30-minute ride to the East depot, visitors disembark to watch the locomotive rotate on a giant turntable to prepare for the return trip. While waiting, check out the restoration and maintenance shop. After the return, enjoy the many historic trains displayed in front of the station including sleeper cars, office cars, dining cars and a caboose, some of which can be entered. My favorite is the actual 1924 Pullman used by Marilyn Monroe in the film "Some Like It Hot."

Inquire in advance about seasonal rail excursions to other communities; some include stopovers with lunch, concerts and events. The TVRM also offers truly unique opportunities for the diehard railroad enthusiast. You can ride up in the cab to observe the engineer and fireman operating the locomotive. Better yet, you can actually drive a locomotive under supervision for one hour. If staying a while, become a TVRM member and volunteer. You will dress in period and occupational clothing and be given instruction and training for duties like conducting, braking, engine service and passenger assistance.

On the quirky side try the separate Lookout Mountain Incline Railway (800/825-8366), built in 1895 to provide easy local access to cooler areas, and picturesque views of the Tennessee Valley and Civil War battlefields. Riders will experience the trolley-like railcars at a 72-degree incline near the top. The railcars are made comfortable by incline seating.

Chattanooga's Great Outdoors

For the nature lover or adventurer, Chattanooga is located in a geographic region of unique ecological significance. Numerous habitats and species, some endangered, naturally converge in the pristine regions around the area where mountains meet the valley on the river. Recreational walkers will enjoy the botanical richness of the Chattanooga Nature Center and Reflection Riding Gardens, offering 300 varieties of wildflowers.  Check out the educational exhibits and canoeing opportunities. Those canoeing past the Chattanooga Nature Center can rent the new Paddler's Perch overnight, an elevated cabin under tree canopy. While there, stop by the Tennessee Wildlife Center — an environmental education facility and home to a wildlife rehabilitation hospital with interpretive activities for the kids.

The North Chickamauga Greenway (423/ 643-6888) offers similar hiking opportunities through two miles of forests. The Chattanooga Audubon Society owns and operates three wildlife sanctuaries, each with unique habitats and recreational opportunities. For a taste of real wilderness, explore some of the 27,000-acre Tennessee River Gorge, a canyon preserve along the Tennessee River with an unusually diverse concentration of habitats and rich wildlife population.

In addition, many parks and recreational areas, such as the Nickajack Reservoir, offer an abundance of camping, boating and fishing. Between late April and early October, you can see the night skies darkened by endanger grey bats.  If you enjoy fishing, go to the Sequatchie River for Rainbow Trout, or try the Chickamauga and Nickajack Reservoirs for Bass. Many of the area rivers also provide outstanding whitewater canoeing and kayaking in all Classes.

On the delightfully quirky side, visit Lookout Mountain's Rock City and Rock City Gardens and the subject of the nostalgic "See Rock City" slogans once painted on 900 barns and birdhouses throughout the south and Midwest. Opened in 1932, Rock City was a popular honeymoon destination in the 40's and 50's: "The Niagara Falls of the Southeast." Ebay even has Rock City memorabilia for auction. Originally planned to be the first miniature golf course, Rock City is best described as a 14-acre monolithic rock garden, a dazzling display of 200-million-year-old geological formations intertwined with pathways, gnomes and gardens of over 400 species of plants. Included is Lover's Leap with a panoramic view of seven states. Bring little kids to this one, because underground you will find Fairy Tale Caverns and Mothergoose Village. These man-made caves are meticulous displays of storybook and fantasy figures with vivid underground lighting effects.  Also be sure to check out the website's schedule of Garden Workshops, some of which are geared specially towards kids. 

Older children and spelunkers will appreciate Raccoon Mountain Crystal Caverns. Take a leisurely-guided walking tour or arrange an exploration of the undeveloped portions with a cave guide and pan for gemstones. Don't forget to see Ruby Falls, a 145-foot underground waterfall at the end of Lookout Mountain Caverns. An elevator will take you below ground to view stalactites and stalagmites while guides with pun-enriched vocabularies will explain the beautiful formations.

For an adrenaline boost, Chattanooga is also home to Lookout Mountain Flight Park and Training Center. Billing itself as the hang gliding capital of the East and America's largest hang gliding school, the Center graduates 125 hang glider pilots a year. The Center's popular tandem flight operations make this an ideal adventure for beginners. A certified instructor will launch, fly and land the glider with each of you in a harness, making prior experience unnecessary and allowing you to acclimate to the sensation without dealing with any of the operations. Alternatively, before you fly with your instructor, you can take a morning of lessons, and glide on your own 5-10 feet off the ground! 

Chattanooga's Civil War Heritage

To fully appreciate historical Chattanooga, you need to experience its Civil War heritage. For many visitors who may be literate about Northern events, Chattanooga offers the opportunity to round out their knowledge of what some residents refer to as the "War of Northern Aggression." With its protective natural features and strategic location, Chattanooga provided headquarters for Union and Confederate forces alike and was the site of significant battles such as the Battle of Chickamauga and Lookout Mountain's Battle Above the Clouds. First, visit the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, America's first and largest national military park, and learn about the area's significance in history. Dedicated in 1895, the park is home to 1,400 monuments and historical land markers and features self-guided tours and Civil War re-enactments in the summer.

Include a stop at the Chickamauga Battlefield Park Headquarters and Visitors Center for audiovisual presentations of the battle. For the memorabilia buff, stop by the Fuller Collection of American Military Arms to see an outstanding collection of Springfield longrifles. Back near Chattanooga, Point Park on Lookout Mountain has the Point Park Visitor's Center and a trail leading to the Ochs Museum and Overlook that provides additional battle history. Don't leave out the Cravens House, once a headquarters for both sides. The best display depicting the battles is the Battle for Chattanooga Museum and Electric Map, which features a miniaturized reproduction of the terrain and forces along with sound. When back in the town, visit the Tennessee Civil War Museum (423) 821-4954, billing itself as "dedicated to the Common Soldier." The theme is a display of artifacts from the typical soldier's life and includes an introductory film. Cemeteries provide unique snapshots of life in the distant and recent past and Chattanooga's VA National Cemetery is no exception. Not only is it the burial site for 12,000 Union soldiers but also has veterans of every American war.

Chattanooga is an easy city to enjoy; a visitor's biggest disappointment is likely to be that their visit is too short. A visit is best summed up by what the hostess at the Sheraton Read House said after I finished gorging on an excellent dinner at their restaurant. True to southern hospitality passed down from her grandmother, and in the subtlest accent, she hoped that I "had a merciful plenty." 

Chattanooga's Annual Events

There are so many festivals year round that Chattaooga is fun for a vacation at any time of year.  Some of the big ones include:

  • Bessie Smith Traditional Jazz Festival in May
  • Prater's Mill Country Fair in May
  • River Roast in May
  • Nightfall Concert Series May through September
  • Riverbend Festival in June
  • Pops in the Park in July
  • Hamilton County Fair in October
  • Fall Color Cruise and Folk Festival in October
  • Autumn Steam Excursions October through November
  • Rock City's Enchanted Garden of Lights Nov – January
  • Winter Days and Lights November through December
  • Chattanooga Choo Choo Victorian Holidays Open House
  • Coffee House Series February through April

The Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau (800/322-3344) will provide you more with details about these unique events and the seasonal lodging deals that come with them.

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