It's time for a weekend in Appalachia!
Nestled deep in the southernmost stretches of the Tennesseean Smokey Mountains, almost exactly on the Georgia border, sits Chattanooga. Regionally, Chattanooga is well known as both a charming mountain town, as well as an amazing jumping-off point to the surrounding wilderness. This makes it a prominent stop-over and hub for America's outdoorsmen (and women). As you can probably guess, Chattanooga can be quite a crunchy town. However, on this trip, we're not going to be doing any hiking.
This article is the first in a 2-part series about Chattanooga. The 2nd article will focus on all the great bars, restaurants, and coffee shops that Chattanooga has to offer, but before we get to any of that, an introduction is in order...
An Introduction To Chattanooga, TN
With a population of just 179,139 (as of 2017), Chattanooga is the 4th largest city in the state of Tennessee, behind Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville. It's just over a 2 hour drive southeast from Nashville, and is a relatively short commute to other major metropolitan areas such as Atlanta and Huntsville. The biggest sectors of Chattanooga’s economy are automotive manufacturing, shipping, and logistics, which are all quite industrial. However, this came as sort of a surprise to me given how quickly the “hipster” demographic is taking control of Chattanooga. This place is a serious contender to become Appalachia’s Brooklyn in 10 years, but it’s true identity is never really going to change.
Since the days of the American frontier, Chattanooga has been a regional hub, with major roads and railways running through its heart. The old trade routes still play a major part in the city’s economy to this day, even as the world around it continues to change. Indeed, Chattanooga remains an industrial transit hub to a certain extent, but much of its extensive railway infrastructure is just collecting moss these days. Here’s a map for some context:
So without further ado, let’s get to ‘sloring! Here are a few Chattanooga landmarks that you’ll definitely want to visit if you ever find yourself in this neck of the woods.
The Chattanooga Choo Choo
When it comes to tourist attractions in Chattanooga, the first thing people tend to bring up is the Chattanooga Choo Choo. It sounds like something made up for a children's TV show, but I can assure you that it is very much real. Indeed, the Chattanooga Choo Choo is Chattanooga's central historic train station. Historically, it was operated by the Southern Railway System, but today it actually functions as a hotel. Originally built in 1898 in the Beaux-Arts style, the building was (and still is) one of the most elaborate structures in Chattanooga. The inside of the hotel looks like something that would be out of Jay Gatsby’s vacation to the Smokey Mountains. It all feels very much “as it was”… except for the trendy coffee shop that has moved into one of their main spaces. That coffee shop is not pictured below, although I will admit that it’s pretty cool.
So that all looks pretty fancy, but the hotel itself might not be what you are expecting. You see, at the time when this train station was built, passenger trains were the best way to travel around the region. Chattanooga’s status as a railway hub made this station a staple for travel across this region, but after WWII, America’s infrastructure and automobiles had a reached a new level of comfort and accessibility, making it more common to travel by car than by train. And just like that, travel by train around the U.S. became a thing of the past. So, in a historical homage, the rooms of the Chattanooga Choo Choo are actually restored train cars. The trains are parked out back, and look like something out of Thomas the Tank Engine. Not all of these trains have been restored, but the ones that have looked pretty damn cozy! You can book a “room” here.
Hunter Museum of American Art
The Hunter Museum of American Art was not a place that I knew anything about prior to arriving in Chattanooga. It wasn’t on our list of things to do and see, but it was a gray, rainy day, so we rolled the dice and decided to pay the $15.00 required for entry. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I actually really liked this place! So let me tell you about it.
The museum originally opened in 1952, and was housed in the mansion once occupied by Abram Garfield (son of President James Garfield). In 1975, an extension of the museum was built in the brutalist architectural style. And then, in 2005, another addition was built with a distinctly modern aesthetic, which now serves as the entrance to the museum. So, if you’ve been counting, this place is now composed of three (3) sections, which look nothing like each other. Here’s a bird’s eye view from Google Maps to show you what I mean. I’ll bet you can guess which section is which based on this.
So here are some photos from inside the museum, starting from the modernist section on the left side of the building. Through the window you will see the 19th century mansion attached to this space. The juxtaposition is extremely stark, to the point that I’m not sure if I would have done it in the same way, but putting that aside, each structure is still very cool. Er, well, 2 of the 3 are. I could do without the brutalist concrete block opposite the museum entrance. But that’s just me.
The Hunter Museum of American Art, unlike what you may have come to expect from art museums, showcases American art exclusively. Specifically, their collection includes the Hudson River School, the Ashcan School American Impressionism, early Modernism, Regionalism, and post-World War II Modern / Contemporary Art. I’m not sure that I had ever been in a museum with such a specific focus on “domestic goods.” As an outsider in the art world, I have observed a heavy focus on European artists. It was cool to see so much great stuff created by people from my own country.
I doubt you would have had any trouble guessing, but the top row of images are from inside the Garfield mansion. The rest were taken in more modern spaces. We had a great time here, so whether its a rainy day or not, I’d definitely recommend you give this place a try. Here’s some of what you can expect to see…
The Tennessee Aquarium isn’t just one of the best aquariums in the region; it’s one of the best in the whole country! And it’s in lil’ old Chattanooga. I actually came here as a kid once as a pit stop on a road trip, but I don’t remember much. So this is about to be (mostly) new for both of us!
Here’s a few quick facts for you about the Tennessee Aquarium.
Opened in 1992
Home to 12,000(ish) animals
Home to 800(ish) unique species
Visitor #20 million was in March 2013
Admission for adults costs $29.95
However, none of the above even includes the IMAX theater they have here. Built in 2005 as an addition to the aquarium, this massive movie theater plays a steady schedule of dramatic nature-related films. You can buy a ticket to the aquarium for $11.95 and you can buy a ticket for both the aquarium and IMAX combined for 37.95. We chose to only visit the aquarium though.
The complex is broken up into two pieces: “River Journey” and “Ocean Journey,” both of which are very cool. I’ll start with a gallery from our walk through River Journey. The habitats that they have recreated here were clearly blowing the minds of the children that were walking through with their parents, and even as an adult, it was still all pretty dang cool.
Next we went through Ocean Journey. This one included a lot of non-aquatic animals up front, like lemurs from Madagascar and an entire room packed with butterflies, but after a few minutes of walking, we were immersed deep in a complex of darkened room housing illuminated aquariums full of marine life from every corner of the globe and every Oceanic environment imaginable. I recommend. Here are some pictures:
I’ll introduce you to Lookout Mountain next, but for right now, all you need to know about it is that it’s THE defining piece of landscape in Chattanooga. The city of Chattanooga extends about as far up the slopes of Lookout Mountain as it is possible to go. However, eventually the slopes become so steep that civilization is briefly reduced to cliff-side roads. It’s a relatively quick drive to the top of the mountain, but arriving by car is not the only option.
Chattanooga’s famous Incline Railway is a train that, quite literally, goes straight up the side of the mountain. From the train station in Chattanooga’s historic (and low-elevation) neighborhood of St. Elmo, the train tracks look like a roller coaster, shooting straight upwards towards the top of the mountain. With a maximum grade of 72.7%, it claims to be the steepest passenger railway in the world. If it hasn’t clinched the top slot, it’s damn close! Indeed, this route is so steep that the train has been made specially for it, built at an angle so that passengers will be sitting straight up as normal when the tracks are at their steepest. It feels quite natural from the side of the mountain, but to see this train arrive in the station at the bottom of the mountain, it looks like somebody took a regular train and italicized it.
A ticket up to the top and then back down costs $15.00 for adults. Depending on the day and time, you might be looking at wait times of up to a few hours at these train stations, but once you have managed to board, it’s only about a 10 minute ride to the top. The train has a glass ceiling so that, as the grade of the rails increases in severity, you will be able to see out over Chattanooga. It was really cool to have done this once but I don’t think I’d do it again. Here are some pictures I took to try and encapsulate the experience:
Lookout Mountain & Point Park
Yup, this is where the Incline Railway goes up to.
Point Park is about a 5 minute walk from the train station at the top of the mountain.
Standing at 2,389 feet tall, Lookout Mountain (as you can probably guess) looks out over Chattanooga, among other places. However, it also has some cool history behind it. In 1794, it was the scene of the “Last Battle of Cherokees,” in which the Cherokees were defeated by American frontiersmen at the conclusion of the a long series of battles known as the “Nickajack Expedition.” Then, in 1863, it was the site of the Civil War “Battle of Lookout Mountain,” which yielded a Confederate defeat. The Battle is also known as the “Battle Above the Clouds” because inclement weather enveloped the whole mountain in thick fog. That’s a pretty epic scene to imagine! Those are a few deep cuts from American history class, but I didn’t come here for the history, I came here for the view. And the best place on Lookout Mountain to see out over the city is from Point Park.
Point Park was christened in 1905 to commemorate the Battle Above the Clouds. Inside the park, there are lots of memorials to soldiers who fought on both sides of the war. For instance, the New York Peace Memorial depicts a Confederate and a Union soldier shaking hands. But again, we were just here for the view.
If you’re a frequent reader, you may have picked up on my obsession with finding these sorts of high vantage points to photograph the sun setting over wherever I happen to be. In Chattanooga, I was getting a little desperate. We had set out a little too late, and found ourselves wheeling up narrow mountain roads, with the light quickly changing. I did some jogging around in the field on the edge of the cliff, but I still wasn’t satisfied with the view. So we went further down the road, eventually ending up here in Point Park. It was a cold, wet night in late October, and the park turned out to be closed. I deliberated for a few moments and then just went ahead an hopped the fence. The resulting photos weren’t my best work, but I’m definitely glad to have captured them.
Previously, that’s where this article ended… but at the time of my original trip to Chattanooga, I had such a long backlog of articles waiting to be published, that I was more than a year away from being able to push this article live. So it sat around collecting dust for a while. Then, about a year later, I came back to Chattanooga with my camera and came back up to the top of Lookout Mountain. This time is was about 2pm on a crisp day in mid-October, so the following sequence of photos should give you a better feel for Lookout Mountain and Point Park.
Chattanooga! It’s no New York City, but it’s got a strong regional charm to it nevertheless. It’s exactly what you want Appalachia to be, and the more I learn about the history surrounding this place, the more that sentiment is reinforced. I came down here from Nashville and had an awesome time here! I wouldn’t hesitate to make the trip again.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m not done telling you about THIS trip yet. In the next article, I hope you will let me take you through some of the best bars, restaurants, and coffee shops that we found in our time here. Until then, let me leave with this song from Jon Foreman. I think you’ll see exactly why I picked it.