Sunday, September 20, 2020

Why you should "See Rock City"

If the cheesy tourist-trap-style “See Rock City” signs painted on barns along the highway (including at my husband’s family’s wheat farm in Oklahoma) had touted the gardens of Rock City, I might have been tempted to stop and visit sooner.  I like blooming landscapes much better than rocks (which I have plenty of at home in Central Texas). So we bypassed this attraction when driving on Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee many years ago. 

Charming rock bridge at Rock City gardens
 But our curiosity was piqued, and we did stop on a subsequent trip to Chattanooga.  We discovered a surprisingly charming attraction, not the slightest bit overblown.  There’s a reason 425,000 people visit annually, and it’s not to climb over all those boulders.  Opened to the public in 1932, Rock City Gardens is a delightful family attraction that features natural rock formations and views of Chattanooga.

New paths have enhanced Rock City.
Sightseers in the early 1800s were attracted to the naturally-formed avenues of the place they nicknamed Rock City.  Discovered by two missionaries who came to the Lookout Mountain area to minister to Indians in 1823, Rock City didn’t become a major attraction until Frieda Carter developed the large walk-through garden around 1930.

Today, visitors enjoy a peaceful and serene setting that showcases different forms of natural beauty—massive rocks, colorful flowers, cliffs, and waterfalls.  Nature’s handiwork is enhanced by the path Freida forged through the wilderness and among the rock formations with only a string to mark her trail.  Beginning in 1928, she spent four years gathering and preserving more than 400 varieties of indigenous plants in her garden on the family’s private estate.

Waterfalls and other features have been added
to attract visitors.
Attendance at Rock City burgeoned as families took to the highways for road trips.  Without video games or DVD players to divert their attention, children and parents watched the passing scenery—and were intrigued along the way by signs on barns and birdhouses extolling them to “Visit Rock City,” a result of an ingenious advertising campaign conceived by Frieda’s husband Garnet Carter (who also started the Tom Thumb miniature golf chain). 

Beginning in 1936, Carter convinced farmers from Texas to Michigan to paint large white block letters on roofs and sides of barns, inviting travelers to the attraction. Messages such as “To Miss Rock City Would Be a Pity” or “Millions Have Seen Rock City.  Have You?” convinced travelers to stop and explore. 

After reaching a high point in the late 1970s, Rock City declined during the 1980s as interstates pushed old highways—and the painted barns–off the beaten path.  But Rock City has rebounded and is now lovingly embraced by the city of Chattanooga as a major attraction.

The turnaround began when Rock City updated its features to appeal to modern travelers and joined with other nearby attractions in a marketing campaign.  Rock City has rebounded with new trails, garden paths, waterfalls, a climbing wall, and seasonal festivals. 

Spend a delightful time enjoying
the natural beauty of the area.
Original attractions along Enchanted Trail have been faithfully maintained under a new generation of family ownership.  Visitors can still wander down the Grand Corridor, walk through the Needle’s Eye and over Sky Bridge, slither through Fat Man’s Squeeze, and marvel at natural formations like Mushroom Rock and Tortoise Shell Rock.  Balanced Rock, a 1,000-ton boulder is a favorite photo spot, and visitors can see seven states from the Observation Point on a clear day.  Lover’s Leap, the site of a tragic Indian legend, and Goblin’s Underpass are also favorite sites.

Children and adults both enjoy Fairyland Caverns, where rock walls are illuminated with ultraviolet “black light,” highlighting Frieda’s collection of sculpted gnomes in creative vignettes.  Mother Goose Village is a gigantic landscape of storybook characters illustrating many beloved fairy tales. 

Landscaping and architectural additions continue to honor the original plan, so that new areas blend smoothly with the old. Themed music written for the park is subtlety piped along trails, tempo and style matching natural elements and enhancing the experience in an unobtrusive manner. The horticulture staff works year-round tending to the different species of trees and flowers on the 15 acre site, all the while carefully maintaining its natural ambience. The resident herd of white fallow deer are descendents of animals originally located there in the 1930s. 

On a clear day, you can see seven states from the park.
A beautiful 3200 square-foot Group Pavilion that can be fully covered with drop-down sides was added.  The addition of Grand View, a conference and special events center adjacent to the property, has also increased traffic. 

The Fudge Kitchen offers enticements of a different variety. Visitors should allow at least an hour and a half to tour the property, although dawdling is encouraged.

While improvements may catch the public’s attention, natural beauty is still the main reason visitors enjoy trekking through Rock City. 

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

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