A visit to Lookout Mountain, particularly Rock City, is a childhood rite of passage. Having first visited as a child myself, I planned a trip for my own kids—ages 7 and 9—earlier this year. When I shared some pictures post-travel with friends and family, the memories started pouring in.
“I went to Rock City when I was their age!” my dad exclaimed.
“I went when I was little and I have crazy vivid memories,” my cousin recalled of the Fairyland Caverns.
“We did the same thing with [our kids] years ago and all your pictures are almost identical,” reminisced a friend.
With such a strong thread of nostalgia, it’s no wonder the call to “See Rock City” is such an iconic image on barns across the south, a trend that began in 1935 to attract Depression-weary travelers in search of family fun.
But there’s more to see on Lookout Mountain than the iconic city of rocks. The entirety of this southeastern ridge of the Cumberland Plateau spans three states, stretching 84 miles from Chattanooga, Tennessee, through northwest Georgia and into northeast Alabama. But the bulk of the area’s attractions is located in the cities of Lookout Mountain, Georgia and Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, right at the state line. With a rich history, iconic tourist sites, a few hidden gems, and an 8-degree temperature drop on average from the valleys below, Lookout Mountain is a cool destination for a day trip this summer.
WHERE TO WANDER
A world-famous tourist attraction and natural marvel, Rock City was first dubbed the “citadel of rocks” by Reverend Daniel S. Butrick, a missionary to the Native Americans on Lookout Mountain, in 1823. During the Civil War, a Union soldier and a Confederate nurse noted the site in separate diary entries, both speculating that you could view seven states from its summit.
But the origins of the attraction today are credited to entrepreneur Garnet Carter and his wife, Frieda. They lavished it with her love of gardening and European folklore before opening it to the public. Today, the park’s ¾-mile Enchanted Trail meanders through unique rock formations, mystical caves and verdant gardens rich with wildflowers. Along the way, my kids made many exclamations of awe, their delight helping me to see it with fresh eyes myself. Highlights include a 90-foot waterfall, the 180-foot Swing-A-Long suspension bridge, Fat Man’s Squeeze, florescent scenes from your favorite stories in Fairyland Cavern, and, at the peak, Lover’s Leap.
This year, Rock City celebrates its 90th anniversary and the succession from fourth- to fifth-generation family ownership. Tickets are available for timed entry and advanced reservations are recommended. Plan for 1 ½ to 2 hours to fully explore here—more if you plan to enjoy lunch at the summit, which offers the full-service Café 7 restaurant and pizza, snacks and ice cream at Cliff Terrace Cafe.
Nearby, another natural wonder awaits at Ruby Falls. Here, visitors will descend 260 feet into the depths of Lookout Mountain to discover the tallest and deepest underground waterfall open to the public in the United States. Your journey begins with a ride down a glass-front elevator, then continues with a guided walk along cavern trails studded with stalactite and stalagmite until you reach the spectacular falls. The cave boasts a year-round temperature of 60 degrees, making it particularly enticing during the summer! Timed tickets are available with advanced reservations. After you explore the depths, soar back to the summit for sweeping views of the Tennessee Valley from the historic limestone Lookout Mountain Tower, grab a bite at the brand-new Castle Café or fly above the trees through the park’s separately ticketed High Point ZIP Adventure.
If you’d rather scale the mountain’s surface, a ride along the Incline Railway is in order. The tracks that traverse “America’s Most Amazing Mile” have been safely transporting passengers up and down Lookout Mountain since 1895. A pair of new railcars with more window space was installed in 2020, providing incredible panoramic views as you head straight up and down—a 72.7 percent grade near the top makes this one of the steepest passenger railways in the world. Purchase a ticket and step aboard at either the top or bottom station for a round-trip ride.
History buffs will also want to visit Point Park, a 10-acre Civil War memorial park overlooking the Lookout Mountain Battlefield, with a paved walking path peppered with historic tablets, monuments, exhibits and an amazing panoramic view.
WHERE TO EAT
If you’re visiting Rock City Friday through Sunday, plan your trip around lunch or dinner at Café 7, the seasonal, full-service restaurant at the summit of Lover’s Leap. Café 7 serves Southern cuisine with a modern twist, regional craft beer, and a complete wine list. Tables on the terrace promise the most breathtaking backdrop while you dine. At Ruby Falls, a new dining experience is set to open this summer at Castle Café, featuring a quick-service menu and beer on tap in a vintage setting.
Over in downtown Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, a quaint Main Street features not one but two spots for refreshment. In the corner building that once housed the town’s grocery in the early 1900s, Café on the Corner welcomes guests with Southern charm. The atmosphere is at once classy and cozy, with white tablecloths and twinkling lights. Try the Front Porch Breeze (Old Dominics Honeybell, St. Germaine, Prosecco and strawberries) with the house-made potato chip “nachos” and save room for dessert—my kids declared the warm chocolate chip skillet cookie the “best part of the trip.” Canopy Coffee & Wine Bar is a community hub offering the local Lookout Mountain experience down the street. A day menu of breakfast specialties, seasonal baked goods and coffeehouse favorites morphs into fine wine and craft beer in the evenings, when the space comes to life with events like trivia night and live music.
WHERE TO SHOP
Shopping options are few in Lookout Mountain, but you’ll certainly find something to commemorate your trip at Rock City Garden Gateway Gift Shop, where you can buy your own birdhouse inviting others to “See Rock City,” a t-shirt or perhaps a kitschy keepsake. (My kids were thrilled to fill a satchel with “gemstones” for just $5!) The Rock City village is also home to the Fudge Kitchen for a sugar fix and Woodland Wonders with ornaments and accessories to adorn your own garden.
Likewise, the Village Gift Shop at Ruby Falls is filled with fun souvenirs, including a rock candy mountain to delight kids of all ages.
WHERE TO STAY
Located just down the road from Rock City, the European-style Chanticleer Inn Bed & Breakfast is striking with its stone-face cottages and more than 2 acres of lush gardens. Most rooms feature private patios and fireplaces, and guests will enjoy bountiful breakfasts and itinerary suggestions during their stay.
For a room with a view, consider the boutique RiverView Inn, nestled into the side of the mountain with amenities like a heated saltwater pool and fire pit.
You can also find plenty of area vacation rentals along “the brow,” homes that seem to cling to the edge of Lookout Mountain and provide even more unsurpassed views of the valleys below.
To plan your day trip to Lookout Mountain, please visit lookoutmountain.com.