Little kids will tolerate looking, but tweens and teens would much rather be doing. If your family enjoys the outdoors and revels in being a bit adventurous, you’ll find some fun offerings await in Chattanooga. • photos by Jane Schneider
1. Paddle a Kayak
Since this small city sits on banks of the Tennessee River, they make the most of that asset by offering kayaking to the public. You can learn where at Outdoor Chattanooga. My son and I meet up with our group at Coolidge Park, across the river from downtown. We glide our crafts into glassy water and I gaze out over an expanse of blue, broken only by the asphalt ribbons that soar overhead, carrying morning commuters to work. My 16-year-old son likes the idea of paddling (minus the 9 a.m. roll call, of course), and quickly finds his groove.
The trip lasts three hours, just right for the novice. We paddle our way around McClellan Island, an 18-acre wildlife sanctuary just upriver and managed by the Chattanooga Audubon Society. As we approach, our guide points out a turkey that has briefly ventured out of the shadows. Other life abounds here, too: a great horned owl my son spots high in the rafters of Veterans Bridge, and a muskrat that skitters along the sandy shore. By the time we’re headed back down the river, the sun is warming our backs. This is just one of a variety of river excursions available. Next time, we’ll sign up for a longer jaunt.
2. Explore a Cave
You might be used to seeing the rugged Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee, but probably not from the inside. Venture to Ruby Falls and you’ll discover just how awesome this view can be. An elevator takes our group down 1,120 feet, into the heart of the mountain, where our hour-long tour begins.
Our college-aged guide is knowledgeable and chirpy, despite this being his last tour of the day. He narrates as walk the narrow path, threading past rounded floe stones, under prickly stalactites (hold tight to the ceiling), and stalagmites (rising up from floor) that decorate this huge limestone cavern. We learn how the cave was discovered; in 1905, as the Southern Railroad was tunneling through parts of Lookout Mountain to extend their line, and about Leo Lambert, a local caving enthusiast who first stumbled upon the falls. Like him, we are bedazzled when we finally encounter the mother chamber highlighted by the fall: a long, elegant tendril of water that cascades several hundred feet into an inky pool below. Lit a ruby pink, it is truly an inspiring sight.
If this walk proves too tepid for the daredevil set, send them next door to Ruby Fall’s ZIPstream Aerial Adventure, a suspended obstacle challenge course built in the trees. This ropes course takes kids over ladders, bridges, tunnels, and more. Though my son and I arrive too late to try it out, another family who had been to a similar attraction in Vancouver gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
3. Man a Canoe
An ideal destination for families with young children is Chattanooga Arboretum and Nature Center, at the base of Lookout Mountain. This 317-acre park offers the opportunity to see some of the wildlife of East Tennessee, including the elusive red wolf, which once roamed extensively across much of the eastern U.S.
We encounter a colorful Five-lined skink as we hike the nature trail that leads to the Discovery Forest Treehouse, a whimsical space that looks over a marsh. At the bend of the trail, you’ll find Paddler’s Perch, on the banks of Lookout Creek. Here, you can rent canoes for an hour or a half-day ($15/hour). We paddle up this tranquil stream, sharing our adventure with an occasional blue heron that passes overhead. If canoeing is new to your family, this is a great place to get your feet wet.
4. Catch a Fish
Have I hooked you yet? The lure of fishing holds appeal, but so does seeing fish, or river otters like this one, in their natural habitat. The Tennessee Aquarium, which celebrates it's 20th anniversary this year, does a masterful job teaching about the aquatic life that calls the Tennessee River home.
Here you can also watch colorful fish from the world’s coral reefs and oceans, pet diamond-shaped stingrays, and view tanks of lacy seahorses and pudgy penguins. Their IMAX theatre is one of the world premiere locations for To the Artic, a fascinating 3D documentary that journeys with a mother polar bear and her cubs as they navigate the Artic. Also beginning in April, the aquarium gets supersized, with a global collection of freshwater megafish.
5. Take a Hike
Since you’re in the mountains, hiking can be easy or as challenging as you like, with many trails leading to heady views. Check out Lookout, Raccoon, or Signal Mountain for trail rankings. Other destinations are listed at Outdoor Chattanooga, as well as mountain biking and hand-gliding options.
Whatever you do, be sure to take your favorite little hikers to the Creative Discovery Museum. From the clever water play space to a pit where kids can dig for dinosaur bones, this is a wonderfully inventive children’s museum, with something for every age. We enjoyed one exhibit that featured living spaces and kitchens from cultures around the world. As a parenting editor, I’ve explored many children’s museums nationally — and Chattanooga's is among the best.
Chattanoogafun.com – The city's official travel website. Look here for destinations, coupons, and deals.
KayakingOutdoors Chattanooga • An overview of the abundance of outdoor activities available in Chattanooga, listed by water, air, and land. Prices vary.
Caving Ruby Falls • Admission: $17.95/adults, $9.95/ages3-12. ZIPStream Aerial Adventure • $34.95/ages 11+, $19.95/ages 6-11 Best bet: Combo tickets to several area attractions
Canoeing Chattanooga's Arboretum and Nature Center • Admission: $8/adults, $5/ages 4-11, 3 and under free
Fish Viewing Tennessee Aquarium • Admission: $24.95/adult, $14.95/ages 3-12, under 3 free.
Overall Fun Creative Discovery Museum • Admission: $11.95/adults, $11.95/children. Reduced rates w/multiple attraction tickets.