Tennessee is world-renowned for many things, especially its music. However, when it comes to underrated US cities, its fourth-largest, Chattanooga, may top the list. This up-and-coming town of approximately 180,000 people is located right on the Tennessee-Georgia border. It holds the distinction of being named Best Town Ever twice in Outside magazine and, in 2018, the New York Times named it as one of the top twenty-five places in the world to visit.
One of the main reasons for these accolades is that Chattanooga is an outdoor paradise. A prime location by the Tennessee River allows for ample water activities, and its newly built thirteen-mile Riverwalk is perfect for walking or biking. In addition, the town is surrounded by mountains and ridges, providing abundant hiking and climbing opportunities. There’s a reason its nickname is the Scenic City.
And at the heart of the adventure is Lookout Mountain, an eighty-four-mile range that begins in Chattanooga and stretches through Georgia and into Alabama. Among its popular attractions are Georgia’s Rock City, which features a 4,100-foot nature trail, and the Incline Railway, which takes passengers on a Lookout Mountain sightseeing tour via one of the world’s steepest inclines. But perhaps the most spectacular attraction of all isn’t located on the mountain—but within it.
The story of Ruby Falls—America’s tallest and deepest underground waterfall open to the public—is a love story. And, like all good love stories, it took unexpected twists and turns.
For generations, people had explored Lookout Cave, which is estimated to be thirty million years old, by entering through the natural opening at Lookout Mountain. However, because of a 1905 railroad project, that opening was closed off.
A local chemist, Leo Lambert, was dismayed by its closing, so he devised a plan to open it again to the public. His solution: drilling an entryway down from the mountain into the top of the cave, a project that he and his team began in 1928.
However, before reaching Lookout Cave, they accidentally discovered a two-foot-tall by four-foot-wide opening, which they crawled through for several hours before landing at a second, magnificent cave. At the end of it: a spectacular 145-foot waterfall. Lambert later showed his wife, Ruby, what they had found and vowed to name it after her, which he did.
Ultimately, Lambert succeeded in his original mission: Lookout Cave reopened in 1929, as did Ruby Falls the next year, but the former shut down for good in 1935. However, explorers’ love of Ruby Falls continues to this day.
FALLING FOR RUBY FALLS
Of course, when you visit, the must-see event is the cave itself and its waterfall, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The experience begins before you even get to the cave: you can visit the Cavern Castle, the 1930s dance hall-turned-lobby that was modeled after a fifteenth-century castle and constructed from the five million pounds of limestone removed during drilling. When it’s your turn to tour, an elevator—complete with glass doors so you can see the rock whizzing by as you descend—takes you 260 feet underground, right to where Lambert’s team first found the alternate route. You then walk the rest of the way until you’re 1,120 feet below the surface, where the waterfall cascades down.
Along the way, you’ll witness the many spectacular natural formations that Ruby Falls offers, including flowstone, draperies, stalagmites, stalactites, and onyx. You’ll even see the tiny opening where Lambert and his team crawled out and where he first set foot in the cave. In all, the total journey is about a mile long and takes about an hour.
A few years ago, this already breathtaking experience was enhanced even more. “In 2018, we introduced a new light-and-sound show at the waterfall,” shares Missy Montgomery, digital media and public relations coordinator at Ruby Falls. “This show draws attention to the distinction of the waterfall and the waterfall room and reveals just how massive the falls are.”
A CONCENTRATION ON CONSERVATION
Montgomery also notes that the new show features LED lighting, which is just the latest way Ruby Falls emphasizes eco-consciousness. In 2018, construction of its new venues—including the Village Plaza, Blue Heron Overlook, and Village Gift Shop—was completed, with equal emphasis on customer experience and conservation.
For example, over 75 percent of the construction waste from the project was recycled. In addition, Ruby Falls enhanced its water and energy conservation by making its buildings dramatically more water-efficient and installing a 16,000-gallon rainwater collection irrigation system. It also uses electric vehicle-charging stations and solar energy and even hosts an environmental summit in April for area high-school students. Because of these efforts, Ruby Falls was the first US tourist attraction to be certified by Green Globe, an international sustainability group for businesses.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
Because of Ruby Falls’ popularity (it’s visited by over 500,000 people each year), you should plan ahead for your adventure. “We encourage guests to purchase their tickets online prior to visiting to choose the date and check-in time that works best for their plans,” Montgomery says. “The check-in time puts them in the elevator queue for the next available spot, where they can stand for up to forty-five minutes or so. For a shorter wait time, we recommend arriving or choosing a check-in time prior to 10:00 a.m.”
You can choose from three tours. The Classic Waterfall Tour runs from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. daily. For more adventurous types, there’s the popular Friday night Lantern Tour, which Montgomery says “allows guests to explore the cavern just as Leo Lambert did when he discovered the falls: with just the glow of handheld lanterns.” The newest tour, the Gentle Walking Tour, was unveiled in 2020. “It’s a slower-paced journey through the cavern with early and extended access to the waterfall,” Montgomery adds. “It’s guided by a senior-level guide, who shares in-depth historical and geographical content and exclusive Ruby Falls stories.”
The cavern itself is a consistent sixty degrees year-round, but Montgomery notes that it can get chillier around the falls, so she recommends bringing a lightweight jacket. She also warns that the terrain is a bit tricky, so comfortable, sturdy shoes are a must. “Because the cave is active, there are a few wet spots on the cavern trail, and there are stairs along the way. Plus, since the cavern trail is surrounded by ancient formations, we’re unable to widen it more than the current pathway.” That means you may have to maneuver around some natural formations (which would be damaged if touched), and scrunch under some ceilings (which, in some places, are under six feet).
GOING ABOVE AND BEYOND
The Ruby Falls experience doesn’t end once you emerge from the caverns. For more thrills, the new High Point ZIP Adventure is a must. This attraction takes you soaring through the trees over the Tennessee Valley on seven hundred feet of zip line. If you like to climb up as much as soar down, the adventure also offers forty-foot climbing walls in the middle of nature.
For the ultimate sightseeing experience, climb to the Lookout Mountain Tower and Blue Heron Overlook (both included with admission), which provide spectacular 360-degree views of the entire Tennessee Valley. The Overlook also has a special feature: a viewfinder that allows color-blind people to see the vibrant colors of the surrounding landscape.
You can also plan your visit around Ruby Falls’ ample special programming, including the Romance at Ruby event in February and the 100 Million Steps in March event supporting the American Heart Association. In the fall, Ruby Falls offers an offsite experience: the spooky, popular Dread Hollow haunted house attraction. And for the holidays, a separate part of the cave is transformed into a winter wonderland for kids as they search for the North Pole in Christmas Underground.
No matter when you visit, you’re sure to have a memorable experience at Ruby Falls in Chattanooga. Much like the city it resides in, it shows that there’s so much more to do when you look beneath the surface.
For more info, visit rubyfalls.com