I live in Atlanta and travel with some frequency to Nashville. The drive is about four and a half hours long through the Tennessee mountains, and passes through Chattanooga , Tennessee. Much of the route (along with roadsides throughout all of Tennessee) is scattered with signs and the famous painted barns instructing driver to “see Rock City”. Tragically, I drove by all of these signs for several years without following their instructions.
Why? Because I had it in my head that Rock City was a nature attraction. Not that there’s anything wrong with a nature attraction, because there isn’t. If I had known the truth though, I would never have wasted so much time passing by Rock City in a rush to get from one place to another.
I thought this for several reasons. Rock City is in an area of Tennessee that has several nature attractions. Ruby Falls and Raccoon Caves are often advertised alongside Rock City. All of Rock City itself’s promotional materials show the famous overlook at the top of Lookout Mountain and it’s rock formations and paths. Even Rock City’s iconic barns mention it’s beauty and the view.
image stolen from google of one of Rock City’s famous advertising barns
Of course the most important reason I didn’t understand the true nature of Rock City is that all of my so-called friends are TRAITORS. Almost everyone who grows up in this area take trips to Rock City at some point in their life and not ONE of my local friends I made after moving to Atlanta including someone I briefly dated in Chattanooga who regularly rode his motorcycle up Lookout Mountain EVER MENTIONED there was a top notch kitsch roadside attraction I should visit. It just goes to show you can’t trust nobody in this world.
The most classic of the Rock City Barns, with the least lying by omission
Eventually I went to Chattanooga for a weekend and in an effort to procrastinate about undertaking the just-long-enough-to-be-annoying drive home, I decided to do as 50 painted barns I’d seen over the years had suggested, and check out Rock City.
The trail through Rock City does start out quite normal. The park itself was designed around the areas natural rock formations which form what have been acknowledged as resembling streets and buildings since the first settlers arrived in the area.
walking trails through rock formations
the fat man’s squeeze, a classic
During the walk through the initial trail you walk through natural rock valleys, across bridges, and squeeze through a narrow passageway between two giant boulders. A cavern allows light through colored windows to form rainbows on a wall. The trail ends on the very top of Lookout Mountain at a large outcropping called Lover’s Leap. At the top of the outlook you can see 7 states on the horizon.
The cliff known, as many cliffs are, as Lover’s Leap
The overlook promoted on all the postcards in the gift shop
Scattered throughout the trails are seemingly random groupings of gnomes. They were apparently original to the concept of the Rock City trail, but they definitely appear random. The same way a group of garden gnomes come across in someone’s yard, when there are few more than normal but they’re not really excessive or set up into scenes.
something weird is going on here
These gnomes were the first sign that there was something else going on here beyond mildly interesting natural rock formations. They were also the moment a sense of betrayal began to creep in. But they’re not the real stars of Rock City. It’s not until you reach the Fairy Land Caverns that things really start to get weird. And wonderful.
this looks promising
The underground portion of Rock City is an entirely different place. Rock City was opened in 1932 as the brain child of Frieda Carter who’s husband Garnet Carter had developed some of Lookout Mountain for the nation’s first mini golf course and a residential community which had failed during the depression. After the golf corse closed it was Frieda who marked off and landscaped a trail through the rock formations which her husband thought visitors might pay to see.
Frieda had a lifelong love for European folklore and had placed the first gnomes around the trails, and Fairyland had been meant to be the original name of the development on the mountain.
the gnome game is significantly upped once you walk inside Fairyland Caverns
Everyone I know has betrayed my trust
It wasn’t until the 50’s when World War has caused tourism to plunge that Frieda began working on a plan to revitalize Rock City as a tourist destination, and what a plan it was.
turns out the gnomes are kind of a warm up before the big guns come out
Frieda decided to fill the underground caverns of Rock City with fairytales. She commissioned local artist Jessie Sanders to sculpt scenes from her favorite tales and install them into caves set into the underground pathways walls.
Rip van Winkle and Jack’s beanstalk glowing under black light in the passageway walls
Keep in mind the 50’s were the golden era of Americana and mini golf and fiberglass dinosaurs, so maybe the whole thing seemed less weird at the time, but that honestly seems difficult to imagine, especially under black light
animatronics are the way to my heart
The piece de resistance of Fairy Land is the final cavern called Mother Goose Cavern, which opens up into a large underground room with a pathway around the outside edge filled in the center with a tableau filled with characters from every nursery rhyme you’ve ever heard and several that you haven’t.
scenes from Mother Goose Cavern
I wonder if children growing up now even know nursery rhymes. Do they even hear the fairy tales they were so ubiquitous in my generation and maybe especially in the baby boomer generation when Fairyland was built.
I think it is the lighting that makes everything in the caverns seem slightly grotesque, all though I doubt that was the intention. If you’re familiar with European folklore you might know that the versions we grew up with are quite sterilized. The German versions are quite grotesque and somewhat frightening and it’s difficult to know what the lesson they are teaching is sometimes. The step sisters cut off their toes to try to fit in the glass slipper in Cinderella. While none of the scary versions of tales and rhymes are literally depicted I did find it easy to see that side of them there. In a cave, with strange lighting, Hansel and Gretel being cooked and eaten by a woods witch, Red Riding hood escaping a hungry wolf, and even Humpty Dumpty’s fall do seem a little more what they are: slightly disturbing.
Frieda Carter has now been added to my fantasy dinner party with people alive or dead
Once you pass through the caverns you simply walk back out into the sunlight and have the surreal experience of being back in a normal environment.
There is a cafe at Rock City and multiple gift shops where you can buy the birdhouse version of the iconic red barn and postcards of the trails and the overlook and not one gnome or fairytale scene is to be found anywhere. Everyone acts normal like they weren’t just exposed to a dark room full of slightly insane things. You should visit it over and over. The wonder holds up quite well. Rock City makes itself relevant throughout the seasons by filling the paths with Christmas lights during the holidays and making the waterfall at Lovers Leap run green at Saint Patrick’s Day, and nobody mentions the caverns. It really is the strangest thing.
lovers leap decorated for Christmas
The fairy tales also get Christmas makeovers
So here I am, outing the elephant in the room at Rock City. Here I am to reassure you that it’s not like seeing the “The Thing” where 80 miles of signs work you up to see a cat mummy. The Carters were pioneers or roadside attractions and they built a strange treasure here. So tell your friends. Tell everyone.