When Leo Lambert first discovered Ruby Falls, he described it as being “like discovering God. At first it is very dark, scary, and uncertain. You don’t know what lies ahead.”
Venturing through caverns nearly a century after Lambert, things are a bit less uncertain – campy tour guides lead you down the well-worn paths, coming up with stories about each of the theatrically illuminated natural formations.
“The Angel’s Wing,” “The Elephant,” even “Bacon Slab” – even without the special effects, it must have been an experience to be the first human to see these features, discovered when the entrepeneuring Lambert was installing an elevator to carry tourists to the top of Lookout Mountain on the southern border of Tennessee.
Soon after the discovery (as the tour guide will tell you), Lambert dragged his wife though the caverns to the awe-inspiring 145-foot waterfall buried in the heart of the mountain. The route wasn’t as friendly back then, and he decided that after crawling and climbing through mud and over rock, Ruby deserved to have the falls named in her honor.
Today, the trek to see the falls is an unforgettable experience, though probably less of a challenge than finding the exit to the gift shop.
Before taking in Rock City, Chattanooga’s other major “tourist trap,” Sugar’s Ribs is a great place for lunch. With live music blaring through its downtown doors, Sugar’s is exciting and inviting. Portions are large, and an array of sauces sit at your table waiting to smother the falling-off-the-bone ribs. The relaxed, friendly environment is highlighted by a liquor shelf so massive it sports a rolling 10-foot ladder so bartenders can reach the more elevated bourbon bottles.
You might've seen birdhouses or barns painted with the three simple words “SEE ROCK CITY” – it's such an accepted piece of Americana, however, that you may not even have noticed it. But it is something you really ought to see (despite attaining a level of kitschiness that makes Ruby Falls seem like High Culture).
Frieda and Garnet Carter opened it as a tourist attraction in 1932, hoping to draw people into the natural rock boulevards, caves and lookouts they adorned with gnomes and fairy tale scenes. Business was slow until their marketing campaign of barn painting and birdhouse giveaways brought tourists flocking from across the nation.
Winding, gardened paths meander around and over giant boulders, creating a whimsical feel as visitors squeeze through the “Needle’s Eye,” past “Gnome Valley,” to “Lover’s Leap” where you can view seven states, and culminating in “Fairyland Caverns.”
While Garnet was busy fashioning (according to legend) the first-ever mini-golf course, Frieda was hard at work creating a winding path through the cave adorned with dioramas of Little Miss Muffet, Jack and the Beanstalk, and other childhood classics (now illuminated in blacklight).
The caverns themselves are quite an experience, and a fitting end to such a fantastical journey. Oh, and the birdhouses are still available in the giftshop – for sale, of course.