10 definitive local experiences
In the 2007 motion picture “The Bucket List,” two terminally ill men make a to-do list of the things they must do or see before they die.
Chattanooga has a wealth of great sites that are landmark tourist destinations. Count among those the Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga Choo Choo and Rock City and Ruby Falls on Lookout Mountain.
But there are other places — less-known spots — that lifelong residents and visitors alike have come to cherish. Most are less than an hour’s drive from downtown.
Here’s our list of the 10 places every visitor and resident should visit before “kicking the bucket.”
Raft the Ocoee River
1 Site of the 1996 Olympic white-water competition, the Ocoee River in Polk County is beloved for its fast-running rapids. Rafting season opens at the end of March. More than 20 outfitters offer guided expeditions. Prices range from $30 to $50 per person. Call the Ocoee Whitewater Center at 423-496-0100 for more information. Take U.S. Highway 64 to get there, which is also a beautiful fall drive and an alternate route to western North Carolina.
Ride the Cannonball
2 Lake Winnepesaukah Amusement Park is tucked away in Rossville, but should not be forgotten, especially since it features several classic rides, including the Cannonball. The 42-year-old, all-wood roller coaster is prized by park enthusiasts. It costs just $6 to ride the Cannonball and $21 to ride every ride in the park. The park opens in April. For more information, visit www.lakewinnie.com.
Get your toes tappin’at Mountain Opry
3The Mountain Opry, featuring live bluegrass and old-time acoustic music, has been a mountain tradition for 30 years. The Friday shows start at 8 p.m. Regional acts warm up backstage and outside. Musicians are welcome. The Opry is located in an old frame schoolhouse (Walden’s Ridge Civic Center, 2501 Fairmount Pike) atop Signal Mountain. Call 423-886-3252 for more information.
4 Cloudland Canyon State Park is one of Georgia’s largest state parks. Located on Lookout Mountain, it features a deep gorge and scenic vistas. Before going, be advised that the steps to the park’s two waterfalls are seemingly endless. Every step down is a step that must be taken back up. But conquering the stairway is a rite of passage. Visit www.gastateparks.org.
Fall foliage cruise
5 The Tennessee River Gorge is scenic any time of year, but locals praise the fall colors visible on various cruises. The fastest route is aboard the Tennessee Aquarium’s River Gorge Explorer. Cruises cost $28 for adults, $21.50 for kids. Call 800-262-0695 or visit www.tnaqua.org for more information. Blue Moon Cruises also offers trips down the Tennessee River. Call 888-993-2583 or visit www.bluemooncruises.org.
Bike the entire Riverwalk
6 The Tennessee Riverwalk runs 13 miles along the Tennessee River. It’s loved by runners, walkers and cyclists. The flat terrain is perfect for a novice, but it might take awhile to complete the entire length, which runs from the Chickamauga Dam to Renaissance Park on the North Shore. For more information, visit www.outdoorchattanooga.com/197.htm.
7 The South is known for fall festivals with homemade arts and crafts, funnel cakes and old-time music. Ketner’s Mill in Whitwell, Tenn., offers the best of that. The historic gristmill, where stone-ground cornmeal and grits are made, is on 100 acres of farmland along the Sequatchie River. The mill is open to the public for a two-day festival held Oct. 16-17. For details, visit www.ketnersmill.com or call 423-267-5702.
8 Health food fanatics, beware: these restaurants offer hearty fare. In every Southern city, you must check out local eateries like Bea’s Restaurant, 4500 Dodds Ave., famous for family-style dining. Try Nikki’s Drive Inn, 899 Cherokee Blvd., for delicious fried shrimp. Try Lamar’s Restaurant, 1018 E. M.L. King Blvd., for great soul food and stiff drinks, or Zarzour’s Cafe, 1627 Rossville Ave., for hand-patted burgers and meat-and-threes like your mama makes.
Tee up at The Honors Course
9 Some say The Honors Course in Ooltewah is as challenging as Augusta National Golf Club, site of The Masters tournament. Tee times are reserved for members and their guests only, so getting on this course is a real feat. Visit www.honorscourse.net for more information.
Watch the great blue herons fish
10 As the Chickamauga Dam churns, fish are pushed to the top of the river, creating something of a buffet for great blue herons and some awesome bird-watching for locals. Visit the dam — the last outbound exit to the left of Amnicola Highway before state Highway 153 — to see the massive birds in action. We’re told they often play “chicken” with approaching trains and are willing photography subjects. Birds are present year-round.