Monday, June 6, 2011
Chattanooga Day 2: Incline Railroad, Pointe Park & Ruby Falls
On the 2nd day of our vacation we were returning to Lookout Mountain but this time we were leaving our car at the bottom and taking the train. No, not the infamous Chattanooga Choo Choo. In this case the train was Lookout Mountain's incline railroad.
Since the breakfast the hotel offered mostly carbs and very little protein we decided to go to eat our first meal of the day at the Cracker Barrel that was just across the street from our hotel. As far as we are concerned you can't miss with a Cracker Barrel breakfast plate.
After we finished eating and Paula finished her customary shopping in the general store we headed for the Incline Railway. The only other incline railway I remember ever seeing is the one that ascends Mount Washington in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I didn't ride that one either time I went to visit my cousin in the Steel City in the mid late 90's. This would be my first incline railroad experience.
We parked our car in the lot on St. Elmo's Avenue and got aboard the railroad car, which is more like an enclosed San Fransisco cable car than a train car, for the 1 mile ride up the 73% grade to the top of Lookout Mountain.
The pair of cars are pulled up and down the mountain by cable and pully system which operates like the weight system on a cuckoo clock. The most interesting thing about the ride is the midpoint where there is a switch on which the two cars exchange positions.
Other than that section of duel track there is just one set of tracks that bring the cars into the top and bottom stations. The ride takes about 10 minutes both ways. Going down is like a slow descent on a roller coaster. It was a unique experience. The view from the top station down the tracks to the bottom of the mountain can be seen in the picture above. The bottom station is in the middle left section of the picture between the trees. I can see it because I know where it is. Can you follow the tracks and see the bottom station?
We were a little disappointed in the railroad station at the top of the mountain. We thought there was going to be a museum and some things to do there but found nothing more than a couple of observation decks, a gift shop and the ubiquitous fudge shop. The fudge for sale here was much fresher and looked much more creamier than what we had purchased at Rock City the day before. We were tempted but didn't buy any.
Once we were at the top of Lookout Mountain we walked 3 blocks to Pointe Park, a national monument park commemorating the key Civil War battles of Chattanooga and Chickamunga.
It was an impressive park it had both memorial displays (the main monument in the center of the park is pictured above) and scenic overlooks. Another park visitor was kind enough to snap a picture of Paula and me with a panoramic view of the Tennessee River Valley in the back ground (see above).
The park had a series of paths and trails that moved up and down the side of the mountain. We walked up and down a couple of them but didn't make the 1/2 hike down to the historic Civil War landmark, Craven House. Given the hot temperature it was too long a hike to make without any extra water.
Once we were back down off the mountain we looked for a place to have lunch. We chose a small little barbecue place called, The Purple Daisy Picnic Cafe. It was within walking distance of the Incline Railroad station.
The place had a 70's psychedelic decor and the barbecue was pretty good. Paula and I shared a plate of pulled pork, corn on the cob and black beans. It was an okay place with decent food plus it was close and when we were hungry.
Next on our day's agenda was the one attraction in Chattanooga that I looked forward to seeing the most. We programmed the address into our GPS and once again ascended into the hills of Lookout Mountain.
The building that surrounded the entrance to the cave that lead to Ruby Falls was type of tourist attraction that we had expected to see at the top of the Incline Railroad.
When it came time for our tour we boarded an elevator that took us down 260 feet to the entrance of the Ruby Falls cave. This was the first time we'd ever been taken down to a cave entrance. All the other cave tours we've ever done started right at the entrance. This gave us early indications that this cave tour would be a unique experience.
Then there was the tour guide. Anyone who has been on any kind of tour knows that the personality, knowledge and attitude of the guide can make or break the quality of the tour. The guide we had left a lot to be desired. He was a teenager just starting out on the job; fresh out of training. He also looked and acted a lot like David Spade. Just like Spade, this tour guide tried to be funny but he wasn't. I found him rather annoying and a little too casual.. Paula said he reminded her of someone whose dad made them go out and get a summer job.
Our group was rather large with about 3 dozen tourists. There were all kinds of people including a young Asian couple from Singapore. We spent a lot of the trip near them. The took turns taking pictures of each other in front of the cave formations. After the tour was over, right before we left, just outside the Ruby Falls building, the couple asked me to take a picture of them.
The tour through the cave (which was really more of a carved out path than a walk through a series of open caverns like all the previous cave tours we'd been on before this) was presented in concert with the history of the cave's discovery and excavation.
In 1923 an local cave enthusiast, Leo Lambert, began an digging project intended to regain access to the Lookout Mountain cave which had been sealed off by a railroad tunnel project. 260 feet down a halfway through the project an opening 1.5 foot high and 5 feet wide was discovered. Lambert took a small crew crawled through this newly discovered path eventually came to a picturesque waterfall. Later he would bring his wife, Ruby, to the cave and eventually named the falls after her. This is just a thumbnail sketch of the cave's rich history. If you want to read the rest of its history go to: http://www.rubyfalls.com/ and explore the history tab.
The path back to the falls featured several different cave formations including cave "bacon" and columns. There was a formation that looked exactly like the back half of a mule. The walk in covered about 1/4 mile through a single file tunnel back to the falls. By the time you've reached the falls you've descended to a level of 1120 feet below ground. That fact is a bit surprising because the path its not steep. The low light and dark visual perspective keeps you from realizing you're going downhill.
Once you've reached the falls, the path opens to an large cavern. Inside is the 145 foot high watery wonder. The guide led us on a walk around a circular path that takes you behind the falls and allows you to see them from every vantage point.
The falls are enhanced with alternating colored lights and music. They were spectacular. Just standing there watching the falls is one of the most breathtaking sights I've seen in a cave. Its really awesome to comprehend God's creative powers when you realize he has taken he a pair of things as basic as water and gravity had made them into such a beautiful natural wonder. I was fascinated by Ruby Falls.
We spent about 3-5 minutes watching and taking pictures. After that it was time to return. Because we lingered in the falls cavern as most of our group started heading back we ended up near the back of our group. Much to my delight far behind the guide. We never even saw him on the way back. The pace of the return trip was a lot faster than the trip in. Once we were back at the entrance we boarded the elevator and returned to the surface. The cave tour was over.
Like every other place we'd been to we walked around the gift shop. I bought myself a t-shirt and a magnet. Paula bought a pretty bangle bracelet. By the time we were done at Ruby Falls we were really tired. Our plans were to go back to our hotel and rest for a while then head to the Hamilton Place Mall for dinner and browsing through the stores.
But the degree of our fatigue and the walking involved in our plans for the next day (going to the zoo and the Tennessee Aquarium) quickly convinced us that we needed to just chill and rest in our room for the night.
We picked up some Chinese food to go at a buffet near our hotel and had a "night in" together. Later, I would walk across the street to Cracker Barrel and bring back a dessert for us to share. That capped off a very relaxing evening. It was a really fun day and all the walking was a small price to pay to be able to see all the great sights.
Day 3 of our Chattanooga excursion would bring us up close with animals and take us to the best restaurant of our entire trip.