Text & Photos By Thomas Wilmer
The Chattanooga Choo Choo—whenever I think of the enchanting riverside city in Tennessee, Glen Miller’s classic, 1940s Big Band hit inevitably starts playing in my mind.
Locals get it too—Even though the distinguished circa-1909 Chattanooga train station no longer serves as a rail depot, its been reincarnated as the historic Choo Choo Hotel. You can even book a room for the night in a railcar. Locals are frequently heard to say, “meet me at the Choo Choo”—and everyone knows they’re not talking about the Little Engine that Could.
It all makes perfect sense, as Chattanooga’s history is tightly interwoven with rail transportation. Rail service predates the Civil War with the completion of the first line to Atlanta in 1850. And it was the city’s strategic rail junction rather than river transportation that spurred the bloody Battle of Chickamauga in the fall of 1863.
Modern day Chattanooga is a trend-setting, happening destination but the legacy of the Civil War and the Battle of Chickamauga remains none-the-less palpable—especially with the legendary battlegrounds such as Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge overlooking the city (six miles from town).
A visit to Chattanooga would not be complete without a visit to the nearby Chickamauga National Battlefield, just across the border in Georgia.
Chattanooga hums with a dynamic, youthful energy that permeates the arts, culture, cuisine, and wide array of outdoor adventure activities—integral factors in the city’s recognition as one of America’s most livable cities by National Geographic Explorer Magazine.
The awesome annual Riverbend Festival draws more than 80,000 people per night throughout its nine-day run every June. The festival attracts major headliners—such as the Beach Boys and Huey Lewis and the News performing the two evenings we attended last summer.
Since Riverbend’s inception in 1982 stellar performers such as Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Alabama, Ricky Scaggs, and the Pointer Sisters have rocked the house. Actually it’s not a house but a cool outdoor venue overlooking the Tennessee River. In addition to the packed throngs lounging on the lawns and bleacher seats, you’ll find an armada of yachts, speedboats, and sail-craft hugging the shoreline for up close, waterborne listening and gyrating.
But wait, there’s more! For five months each year you can also catch the Nightfall Concert series, Riverfront Nights’ Music Series as well as the Southern Brewers’ Festival, not to mention the year-round live music performances at Rhythm & Brews.
If museums, galleries, and aquariums get your attention, Chattanooga will keep you hopping for days.
The Tennessee Aquarium, situated steps from the Tennessee River, is ranked among America’s top ten and houses the world’s largest freshwater aquarium.
Kids squeal with delight and parents are equally enthralled with the world-class displays of penguins, sharks, barracuda, stingray, jellyfish and much more. The Aquarium is home to a 3D Imax theater and also operates the River Gorge Explorer high-speed catamaran for up close, naturalist-narrated ecological explorations along the Tennessee River.
For pure unadulterated evening-time entertainment and romance, definitely sign up for the Southern Belle (paddle-wheel-style) Riverboat dinner cruise.
For pure fun book a combination land and river cruise aboard one of the Chattanooga Ducks’ military-style amphibious vehicles…and yes, you’ll be issued your own personal squeaking rubber-ducky—just like they do in D.C.
If you want a really up-close and personal river experience, the City of Chattanooga Recreation Department offers excellent, regularly scheduled, reasonably priced, guided Tennessee River kayak explorations.
A bonus is the convenient put-in location right in the heart of town. You can easily walk from your city-center hotel across the Walnut Street Bridge (the world’s largest pedestrian bridge) and start paddling away within minutes.
The trendsetting bicycle-friendly city is ranked among America’s “Top 50 most bike friendly towns” by Bicycling Magazine. Be sure to check out the “Biker’s Dozen” series of 13 scenic cycling-routes through Tennessee Valley’s back roads.
Chattanooga is an incredibly compact, and walkable town. The city’s $120 million 21st Century Waterfront Project included installation of excellent pedestrian pathways.
The Hunter Museum of American Art is a mandatory stop for those interested in classic and contemporary American artists. Recent exhibitions have included Norman Rockwell’s paintings, Dorothea Lange’s photography and a stunning showcase of Civil War photography.
At the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, you will learn about the incredible achievements and pathos of the city’s African American citizens, from physicians to musicians, Hollywood actors, and baseball stars such as Willy Mays who commenced his career playing for the Negro Southern League’s Chattanooga Choo Choos while still in high school in 1947.
Ah, and then there’s the unique International Towing & Recovery Museum and Hall of Fame where you will discover how tow truck drivers have performed life-saving roles over the years.
Awaiting your tow-truck tour are legends such as the 1913 Locomobile tow truck valued at more than one million dollars, a mammoth WWII military wrecker, and Big Daddy (built in 1961), the world’s strongest tow truck, along with the legendary Colorado based “Repo-Man” tow truck—retooled from a 1965 Cadillac sedan. Don’t miss the “Tow Truck Wall of Fame” portrait gallery where many of America’s most illustrious tow truck drivers are honored for their services and sacrifices.
Frankly, when I first arrived in Chattanooga, I really did not know what to expect. I discovered a city with an amazing array of tempting things to do and see and a mere taste is showcased in this story.
I departed Chattanooga totally smitten with the incredibly beautiful, friendly, and charming riverside town—so much so that I have subsequently found myself repeatedly daydreaming about moving to Chattanooga.
Cool Things to Do and See in and around Chattanooga
One-Stop Chattanooga web surfing for annual events, attractions, accommodations, vacation packages and every activity listed above: www.chattanoogafun.com
Bluff View Arts District
Pencil in time for a leisurely stroll, possibly a little shopping, and a meal or two in the Bluff View Arts District. Here you will discover art galleries, antique emporiums and fine-dining establishments ensconced in elegant century-old stone, brick, and shingle sided mansions with magisterial vistas the Tennessee River.
The area is easily walkable from downtown along the 12-mile long Riverwalk pathway that wends right through the heart of Bluff View Arts District. And a tantalizing place to spend the night is the Bluff View Inn B&B ensconced in a most elegant mansion.
The Creative Discovery Museum
Regarded as one of the nation’s premier children’s museums, the interactive learning center offers captivating art, music and science activities for children of all ages.
Whitewater rafting on the Ocoee River
The Ocoee River, the site of the 1996 Olympic kayak events, is just 40 minutes from downtown Chattanooga. But it’s a world away as you race downstream through awesome class four rapids—with expert guides at the helm, of course.
Tennessee Valley Railroad
Daily train journeys aboard restored vintage passenger cars depart daily mid-March through Octobers with weekend only service in November. Ride across the same rail bed that served the Civil War soldiers, and pass through tunnels that predate the “War of Northern Aggression”.
Take a mile-high trip on the world’s steepest passenger railway to the top of Lookout Mountain where you can visit Ruby Falls cave. Situated 1,000 feet underground the caverns are rated as one of the top seven Natural Attractions in the United States.
After your spelunking adventure, take a spin on Ruby Falls’ ZIPstream Aerial Adventure—a fun obstacle course consisting of ladders through the trees, across bridges, through tunnels and of course cool zip lines. Ruby Falls: www.rubyfalls.com
Lookout Mountain Incline Railroad: www.ridetheincline.com
Hailed as “America’s Most Amazing Mile” the incredible railroad climbs the near vertical-face of Lookout Mountain in less than 15 minutes. A favorite tourist activity since the rail line was instituted in 1895, the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway was proclaimed a National Historic Site in 1974 by the United States Department of Interior. Once topside, you can stand on the very same spot as General U.S. Grant.
A trip to Lookout Mountain would not be complete without a stroll through the lush gardens that showcase more than 400 indigenous plant species set amidst meandering pathways and massive rock out formations. From Rock City’s dramatic vista overlook you can see seven states.
Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park
Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia
Encompassing 5,300 acres, the Chickamauga Battlefield includes monuments exhibits and a seven-mile cell phone audio tour. Plan an extra hour or two for a tour of the Visitor Center where an excellent orientation video brings the battlefield to life.
The 3,000-acre Lookout Mountain Battlefield maintains a Visitor Center specifically focused on the skirmishes and battles for primacy of the strategic mountaintop.
The two-day battle, September 19-20 1863, was the last major victory for the Confederate forces, and Chickamauga is forever etched as the bloodiest two days in American history.
Listen to Chip Baker with Riverbend Festival and Carlo Smith from Adventures Unlimited whitewater rafting on the Ocoee River.