When I first heard the name Chattanooga, I didn’t think anything of it.
“Ah, Chattanooga Choo Choo”- someone said.
“Huh?” I replied.
Where is it? In Tennessee? What’s there to do? Sounds like a middle of nowhere.
Oh boy was I DEAD WRONG! I laugh now. Seriously, I laugh out loud when I think of my first reaction to the name and its location. It shows you how our preconceived notions of things (based on lack of experience) are often very wrong.
Chattanooga, TN blew my mind. It blew Lexi’s mind. It impressed everyone who joined us on that trip. I am still in touch with the locals there and every time we speak, I long to go back there. I want to visit it again with Lexi, I want to go alone, I want to go with friends. I want to see it in the summer, spring and fall (we went during winter).
When thinking of Chattanooga, TN one can’t come up with much but trains and rarely do we think of it as a family or kid-friendly destination. It can’t be further from the truth. We spent a few days there and left wishing there was more time to explore.
If you are within driving distance to Chattanooga (and it’s close to a lot of states), plan a trip this summer. I promise, if you follow the activities I will describe here, you will not be disappointed and neither will your kids.
Our first day’s activities were my personal favorite from the visual standpoint. I have been really into nature photography as I travel to various destinations and this “wonder” was exactly what I was looking for and more.
Our first living cave experience (and Lexi’s first cave experience overall), Ruby Falls left me breathless (I am not exaggerating). It’s a cave that leads to an underground waterfall (yes, you read that right) that is 145 feet tall and is located 1,120 feet underground. The story of the discovery of the cave is phenomenal and will interest not only adults but small kids too. Lexi talked about the cave, the waterfall and the story she heard from our cave guide for months after.
After exploring the underground world and its amazing sculptures and walking for a long time (but not too long that a preschooler would get tired), we got stopped at the entrance to the waterfall to prepare for the sight. We could hear the water rushing and the humidity level rise. Then we stepped into the dark cavern. A few seconds later, the show began. A massive colorfully lit waterfall appeared before our eyes. With uplifting music and changing colors, it was glittering and glistening and dancing for what seemed like 10 minutes. And then it was over.
It left all of us in absolute awe, standing there with our mouths open. I will never forget that feeling. I walked away with a lump in my chest (and I am far from an impressionable, emotional person). I wanted to just stay there, alone, for hours. But we had to go. Wow, even describing it now, it’s making me short of breath.
Leaving the store, Lexi picked up a little lantern (thank you Candace), and has been using it at nights with her every time we travel.
We went up the stairs to the Look Out Point where you can see the Tennessee river and Chattanooga. While the kids played at the playground, we looked around the area. Apparently there is a zip line going through that part of the mountain that runs in the summer. It’s not something to be missed.
As I am writing about this and am full of emotion, I didn’t realize quite what an impression Chattanooga left on me.
Our next stop was Rock City
A beautiful collaboration between man and nature, Rock City is like a walking trail with beautiful sights and sounds and a museum of human creativity all in one. It’s hard to describe exactly what it is and photos come closer but don’t do it as much justice either. Imagine a huge rock garden, with steep cliffs and narrow passageways, flowers, fairytales, overlooks and gazebos, swinging bridges, balancing rocks and waterfalls. That’s probably the only way to describe everything that you get to see on this little adventure.
There was so much to experience here. These are the things that really jumped out at me:
Balancing rock – A rock that looks like it is being balanced on the edge and needs our help to hold it up. See? We helped.
Fairy Garden – A beautiful creation of traditional fairy tales set in one of the caves, painted with glow in the dark paint and lit up to bring them to life. It was great walking through and trying to recognize each story based on the display
Seven States Marker – From this overlook you can see all seven states surrounding Chattanooga.
Rainbow Tunnel – No comment needed. See gorgeous photo below!
Waterfall – One of the three waterfalls we saw during our trips. They never cease to amaze me.
Fat Man Squeeze – This fun little walk isn’t for the claustrophobic. The kids loves running through it, adults are more tentative. No one wants to get stuck there but it’s fun for all.
Us, bloggers and media, doing what we do best.
Animals Animals Animals
Chattanooga has, by far, the best aquarium we have encountered. Not being a fan of passively watching animals, whether they are sea or land ones, the Tennessee Aquarium was a pleasure to visit. From the behind the scenes tours and viewings where the girls (Lexi had a travel buddy with her) just absolutely burst into laughter over every little thing, to nicely marked exhibits with explanations that were interesting to read to a 4 year old as well as an adult.
There are three exhibits that stick in my mind as something out of the ordinary:
The Penguin Habitat – Lexi loved this one. The penguins jumped and played and raced and stopped to look at her as she watched them have fun.
The Underwater Exhibit – A cave like area with aquarium and sea life swimming all around you. They actually host sleepovers there, which sounds pretty amazing!
Jellyfish Rooms – Those rooms were unreal. The variety of jelly fish and the see-through tanks in the dark felt like something out of a movie. I wish we could have explored it a lot more before moving onto our next activity.
It wasn’t anything too special. It was a good small zoo. However, one thing that did stand out was the train themed exhibits containing with the choo-choo heritage of Chattanooga.
We rode Camel, rode a carousel, and experienced some behind-the-scenes tours. It was fun, cold but fun.
On day three we finally made it to the trains. I’m not a train person but Lexi had a blast visiting the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum. The girls sat in the train car, ate lollipops and then went onto exploring the real Choo Choo, which is a hotel and restaurant. This was the perfect activity for these little friends. Lexi wasn’t particularly interested in the museum itself. It would be more suited for older kids or kids fascinated with trains, but she had fun riding the train. It would also be fun to stay overnight in one of these cars, the girls certainly thought so.
Creative Discovery Museum
The Creative Discovery Museum was fabulous. It had two stories of amazing exhibits that make me want to visit Chattanooga and stay there for a week so that Lexi could truly explore it. My favorite was the Recording Studio where all the kids pretended to be recording artists (Lexi sang) and the Dino Bone Pit. Children who live in Chattanooga are certainly lucky. There was also a huge suspended maze that spanned two stories. I wasn’t yet comfortable letting Lexi run around unattended there, so she didn’t get to go all the way.
Southern Belle Boat Ride
Southern Belle is a large river boat that takes you on a journey through Tennessee. It’s large enough that kids can walk around, exploring or pretending to be pirates like ours did. We were even allowed to go into the captain’s cabin.
High Point Climbing and Fitness
Our last day was surprisingly exciting. We went indoor rock climbing. Apparently Chattanooga is one of the best places to go bouldering and rock climbing in the great outdoors, but since we were there with our children and we were not experienced, our trip concluded at High Point Climbing and Fitness. To say that I loved it would not even describe how much fun I had. Lexi was tentative at first, but once she fully learned that she could trust the harness, it was hard to tear her away from it. In fact, she quickly moved onto bouldering and was climbing there without the support of the harness and then jumping off. The gym had walls and walls of different climbing levels and even an outdoor climbing area where you are literally climbing around on the building’s outside wall above the busy street below. I can’t wait for our next visit there!
I truly fell in love with Chattanooga. When anyone asks me where I would recommend taking their preschooler to around the US, I without hesitation recommend Chattanooga. Yes, it might not have the beaches of Florida or the glamour of California or the excitement of New York, or hippiness of Portland, but it has the most child friendly, unique, and interesting activities that will truly engage even the youngest ones. It’s not the old and tired discovery center and farmer’s market. It’s truly educational and experiential entertainment for kids of all ages. I can’t wait to go back and I hope that you take my advice and visit the area, even if for a just a few days.
Some photos in this post are courtesy of Logan Foll via Foll Exposures