Chattanooga is about a four/five hour drive from Greenville, depending on which route you take; too far for a day trip but close enough for a weekend road trip. I’ve had my eye on the Tennessee city as a possible destination for some time based on feedback from friends who had made the trip, and although I had driven through it many times on my way from Chicago to Georgia (when I lived southeast of Atlanta) I knew very little about this town rapidly gaining popularity among outdoor enthusiasts. With the grandparents in town we decided to head west to the “Scenic City” to see what we could see.
Our first day in Chattanooga was a cold, dreary, rainy January day. The plan was to visit the attractions on Lookout Mountain, but seeing as the only thing that could be seen from the summit were clouds, we opted to stay indoors. Well, sort of.
In 1928, Leo Lambert and a team of excavators found a breathtaking waterfall located 1,120 feet below the surface of Lookout Mountain. They were attempting to drill an entrance to a cave off the Tennessee River that had been sealed when a rail line was built, and instead encountered a previously unexplored opening. Crawling into this chasm the team discovered an underground waterfall, later named after Lambert’s wife, Ruby. Opened as a public attraction in 1930, Ruby Falls draws thousands of visitors each year.
We parked and entered the “Cavern Castle,” constructed entirely of limestone excavated in the 1920’s when installing the elevator. After purchasing our tickets we waited for the next tour to begin, and soon we were assembled near the elevators to start our descent into the heart of the mountain.
From the elevators it is about ½ mile through a narrow, winding path to the falls. Interesting stalagmite and stalactite formations were marked and illuminated, some more interesting than others. It was about 60˚F underground, warm enough that we could leave our winter coats in the car, and the passage was well-illuminated albeit rather uneven, the largest hazards being a stumble or a bump on the head for us taller folk (or the need to use the facilities, as the closest restroom is back on the surface!). Vilis rode in the backpack carrier, a tight squeeze in a few places but still preferable to carrying him on the hip, and the guide was chatty and knowledgeable while a short video emphasized the historical points of the cave. Finally, some 40 minutes later we arrived at the falls.
Ruby Falls is illuminated by a light show which is automatically turned on and off for the various groups. When we arrived it was off, the waterfall audible but not visible. Once the light show started we had about 5 minutes to jockey for position at the railing to take photographs and admire the falls – then the lights went off and the guide started herding us back. In my opinion the ticket prices to this attraction are rather steep, and although I understand that there must be a high overhead for all employees, insurance, lighting etc., I feel that we should have had a little more time at the falls – it was disappointing to feel rushed. The light show also means that you don’t get the view of the waterfall that is shown in the brochure – instead it is fluorescent purples and pinks and blues – also beautiful, but more emphasis placed on the theatrical rather than natural wonder.
Upon emerging aboveground we climbed the tower to see if the weather had cleared. It hadn’t. However, we had a great view of the solar panels that power LED light show. If it wasn’t raining we could have spent some time on the playground, but as it was we headed down the mountain to find lunch. Ruby Falls has snacks for sale, a ziplining adventure, gem mining for kids and various other side attractions, and they offer special events such as lantern tours, holiday lights and even weddings – see website for details.
While there are dozens of caverns and caves in the region, Lookout Mountain is the only one with such a spectacular waterfall. According to the website, it is the tallest and deepest underground waterfall open to the public. In addition to the great views of the Tennessee River valley, Ruby Falls is on the National Register of Historic Places, a rather famous attraction for almost 100 years. However, the passage to the falls was mostly excavated, so although there were some interesting natural formations, the cave itself didn’t compare to other caves we’ve visited (such as the Cave of Antiparos) – it was the waterfall that made this attraction. Finally, if it weren’t for the super-short time at the falls I would recommend this as a must-see in Chattanooga, however based on our experience I instead suggest this as a rainy-day adventure or an excursion offering something different once you’ve exhausted the outdoors options available on Lookout Mountain.