‘The most scenic short drive in the US’
Kevin Pilley recounts the magic of the Lookout Mountain route and gives suggestions on what to look out for along the way.
It’s easy to get lost on Lookout Mountain, so you have to constantly be on the lookout for a bandy-legged man to ask the way. You can always trust a bandy man down south; he’s usually a local and knows where places are or, at least, once were.
We were trying to find the Chanticleer Inn, which according to our maps, was in Tennessee and Alabama. And probably Georgia too.
We spotted a suitably bow-legged man who was hobbling down the sidewalk like a steer with a split hoof. We pulled over and rolled down the window of our rental car, with the Florida – The Sunshine State plates.
He immediately recognised us as one of his.
We said ‘Howdy’. He tipped his hat and we asked him the way to a hotel. He thought a while and then thought some more, to which invisible tumbleweeds began to roll past him. Then he decided to answer.
“You know Oberon?” he asked. Our jaws dropped. “How about Peter Pan? And Cinderella?”
Our Sat Nav lady clearly didn’t, so why should we? She had been struck mute by Lookout Mountain. It is a very disorientating part of the world and you can lose an hour by just crossing the street or just by turning right.
Eastern time suddenly becomes central if you don’t know where you’re going.
He pointed down the road and said: “Look out for fairyland! And Mother Goose!” We got out of there like a bee-stung stallion, almost as if the FBI were chasing us.
The next bandy man we came across had more decisive directions: “Follow Red Riding Hood to Pied Piper.”
Before we could get the gear into shift, he said: “You into big boulders? Because this is the place to seem ’em.”
At 150 kilometres, spanning three states, The Lookout Mountain Parkway proclaims itself as “The most scenic short drive in the US”. The bumf uses words like “breath-taking” and “truly awesome”, which some of the tailbacks, queues and directions certainly are. The road trip is best done in autumn with the yellowing poplars, scarlet dogwoods, flaming orange maples and shedding hemlocks and hickories.
It is also less busy in the autumn months, as there aren’t so many backcountry campers, dirt pass fanatics, geo-catchers, kids on owl prowl summer camps, zip liners, white-water fetishists, canyon climbers and various other rappelling people. Or boulder and elf fans.
All I knew about Lookout Mountain was that tennis player Roscoe Tanner came from there and like many other places, it staged some significant battles, like the Battle of the Clouds in 1777 and the Last Battle of the Cherokees in 1794.
I didn’t know it was 728 metres high and being a mountain ridge, it goes on and on down for some 30 metres into Alabama. If you decide to drive down it, you get to see the Deep South in one day.
From the mountain’s must-see Lover’s Leap, you can see seven states including Virginia, South and North Carolina.
You can visit Rock City and enjoy vertigo as well as the Fat Man’s Squeeze rock formation and kitschy Fairyland Caverns. Rock City was developed in the 1930s as a resort by Granton Carter and his wife, Frieda, who suffered from ‘OCFD’ (obsessive compulsive fairy disorder). Carter built the country’s first miniature golf course and she decorated the caves with elves, goblins and other sprites and she was also fixated with nursery rhymes.
Walking around the top of Lookout Mountain you get used to people approaching you and asking if you are headed for the Fairy Dell. The Hart family’s luxurious 1930 Chanticleer Inn B&B, opposite the iconic Rock City attraction, is fairly fairy-free and boasts “private baths” and “private exterior entrances” as well as a bocca court.
The classic, romantic hotel provides the rest needed for the journey along the Parkway the following day.
The road trip is best done in autumn
The Parkway road trip starts in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where you can go “Whoo! Whoo!” in the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel in the restored terminal station.
The song made famous by the Glenn Miller Band in 1941 was written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren while travelling on the Southern Railway’s ‘Birmingham Special’ from New York to Chattanooga (meaning rock dwelling).
You can see a similar train to the old wood-burning loco in the city’s station complex, where you can eat and sleep on-board in Pulman cars.
While in Nooga you must visit the International Towing Museum and Hall of Fame. Tennessee is a very historic place; it is the birthplace of the recovery and rescue tow truck. In 1916, Ernest Holmes Senior invented the tow truck and a replica of the first is on show alongside other classics and a ‘Wall of the Fallen’, commemorating those heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice, losing their lives in the service of the motoring public.
After Ruby Falls, the 44-metre underground waterfall discovered in 1928 and named after a speleologist’s wife, comes Cloudland Canyon State Park. The site features waterfalls, a cascading creek, a sandstone gorge and ADA (American Disability Association) accessible boardwalks on the western edge of Lookout Mountain and the Cumberland Plateau.
Then there’s Mentone, part of the southwestern Appalachian Mountains and Cloudmont, the country’s most southerly ski resort with its 275 people slope limit, 550-metre elevation and pony lifts.
Further on, there is the 104’ De Soto Falls and America’s Most Amazing Mile, the 72.7 per cent-gauge Lookout Mountain Incline Railway which is apparently the steepest railway in the world.
The last leg of the drive – which allows you to see more states, more natural wonders, more fairies and bow-legged locals in a day than anywhere in the nation – takes you through Fort Payne, which once produced over half the socks worn in the US, and Cagle’s Crossroads. Cagle’s Crossroads is better known as Dog-town, named because it was a popular base for hunting folk and their dogs.
If you haven’t had enough waterfalls already, you must also visit Alabama’s tallest waterfall at the Little River Canyon State Preserve. Standing beside the 40-metre Grace’s High Falls in full spate, you see and feel what 3,000 cubic metres of travelling water per second is all about.
You might also meet a leaf peeper, a forest bather or both.
“Me, I’m a big sourwood fan. But my wife here roots for redbuds,” my Mr Peeper said, mistaking me for a mixed hardwood guy. “The southern Appalachians are great for cove hardwoods like yellow buckeye and sweet maple.”
“Don’t forget the shagbark hickory, honey,” added his wife.
Leaf-dropping is rife in northeast Alabama, The Yellowhammer State.
They had done Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains and ticked off the leaf fall trails on Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest peak, and they had photograph after photograph to prove it.
“New England is where it’s at from October. If you are into your mellow apricots. But Alabama is real underrated. It can produce some pretty neat colour vibrations.”
The Lookout Mountain Scenic Parkway ends near Gadsden, Alabama, at the Noccalula Falls which has a statue dedicated to a suicide. It is of a Cherokee girl who threw herself over the edge after being ordered to marry a man she didn’t love.
A gentleman there with an impressive Custer beard and array of tattoos and highly trustworthy bandiness had a theory. He pointed down at the statue’s huge feet.
“The lady just couldn’t live any longer with them size twelves.”
For more information about the Lookout Mountain Parkway, visit www.visitusa.com; www.LookoutMountainParkway.org. www.exploregeorgia.com; www.alabamatravel.com; www.seerockcity.com; www.exploresouthernhistory.com.