I have divided my travel into two eras: Before 1977 and Starting with 1977. The Before 1977 era is the era when my family and I traveled pretty much exclusively to South Florida and North Carolina, nearly always by car, rather than by plane. Even though we started traveling other places starting with 1977, I still have traveled between my home and South Florida many times since then. Four of these trips were by car, and the others were by plane.
I am currently trying (going from memory and with very little documentation) to stick to destinations that I first visited in the Before 1977 era. I may be mistaken about this next one, which is Rock City. Rock City, is apparently technically “Rock City Gardens,” though I have never heard anyone use that term. Rock City is both on and in Lookout Mountain, since Lookout Mountain is both a mountain and a town on the mountain. The town is on the Georgia side of the border between Georgia and Tennessee, but it looks to me like the actual park is on the Tennessee side of the line.
I’m going to be up front with you. Rock City is a “tourist trap.” If you are looking for a site with major cultural or historical significance, you might want to stay away from Rock City. If you are looking for nature, untouched by the hand of humanity, this isn’t your thing either. But it’s fun.
That is not to say that Rock City lacks any historical value. The first written mention of the area now known as Rock City was in the journal of a missionary who went to visit the Native Americans who lived on the mountain in the early 1800s. He described that while he was on the mountain, he saw a “citadel of rock.” Geologists studied the area in the early 19th century, and then the Battle of Lookout Mountain was fought in 1863 just downhill of what is now Rock City and both Union and Confederate soldiers are on record as having written about the site. An 1863 lithograph of the battle shows what certainly looks to me like Rock City in the background.
I am going to attempt to add the image of the lithograph, since it is in the public domain, to this post. This will be my first attempt to add an image to a post and may end up looking kind of odd and once I get braver with my theme, I’ll add the code that lets me wrap text around the image. I’ll work the kinks out of this process eventually, I’m sure.
Then, in the 1920s, a Chattanooga businessman by the name of Garnet Carter wanted to develop the area into a residential neighborhood. Garnet’s wife Frieda had plotted a path that connected the most interesting rock features and also landscaped the area. When the Great Depression hit, Garnet’s plan to turn the area into a residential neighborhood ended, but he and Frieda threw themselves into developing and promoting Rock City as a tourist destination. One of their most famous promotional ideas was to paint barns for farmers throughout the area. Part of the deal was that they would be allowed to paint “See Rock City,” and sometimes other promotional terms, on the roof in big white letters. There were over 900 painted barns. As of 2015, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, 80 of these barns are still standing and still advertising Rock City.
Rock City is one of those things where I cannot remember the first time I went. It may not even have been on a Florida trip but on a trip to my grandfather’s cabin in North Carolina. I always loved it, despite its status as a tourist trap, or even perhaps because of it. The rock formations are truly beautiful, as are the views. The promotional material states that one can see seven states from one spot (known as “Lover’s Leap”), though this claim is disputed. Only six are listed on the marker: Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. The seventh was Virginia. And even if it were theoretically possible to see all seven, this would be dependent on the amount of haze in the air, and they don’t call the area just to the east of Rock City the “Smoky Mountains” for nothing.
When the choice was between dignified and kitschy, Frieda opted for “kitschy” nearly every time. There are garden gnomes along the paths and one spot. known as Rainbow Hall, is a tunnel through the rocks with colored glass windows lining one side. Through the windows, one can see the same view in all of the colors of the rainbow. None of the kitsch detracts from my love for one of the first botanical gardens I ever visited.
(originally posted on June 14, 2015)