Anyone that has ever traveled through the south, especially along the I-24 corridor through Georgia and Tennessee, has seen the signs painted on barn roofs and sides along the way. See Rock City! the ads proclaim in large white block letters on a black background. And thousands of people each year do.
I had last been there when my kids were small, but this weekend my wife and I decided to take a trip from our home in Nashville a couple of hours south to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to see the great aquarium there, and then go back to Rock City and see if it still held some charms for a couple of adults in their late fifties.
Rock City, up on top of Lookout Mountain just a short distance from downtown Chattanooga, is one of those classic roadside attractions that used to be everywhere in the forties and fifties before the interstates passed them by and forced most of them to close. Somehow, Rock City survived, and today it still has the classic ambiance of a place from a bygone time.
I love it because it reminds me of roadside stops my family made when I was a kid, at places where we could climb on giant cement fairy tale figures or ride on miniature trains. Rock City still has lots of old-timey looking gnomes and other figures that were probably enchanting to kids in the old days (the place opened in 1932)—but must be kind of hokey to today’s children raised on video games and special effects at the movies.
The Fat Man's Squeeze
But the thing I love about Rock City is the labyrinth of immense, 200 million year-old boulders, and the pathways down through the narrow gorges where they have separated, surrounded by lush plantings of rhododendrons, azaleas, and other native flowers. The natural stone is augmented by bridges, trails, and overlooks that must have taken hundreds of stone masons years to complete.
At the end of a winding path through the building-sized giant rocks, you come to several vantage points at the top of a sheer cliff, where the signs claim you can see seven states on a clear day. I don’t know about that, but I could certainly see all of Chattanooga and for many miles beyond, even on a hazy summer day. An engineered waterfall tumbled from the promontory to a pool hundreds of feet below.
The overlooks were crowded with tourists from all over the world—I saw Germans and several East Indian and Middle Eastern families, who seemed incongruous in the midst of such a kitschy piece of Americana. Interspersed with the last-century stonework were accommodations to modern times, such as a fake-rock climbing wall and a place to buy “Dippin’ Dots” the “Ice Cream of the Future!”, and at an amphitheatre nearby, there was a lecture featuring live predatory birds such as owls and a bald eagle.
On our way out, we climbed down the steps into the “Fairyland Cavern,” with its walls lined with pyrite, giant crystals of quartz, and other shiny stones. Further down were grottoes with fairy scenes, which brought me straight back to the 1950’s in my mind. We left, and drove the winding road down from the mountain feeling glad that in this frenetic modern world, there are still things that do not change.
And we even bought a birdhouse in the gift shop with a roof that says, See Rock City!