The story below is an excerpt from our Sept./Oct. 2015 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
Kitschy roadside attractions meld with a hip, urban downtown in the revitalized city with a whole new feel.
It’s a chilly fall morning when Mark Baldwin, owner of L2 Outside in Chattanooga, walks a couple of girlfriends and me across the street from his shop, each of us lugging a stand-up paddleboard (SUP), to a launch point on the Tennessee River just below the Tennessee Aquarium. I’m decked out in a stocking cap, windbreaker and gloves, and suddenly wondering why I decided a 40-degree October morning would be a good time for my first-ever SUP lesson. I mean…if I fall off, the river is not going to be warm…
But somehow I’ve been goaded into this experiment by Kate and Amanda, SUP newbies as well. A long-time and dedicated kayaker, I am trying to figure out why I’d want to navigate a river while basically balancing on a surfboard when I can sit down in a relatively stable kayak and cover the same surface just as fast with a lot less danger of spilling myself into icy water.
But here I am, Baldwin steadying my board, as I climb on, knees first, and basically “doggie paddle” my way away from the dock. He’s telling me to go ahead and stand up, to imagine I am doing yoga, focus my energy in my core, look straight ahead, and gradually lift off my knees. It takes me a few tries, a few squeals of terror, but finally I’m standing, and shifting my long paddle from one side to the other, chasing my girlfriends across the water, as we head toward Audubon Island.
See Rock City...and Other Stuff
Stand up paddleboarding is only one among many relatively new additions to this mountain city on the Tennessee River that has undergone so much revitalization in the last two decades. It’s barely recognizable to me from when I visited long ago in childhood, taking in Chattanooga as part of a classic family road trip of over-the-top attractions, compelled forward by all the red, white and black signs shouting “See Rock City!” No place in the U.S. has perhaps been more immortalized in classic roadside advertising save perhaps South Dakota’s Wall Drug.
And don’t worry, despite its newly hip downtown, Chattanooga still delivers on the funky, awe-inspiring, and nostalgic trappings of yesteryear, too. And you might as well start atop Lookout Mountain, part of Chattanooga’s Pie in the Sky Trail, where you’ll find the more than 80-year-old roadside attraction of Rock City Gardens, a half natural and half man-made maze of cliffs, canyons, caves and waterfalls.
Then travel down the side of Lookout Mountain on the Incline Railway, which drops from the top of the mountain to its base, offering long views of Chattanooga and the Tennessee River that curls through downtown.
Once you’ve explored the top of Lookout Mountain you can head inside it with a visit to Ruby Falls, the highest underground waterfall in America (as far as anyone knows anyway). While there is a bit of the kitschy about it, at least when it comes to the guided cave tour you have to take to get to the falls, it’s worth it. An easy mile-long walk will take you to pure visual delight—a 75-foot streaming waterfall cascading from the ceiling in a spray of ever-changing light. The falls are now also home to ZIPstream Aerial Adventure with its obstacle course suspended from trees, which also play host to narrow climbing ladders, nets, tunnels and, of course, zip lines.