Just a two hour drive southeast from Nashville, Tennessee, Music City’s slightly quieter cousin holds a treasure trove of natural beauty known only to those who take the time to explore it themselves. We’re talking about Chattanooga—a city straddling a thin, snakelike stretch of the Tennessee River in the Appalachian foothills, just north of the Georgia State Line. A weekend excursion through the serene, friendly city and its outer reaches puts you in touch with the natural wonders of Appalachia, not to mention some of the best no-fuss food and cultural experiences the region has to offer.
The Tennessee Aquarium is one of the largest freshwater aquariums in the world. Opening its doors at 10 am each day, the aquatic wonderland grants access to its main attractions with a general admission ticket. Marvel at schools of sunfish, the world’s largest salamander, and more in their Southeastern river habitats, and then journey through exhibits filled with alligators, red-bellied turtles, giant undersea creatures and tales of conservation efforts. Travel across a labyrinth of experiences focusing on ocean dwellers from stingrays and penguins to sharks and jellyfish, making sure to bask in a garden filled with jewel-toned butterflies before exiting the dream and stepping back into the light of day.
To take in a little culture of the human kind before heading out to explore Chattanooga’s outdoor scene, stop by one of the local museums that are just a quick walk from the aquarium. The Hunter Museum of American Art and the Creative Discovery Museum (great for kids and kids at heart) each offer its own take on the world around it, giving context to the city’s past, the region’s art, and the world of your own imagination, depending on which center you step into.
Now that you’ve likely had enough time indoors—let’s head outside! Drive four miles south to the St. Elmo station of the Incline Railway to Lookout Mountain—the site of the Battle Above the Clouds, where the Union gained control of Chattanooga during the Civil War. Ride the trolley up a sharp, 72-degree incline to the top, where you can stroll over to Point Park and take in the view along with a quick history lesson. Back at the base in St. Elmo, microbreweries and small shops offer local treats and wares to enjoy on the spot or take home as souvenirs.
While you are already south of the city, it’s the perfect opportunity to visit Rock City Gardens. You’ll have to cross the Georgia border to get to it, but it’s not far. In fact, Lookout Mountain is shared by both states, and Rock City Gardens is just on the other side. Stroll along the gardens of the Enchanted Trail, marvel at a waterfall, and traverse a short suspension bridge. From here, ascend to the 1,700-foot Lovers Leap, where you’ll be rewarded with staggering views of seven states—Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
To cap off your first day’s exploration, head back into central Chattanooga for a rib-tickling dinner at Public House Restaurant on Warehouse Row, featuring the classic Southern “meat and three”, a meat entrée with three side dishes, before calling it a night.
Now that you’ve learned the lay of the land, the second day of your 48-hour adventure through Chattanooga will take you off the beaten path for a little while. For starters, fuel up on some locally-roasted Velo coffee and a morning meal at MeanMug Coffee on Main Street before stocking up on the afternoon’s rations at Chattanooga Market, the popular gathering of local farmers and food artisans selling their wares next door to Finley Stadium from 11 am to 6 pm every Sunday.
Once you’ve got some trail snacks and a picnic lunch packed, head out for a few hours of hiking, or even an overnight stay, in Prentice Cooper State Forest. It’s only about a 30-minute drive northwest of the city, and has 35 miles of hiking trails snaking through more than 6,000 protected acres. The forest is home to what locals refer to as the Grand Canyon of the Tennessee River—the Tennessee River Gorge, a 26-mile canyon with staggering views.
For the remainder of your time, choose from four great hikes or do a mix-and-match of several: the 10-mile Mullens Cove Loop, the 12-mile Pot Point Loop (great for running), the 5-mile Poplar Springs Section shared with Cumberland Trail, or the bombastic 6-mile, out-and-back stretch of Suck Creek to Mushroom Rock, which requires some climbing and a walk across a swinging bridge. All come complete with gorgeous Appalachian views and fresh Tennessee air. Don’t forget to pause at some point and refuel with your haul from the farmer’s market earlier in the day.
If you’re staying in the park overnight, there are two first-come, first-served primitive sites to choose from: Davis Pond and Hunter’s Check Station. If you’re staying in the city, though, take a couple hours in the evening to stop into the Terminal Brewhouse for some craft beer and a hearty meal right across the street from the one and only “Chattanooga Choo Choo” station itself—a fitting, and filling, end to a quintessential Chattanooga weekend.