Family Fun This Fall in Chattanooga

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With October comes fall break with your school-aged kiddos. Since they get to enjoy a little vacay away from the classroom, you might as well put in for some time off from your daily grind at the office and embark on an absolute blast awaiting in nearby Chattanooga. Whether you opt for a weekend getaway or tack on a couple of extra days on either side, the “Scenic City” is bustling with an amazing array of activities, sites, outdoor adventures and great eateries to enjoy for all ages. And this month, your family can also indulge in a few Halloween haunts as well!

I spent the last couple of days in September and the first full weekend of this month in Chattanooga, scouring the city to report on all the cool stuff you and your kids will love to experience… and there’s a lot! Chattanooga is the BEST locale in the Volunteer State in which to spend a family vacation. Now, let me break it all down for you…

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MUSEUMS & SITES

Hands down, there’s no argument that the TENNESSEE AQUARIUM (800-262-0695; tnaqua.org) is the pinnacle of attractions in Chattanooga. In fact, it’s existence was the driving force to the city’s amazing downtown and riverfront revitalization. More than 12,000 animals are on display, representing freshwater and oceanic critters, along with lively otters and reptiles along the way. Click here for a link of the river otters in action. The wonderful butterfly habitat in the Ocean Journeys building is a favorite with kids, and prior to that, the stingray petting and feeding pool is the most amazing hands-on experience you’ll encounter. If you’re there at the right time, you and your kids can have the opportunity to feed the stingrays a fresh shrimp morsel. Just roll up your sleeves and pinch the shrimp meat between your fingers while placing your hand flat into the bottom of the shallow pool environment. It doesn’t take much time before one of the delicate creatures magically glides over your hand to gobble its treat! Kids will find it fun to experience the vacuum sensation they’ll feel when the stingray sucks up its goodie.

It’s so much fun to see all the fish and sharks swimming about in the massive, multi-leveled tanks, and you’ll often get to see volunteer SCUBA divers in the water feeding the inhabitants of the giant tanks. Some of the divers have built-in communication devices so they can communicate with visitors on the opposite side of the tanks. Little ones love this!

The aquarium comprises two separate buildings, one devoted to river creatures and the other dedicated to critters found in the ocean. Both provide so many cool experiences for all ages to enjoy, but my favorite spot is the Penguins Rock exhibit, which contains both gentoo and macaroni penguins who are extremely active and entertaining. Whether they’re diving into the chilly water for an energetic swim or hobbling about above the drink, it’s hard to tear yourself away from this part of the attraction considering how tremendously mesmerizing it is! Click here for a video clip of one of the penguins in action.

Your Tennessee Aquarium visit will be complete with a festive excursion on the River Gorge Explorer, a state-of-the-art catamaran that takes its passengers 26 miles into the spectacular Tennessee River Gorge during a 90-minute excursion. Propelled by four water jets, the craft travels at a top speed of 54 miles per hour and is the first of its kind to travel on an inland waterway in North America. Inside the climate-controlled cabin, a naturalist explains the fascinating history of the gorge and discusses the hordes of plants and animals that reside there. Deep inside the heart of the gorge, the vessel stops to allow passengers to venture topside for breathtaking views and the chance to spot eagles, ospreys, bobcats, deer and many more examples of wildlife.

Just a couple of blocks from downtown resides the spectacular BLUFF VIEW ART DISTRICT (423-265-5033; bluffviewartdistrict.com) overlooking the Tennessee River. Stroll through the charming River Gallery Sculpture Garden offering great photo ops with your kids. The River Gallery up the block boasts a variety of art for show and sale, ranging from paintings to sculpture to blown glass and beyond.

The nearby HUNTER MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART (423-267-0968; huntermuseum.org) consists of three buildings, including an impressive mansion, each representing a different architectural area. A lot of unique art is on exhibit, including rotating exhibits. Hunter is one of the most impressive art museums I’ve seen. Pick up an Art Explorers activity guide for your children in the Museum Store for $10 which, when purchased, includes one child’s museum admission. This handy tool helps kids better understand the art they are viewing, and it’s filled with engaging activities for them to do along the way.

Trains and kids go together like Moon Pies and RC Cola, and given Chattanooga’s railway history, there’s no better place to hop aboard a classic ride than with the TENNESSEE VALLEY RAILROAD (423-894-8028; tvrail.com). The 55-minute, six-mile round trip Missionary Ridge ride is your best bet. The steam-powered locomotive pulling the train was built in 1957 for the army, and kids jumped up and down with delight when it came chugging around the bend to the depot to pick up its eagerly awaiting passengers. The ride stops briefly at the East Chattanooga station, and guests can watch the engine turn around on a giant turntable. Click here to see a video clip. But one of the most fun parts of the trip is traveling through the 986-foot tunnel that allows riders to experience total darkness. As your train car approaches the exit point on the other side of the tunnel, it lends a whole new meaning to the old adage, “the light at the end of the tunnel.” Scroll down to the Chatta-BOO-ga section to learn about fun Halloween festivities this month.

Chattanooga’s signature landmark is Lookout Mountain, which is home to the legendary ROCK CITY (800-854-0675; seerockcity.com). Rock City is beyond cool, and kids love it so much you’ll do yourself a favor by taking a set of earplugs to save your eardrums from the amount of shrieks and high-pitched squeals effervescing from the younger crowd. Strolling down the winding paths amid enormous rock formations is like meandering through an above-ground cave. The Lover’s Leap area (pictured above) offers a stunning panoramic view of seven states. Toward the end of the journey, you’ll encounter Fairyland Caverns, complete with European-inspired black-lit, glow-in-the-dark dioramas depicting favorite childhood fairytale characters. In today’s world of high-tech everything, it’s fun to experience a little bit of something so simple, yet stunning; it’s perfect for inspiring the child-at-heart no matter how old you are. Click here to see one of the exhibits in motion.

While you’re on the mountain, head underground at RUBY FALLS CAVERN (423-821-2544; rubyfalls.com) where your initial descent of 286 feet takes place via elevator. From there, your guide will lead you to a total of 1,100 feet underground through a natural cave. Along the way, you’ll discover a lot of fun formations that look similar to other things like a donkey, a mummy, and even steak and potatoes. The pinnacle of the experience, though, is the end of the destination where you’ll experience an amazing underground waterfall that is accentuated with a light show and music.

Head down to the base of the mountain to take a ride on the INCLINE RAILWAY (423-821-4224; lookoutmountain.com). The cable-pulled trolley car takes passengers up a very steep grade of Lookout Mountain at a rate of 600 feet per minute, offering amazing views. Halfway up (and then back down) the mile-long trek, your kids can have fun waving at the passengers in the other train car upon passing it. Click here to see a video clip.

OUTDOOR ADVENTURES

Chattanooga has a lot to offer the outdoor enthusiasts in your family. Ranging from mild to wild, you can find your pleasure here. The brave at heart can surf the sky by hang gliding off Lookout Mountain. The uninitiated, ages 12 and older, can go on a tandem discovery flight with an instructor from the LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN FLIGHT PARK (800-688-5637; hanglide.com) and experience fantastic views of the Chattanooga area from 2,000 feet in the air.

Those more comfortable closer to Earth can take to the water. OCOEE OUTDOORS (800-533-7767; ocoee-outdoors.com) offers families with kids ages 12 and older an experience in the rapids on a white-water rafting trip down the Ocoee River. The Middle Ocoee trip features five miles of almost continuous white water while the Upper Ocoee excursion starts off slow with a nature tour before rafters hit the “Olympic Section” featuring several Class IV and V rapids with many Class IIIs in fast-paced succession.

Looking for something a little tamer but still enjoyable? The good folks at OUTDOOR CHATTANOOGA (423-643-6888; outdoorchattanooga.com) can hook you up with hiking, biking, rock climbing and caving excursions, but my favorite thing here is the flat water kayaking trip down the Tennessee River. Kayaking is fun and easy to do, and it’s an adventure your whole family can do together. Children as young as 8 can navigate a kayak solo, but smaller tykes not quite ready to float alone can ride with Mom or Dad in a two-person vessel.

Chattanooga’s newest outdoor adventure will sate the most extreme thrillseeker in your family. The RUBY FALLS ZIPSTREAM AERIAL ADVENTURE (423-821-2544; http://rubyfallszip.com) will not only test your fear of heights but balance, coordination and agility as well. The attraction offers three courses. The Orange course is designed specifically for ages 6 – 10, and only takes participants seven feet off the ground; there is no zip line on this course. The Green and Blue courses are for ages 11 and older (or anyone with a vertical reach of at least 70 inches). These courses bring daring souls 40 – 50 feet in the air to experience high-wire challenges among the treetops that include tunnels, nets, logs, swinging planks and a couple of nerve-wracking tightrope walking challenges. There are two zip lines, one each at the end of the Green and Blue course, and including those, there are a total of 20 adrenaline-inducing challenges. And never fear, participants are securely harnessed in a belay system, so even if one’s feet slips out from under him, he’ll safely suspend from the safety cable above. This was the most fun adventure outing I have ever done – and no, I didn’t fall off anything! It was a great rush to embrace my fear of heights and I enjoyed the amazing thrill of accomplishment at the end.

CHATTA-BOO-GA

Halloween haunts, scary and not-so-scary attractions await your family this month. Chattanooga boasts several haunted houses throughout the downtown area, but a few particular spots should go on your must-do list.

For families with younger children, embark on the Tennessee Valley Railroad’s HALLOWEEN EERIE EXPRESS (423-894-8028; tvrail.com). Activities include a round trip train ride to East Chattanooga, storytelling, an “eerie” fun house, pumpkin patch, a petting zoo, games and more. Designed for little kids, this excursion is not a haunted house, so no worries about ghosts and goblins jumping out and scaring your little ones. Ages 3 – 12 can pick out a pumpkin (while supplies last), and each child gets a bag of treats to boot. The Halloween Eerie Express runs Fridays and Saturdays, Oct. 15 – 30, with departure times at 5:45 and 7:45 p.m.

Located in the Chattanooga Valley at the foot of Lookout Mountain in the shadow of Rock City, Blowing Springs Farm during this time of year becomes BLOWING SCREAMS FARM (800-854-0675; blowingscreamsfarm.com) on Friday and Saturday nights. Live bands play on the outdoor stage, kids can have their faces painted with a spooky theme, you can warm up by the bonfire and visit two haunts awaiting those brave enough to venture into them. The Forest of Fear leads guests through winding paths where a variety of monsters await to inspire a little fright. The trails lead up to a 165-year-old house that was used as a Civil War hospital, and is reportedly haunted. Here, you’ll finish your experience, and there are a few 3D effects along the way (3D glasses come with your ticket). The more unique – and scarier – attraction is the Ghost Ride. Climb aboard the wagon and take a hayride into the back of the cornfield where muskets fire and cannons boom as ghosts arise from the Civil War to fight once again. Both of these excursions are best suited to ages 10 and older.

At the same property, during the daytime Thursday – Sunday, younger children can enjoy the ENCHANTED MAZE (800-854-0675; enchantedmaze.com). The giant pumpkin-shaped corn maze offers two points of entry, and along the way, if you get lost, just answer a trivia question correctly at one of several directional signs to steer you down the correct path. Other activities include hayrides, the mini cow train and corn cannons.

The ultimate in thrills, chills, frights and horror awaits at RUBY FALLS HAUNTED CAVERN (hauntedcavern.com). The Haunted Cavern is by far the best haunted excursion I’ve experienced from many years exploring the scariest haunts in any city I visit. The tour begins with a ride down the long elevator shaft, just like if you were heading on the regular cavern tour. Another part of the cave that is not normally open to the public is the starting point for one of the most frightening haunts you’ll encounter. The cave itself makes for an interesting and unique setting for scares, and the masterful design and concept of the excursion delivers. Unlike regular, run-of-the-mill haunted house experiences that have the usual monsters jumping out at you right to left, the Haunted Cavern tour centers around an actual storyline in the fictional town of Hannibal Hill, where residents have been quarantined and put under martial law due to the Cerberus Virus that has infected most of the inhabitants who lurk about through the cave. Four classes of occupants haunt the cave: Infectids, Carrions, Scourges and the creepy Sliders who appear from out of nowhere and will scare even the most fearless among you.

The adventure includes both underground and outside journeys, and the further you go, the scarier it gets. And one of the things that makes this experience so phenomenal is the props and special effects. Todd Patton and Tim Green, the haunt’s creators, have heavy backgrounds in the haunted attraction business, and it pays off when it comes to frightening Haunted Cavern patrons. This tour is recommended for ages 13 and older; it is NOT appropriate for young children.

DINING

Chattanooga boasts a variety of culinary delights to please even the most discriminating palate. A few tried-and-true favorites include Sugar’s Ribs, The Back Inn Café and Tony’s Pasta Shop (both in the beautiful Bluff View Art District), Niko’s Southside Grille (boasting a fusion of Mediterranean flair with Southern fare) or enjoy a lunch or dinner cruise aboard the Southern Belle Riverboat. And a visit to Cheeburger Cheeburger downtown is a must; be sure to try a mint chocolate chip malt!

WHERE TO STAY

Chattanooga proudly boasts myriad hotels and bed-and-breakfast locations. If you want to treat your kids to something really special and magical, then book one of the Victorian train cars at the Chattanooga Choo Choo. It’s the ONLY way to stay at the Choo Choo. The comfortable sleeper car provides a cozy place to relax and sleep after a long day of taking in the sites, and kids will simply be ecstatic to spend the night in one of these elegant state rooms. The Choo Choo property hosts its own attractions and eateries as well, including the enormous Chattanooga Southern Railway model railroad display, boasting 174 feet of HO scale track that replicates the city circa 1973. Dine at the Station House, featuring singing servers who take the stage to belt out pop hits from today and yesteryear. The kids will want to hit the Silver Diner, a dining car serving only pizza, by the pie or by the slice. To make reservations, or for more information, call 423-308-2481 or visit choochoo.com.

MORE INFO

Find information about all of Chattanooga’s attractions by contacting the city’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau at 800-322-3344 or chattanoogafun.com.

Chad Young is the managing editor and arts/entertainment editor for this publication.

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