Southeast

A Taste of Tennessee

From Nashville to Chattanooga, You’ll Find that RVing Opportunities, Family Adventures Abound

The 128-mile trek from Chattanooga to Nashville offers a rich concentration of what makes Tennessee a great destination for family fun: a patchwork of natural wonders, hands-on history, and urban adventure.

From the lively Country Music Capital to quiet Civil War Battlefields, from high-mountain lakes to a big city aquarium, from elegant plantations to messy, down-home barbecue, Tennessee is full of intriguing contrasts – and surprises.

When Bill Carey brought his 6-year-old son on a trip to Chattanooga this year, he knew there would be plenty of appeal for the youngster. From the sprawling Tennessee Aquarium in downtown Chattanooga to the Creative Discoveries Children’s Museum, just blocks away, to catching a baseball game, there was no shortage of amusements.

But to Carey’s surprise, it was a “pile of rocks” that proved to be the biggest hit with his son.

Rock City, a series of pathways cut among 14 acres of massive stone boulders and 400 species of plants, flowers and shrubs high atop Lookout Mountain, has been pulling tourists to the Chattanooga area for decades, drawn in part by a novel advertising campaign that involved painting signs on barns’ roofs.

This tourist stop has been around for many decades. And even after all this time, the allure hasn’t dimmed. “Oh, my son just thought it was the coolest place,” chuckled Carey, founder of Tennessee History for Kids, an organization dedicated to preserving and promoting Tennessee history.

“All your life you kind of make fun of it, and wouldn’t you know it, that’s the place he wants to go back and see,” he said.

For families with children – or simply the young at heart – a visit to southeastern Tennessee poses a wonderful problem. Between natural attractions, tourist stops and urban diversions, where do you start? The choices are mind-boggling.

If you’ve ever wanted to explore the state, here’s a suggestion: Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Pick a region and take the time to immerse yourself in all that it has to offer.

For our trek, we’ve chosen a stretch of the I-24 corridor bookended by Chattanooga and Nashville – a delightful destination packed with big city excitement, outdoor pursuits and scenery galore. By motorhome, it would only require a couple of hours to drive. Instead, find a campground or RV park and, as they say in the South, “Stay a spell.”

Downtown Chattanooga

We start our trek in Chattanooga, a town where history feels like a living thing.

Maybe it’s being able to walk in the footsteps of 124,000 Civil War soldiers – who clashed around these fields and mountains – or the footprints of Cherokee Indians, who set out from here on the infamous Trail of Tears.

Perhaps it’s the infectious hum of that “Chattanooga Choo Choo” tune, or just knowing that this is the town where Bessie Smith grew up singing the blues. Home of the first Coca Cola bottling plant and birthplace of the legendary “MoonPie,” Chattanooga has long been a historical crossroads.

A town that once felt the pinch of industrial abandonment, the city has not only survived, but thrived. Today, it’s a bustling riverfront town enjoying a renaissance, with gleaming downtown redevelopment, a rebounding local economy, a backdrop of scenic beauty, and refreshing vitality.

The fourth largest city in the state, it sits at the junction of four interstate highways, so getting there isn’t a problem. Surrounded by forested mountains and bisected by a generous curve of the Tennessee River, the community is an appealing intersection of the natural world and commercial development.

Take a spin downtown, and you’ll find a commercial district with a renewed pulse. Follow Broad Street and it dead-ends at the gleaming glass peaks of the Tennessee Aquarium, a sprawling riverfront campus of liquid wonder. Planning a visit? Don’t worry, you should find plenty of big lots downtown that accommodate RV parking – though nothing here is free.

Do consider buying tickets in advance online (www.tnaqua.org) or call (800) 262-0695. If you go on a busy day, you may have to wait to be allowed entrance, but that’s not the end of the world. The aquarium sits at an important pedestrian hub, and there’s plenty to see.

The Hunter Museum of American Arts is a short two-block walk away, straight through an outdoor sculpture garden and over a glass bridge. The museum sits on a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River. In addition to housing important works, it’s hard to beat the view. While you’re there, be sure to poke about the Bluff View Art District, with its quaint shops and art galleries.

Across from the aquarium is an IMAX 3-D theater. Around the corner, you’ll see the Creative Discovery Museum, a great place for kids ages 12 and under to burn off steam – and parents to reconnect with them – through exploration and play. A paid parking lot directly across the street can accommodate even the biggest motorhome. For more information, check out www.cdmfun.org. Poke into intriguing shops and cafes, or just stretch your legs along the riverfront. For fun, stroll the Walnut Street Bridge, the longest pedestrian bridge in America. You’ll also find over 40 miles of official hiking trails within Chattanooga’s city limits.

While downtown, train buffs will enjoy visiting one of the refurbished “Chattanooga Choo Choo” wood-burning engines at the Southern Railway Terminal Station, now restored into a hotel and convention center. There was a time that nearly all trains serving the South passed through Chattanooga. Or catch a nostalgic ride on a steam locomotive at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum (for more information, see www.tvrail.com)

The riverfront is also the place to catch the Southern Belle Riverboat for a sightseeing, lunch and dinner cruise along the mighty Tennessee River. Just two miles from downtown is Warner Park and the Chattanooga Zoo, where you can view snow leopards, red pandas, chimpanzees and other creatures from around the globe.

Lookout Mountain

The region is rich in mountains, and Chattanooga is literally nestled among them. Once you’ve had your fill of the flatlands, raise your eyes to the skies and trek up Lookout Mountain, which towers to the southwest of downtown.

Lookout Mountain is actually a massive plateau, which straddles Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. It’s also home to a handful of intriguing attractions, from subterranean waterfalls to curious rock gardens, Civil War memorials and to the steepest passenger railway in the world. The mountaintop is anchored by three long-standing tourist attractions: Ruby Falls, Rock City and the Incline Railway. Depending on your tolerance for things touristy, they are all worth the time.

Start at the base of the mountain with a quick stop at the Chattanooga Nature Center, where you can get nose-to-nose with a red wolf and observe bobcats, eagles, and owls, as well as one of the largest tree-houses in North America. It’s a good stop if you’ve been sitting too long and just want to soak in a little peace and quiet. Bonus: You’ll find miles of hiking trails.

When you head up the mountain, note that roads tend to be steep and winding, so drive accordingly. If you’d rather not take your rig, park at the St. Elmo Street Station and buy a ticket for the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, trolley-style rail cars that skim the side of the mountain. A free observation deck at the top offers panoramic views.

Follow signs up the mountain to reach the entrance to Ruby Falls, a thundering 145-foot waterfall cascading deep inside a limestone cave. Parking here can be cramped, so look for traffic guides to direct you to the best RV parking spots. When you purchase admission, you’ll have a chance to buy “a mountain pass” to see multiple attractions. If you’ve got the time, it’s a pretty good bargain.

Lookout Mountain is steeped in history. The mountain played a pivotal role in the Civil War, and Creek and Cherokee Indians lived here for centuries. In fact, the word “Chattanooga,” is the Creek Indian name for the mountain.

It was also the setting for “The Battle Above the Clouds,” which resulted in a Union victory that opened the door to an invasion of the Deep South and the historic Atlanta Campaign of 1864. This was the scene of some of the hardest fighting in the Civil War. History buffs will be interested in the visitor center and walking tour at Point Park, with monuments, historic markers and scenic vistas.

But true Civil War enthusiasts need to visit Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park, America’s first and largest national military park, on the eastern edge of Lookout Mountain. The park visitor center is actually just across the state line in Georgia, just beyond Missionary Ridge. Aside from the 1,400 monuments and historic markers, little has changed in the roads, fields and forests since the battle, which resulted in over 34,000 casualties – one of the Civil War’s bloodiest two-day battles.

At 8,000 acres, this solemn park is a historic and scenic treasure. Take a self-guided driving tour to see sweeping battlefields, monuments, wayside exhibits and hiking trails that cut through rolling woodlands.

For a more lighthearted experience, be sure to visit Rock City, a bizarre, but thoroughly entertaining exhibit of massive natural boulders, well-tended gardens, and man-made enhancements spread atop a scenic vista. It’s open for self-guided tours, and the pathways are easily accessible to young and old. The views alone are worth it.

If you’re staying in the area, there are several camping options close to Lookout Mountain, including a couple of KOAs, Raccoon Mountain Caverns & Campground and Lookout Valley RV Park & Campground, in nearby Lookout Valley.

Adventure along the way

The vast waters of Nickajack Reservoir come as a surprise – a wide, liquid expanse that appears suddenly off I-24, just 30 minutes west of Chattanooga.

The newest river lake created by the Tennessee Valley Authority, Nickajack claims 215 miles of shoreline set amid the spectacular scenery of the steep-walled Tennessee River Gorge, dubbed “The Grand Canyon of Tennessee.” Bass, catfish, bluegill and crappie are among the sport fish sought here, among other popular recreational activities.

But the real show starts at night. Between late April and early October, nearby Nickajack Cave is home to thousands of roosting gray bats, which are endangered. At dusk, the sky grows dark when the bats emerge en masse from the mouth of the cave; an observation deck makes for easy viewing.

Want to camp close to the lake? Be sure to check out Shellmound RV Campground, nestled right on the shoreline. Or head down the road to exits 10 or 11, both which lead to camping options at Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park, a 2,000-year-old American Indian ceremonial mound site.

The park features 51 heavily wooded campsites with water and electrical hook-ups, grills, picnic tables, hard-surface pads, and nearby showers. A dump station is available during summer months, and sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information, call (931) 723-5073.

While you’re in the neighborhood, it’s hard to imagine sampling a taste of Tennessee that didn’t include a shot of famed Tennessee Whiskey. The George Dickel Distillery, near Tullahoma, has been producing handcrafted whiskey since 1870. Today, the distillery and visitor’s center is open for public tours.

Although the famed Jack Daniel’s Distillery lies further west, in Lynchburg, the Dickel distillery is less than a 20-minute drive south of I-24. For more information, call (931) 857-3124, ext. 320.

Moving on down the road toward Nashville, you enter Rutherford County, a great place to immerse yourself in regional history and culture. In Murfreesborough, you can take in a Tennessee Walking Horse show at the Tennessee Miller Coliseum, tour a 10,000 square-foot antebellum mansion at the Oakland’s Historic House Museum, or stroll a reconstructed Southern village at Cannonsburgh, a living history museum reflecting early Southern life (May through December).

Don’t miss the chance to visit the Stones River National Battlefield, located on the edge of Murfreesborough. Though the site encompasses only a small portion of the original battlefield, major points of interest and monuments are highlighted on a self-guided driving tour.

The white stone markers at the Stones River National Cemetery – together both sides sustained over 20,000 casualties – help put the sobering scope of the Civil War into tangible focus. An excellent visitor’s center offers an audiovisual program; well-trained staff is eager to answer your questions. For information, call (615) 893-9501.

Nashville

At last, ease into Music City, a place that practically pulses with its own lively beat.

Nashville may be a big city, but it’s got a folksy heart. That means, it’s the kind of town where RVing comes right on inside the city limits. You’ll find a KOA, which hosts its own country music shows in the summer, a Jellystone Park, and the Holiday Nashville Travel Park. All are located on Music Valley Drive, just minutes away from Opryland USA and the historic Ryman Auditorium, “The Mother Church of Country Music” and home of the Grand Ole Opry.

Catch a rising star in a small club or visit the legends of Country Music at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Stroll sidewalks lit by neon and listen to the drone of steel guitar. Order a spicy seafood entrée at South Street Original Crab Shack & Authentic Dive Bar, known by locals as simply “South Street,” or down a “Flaming Stone Beer” at Boscos, a local favorite.

The city is divided into roughly nine neighborhoods, each with a distinctive flavor, be it indigenous Southern restaurants, music venues, historic antebellum homes, funky shops, coffee houses, art galleries and bookstores.

Oh, and the flavors you’ll find here. Consider Las Palletas, an authentic, no-frills Mexican popsicle shop that specializes in making fruit and vegetable popsicles from old family recipes. Be brave and try an unusual flavor, like avocado. Or why not try the Pancake Pantry, with its menu of 21 different kinds of pancakes, from buttermilk to sweet potato – expect a wait on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Try eating like the locals, at restaurants that offer “meat-and-three” – a meat entrée and three sides – such as the Elliston Place Soda Shop, known for its fried chicken, old-time soda fountain and faithful following among locals.

It’s hard to visit and not be drawn in by the vibrant music scene. Catch up-and-coming new artists at Nashville’s popular clubs, cafes and listening venues.

The Douglas Corner Café is a good bet, with live music six nights a week, ranging from country to rock – many of the early shows are free. The legendary Exit/In has been a stepping stone for popular artists since 1971, including Jimmy Buffett. And the Bluebird Café is the place to be heard in Nashville if you want to succeed as a songwriter. Just ask Garth Brooks or Faith Hill.

Across town, switch gears with a visit to the Belle Meade Plantation, one of the South’s grandest mansions and now home to living history demonstrations. Built in 1853, the 30-acre historic site was once one of the largest estates in Nashville. Today, it’s a three-dimensional history classroom.

For a moment of serenity amid all the Country Music craziness, slip into the Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art on Forest Drive (www.cheekwood.org), where you can even sign up for an art class. Or burn off some barbecue on the hiking trails around Warner Parks, located off Highway 100.

Our best advice: If you’re planning a visit to Nashville, make a point to stop by one of two Visitor Information Centers – both are in downtown Nashville – for brochures, maps and directions.

 

 

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