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If you've ever driven around the South, you've probably seen one of the 900 or so aging barns plastered with six-foot-high letters urging you to "SEE ROCK CITY." Chances are, you chalked it up to another roadside ad campaign (a la South of the Border, Stuckey's, or Mail Pouch Tobacco) and kept driving.
If so, you missed a visit to one of the South's most popular family fun spots. Rock City is a quirky mountaintop park peeking through the clouds above Chattanooga, the metropolis that gave us the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, Moon Pies, Miniature Golf, and the great Bessie Smith.
Nestled in a bend of the Tennessee River, this historic city was also the site of the Civil War's decisive "Battle Above the Clouds," on towering Lookout Mountain. Now, it's a bustling tourist attraction, with scenic views, lush parks, bridges, window-shopping, museums, and the world's largest fresh-water aquarium.
When in Chattanooga, go up Lookout Mountain. It's a rule, or it should be. Make your ascent on the aptly named Incline, the world's steepest passenger railway. Never mind time-wasting switchbacks. This choo-choo cranks straight up the 2,120-foot mountain in 15 minutes, reaching an angle of more than 72 dizzying degrees.
You've gone up the mountain; now go inside it. A drive up the "hill" on Scenic Highway will bring you to Ruby Falls, a spectacular series of caverns culminating in a 145-foot underground waterfall. Warn the kids in advance that the waterfall is not actually red, it's just named after a woman named Ruby. Even so, it's still cool.
Now you get to obey those ubiquitous barn signs. Take a three-mile drive over to the Georgia side of the mountain to Rock City. This park of massive rock formations and gardens is not new -- it's even a little goofy -- but it's irresistible. Slither through narrow rock crevices at Fat Man's Squeeze, or step gingerly across the Swing-Along cable bridge, where you'll be rewarded by a view of seven states from Lover's Leap.
Before embarking on the riverfront part of your trip, stop by the Visitor's Center at Ross' Landing Park for maps and a changing selection of money-saving coupons for local attractions:
Type of trip: Outdoor, scenic, educational
Best ages: Four and up
Ideal trip length: Weekend
Distance: Atlanta (117 miles); Nashville (133 miles); Birmingham, AL (147 miles)
Best time to go: Fall, when leaves are changing.
Weather: Mild in winter (52/30 degrees), but July and August can hit a humid 90 degrees F. Any time of year, bring umbrellas -- rain clouds can hang over the mountains for several days at a time.
Lodging: Campgrounds), budget motels, historic inns, or double-bedded berth in a train car at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo.
Squirm factor: None
Tennessee Aquarium One Broad St. Phone: 800-262-0695
Creative Discovery Museum 4th and Chestnut Phone: 423-756-2738
Hunter Museum of American Art 10 Bluff View Phone: 423-267-0968
A combination ticket allows discounted admittance to all three attractions:
Chattanooga Visitors Information 2 Broad Street Phone: 800-322-3344
Bea's Restaurant 4500 Dodds Ave., Lookout Mountain Phone: 423-867-3618 Note: For no-frills down-home cooking, Bea's is hard to beat. Serve yourself from lazy Susans at large tables you'll share with another family.
Best souvenir: A plush river otter backpack available at the Aquarium shop. Your kids will get a useful souvenir and help endangered species at the same time.
Traffic alert: Fog is common on Lookout Mountain and necessitates extra care when driving.
Glenn Miller made the Chattanooga Choo-Choo famous in his hit song of the same name. Now, you can see the famous Track 29 in all its revitalized glory. (Ride the free, electric shuttle bus downtown from the riverfront at Ross' Landing.) The grand old station has been polished up and retrofitted with enough train-themed eateries and souvenir stands to delight your junior engineers. Chattanooga Choo-Choo 1400 Market St.
Families with older kids should skip the Choo-Choo chow palaces and walk a block to Southside Grill. In this converted 19th-century brick warehouse, you'll fill up on such inventive Southern dishes as thick-cut pork chops stuffed with blue cheese and hominy. Southside Grill 1400 Cowart St. Phone: 423-266-6511
For even more locomotion, hop on the summertime express train (in spring and fall, drive out on Hwy 153, about 15 minutes) from the Choo-Choo to the Tennessee Valley Railroad, a museum with the largest operating historic railroad in the South, You can ride a vintage steam locomotive through the 985-foot Missionary Ridge Tunnel. Tennessee Valley Railroad Grand Junction Depot, Cromwell Rd Phone: 423-894-8028
Reviewed April 2004.