You’ve seen the signs, if you’re of a certain age and have travelled the big roads and the back roads of the Southeast or Midwest: black roofs on red barns, mostly, emblazoned with “See Rock City.” I’ve read that a single man named Clark Byers painted more than 900 of those between 1935 and 1969.
The attraction’s impressive rock formations and scenic view are found atop Lookout Mountain, which straddles Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. When two evangelical missionaries came to the area in 1823 seeking to convert the Cherokees, one of them (Daniel Butrick) described the boulder-strewn mountain crest “a citadel of rocks.” Developer Garnet Carter and his wife Frieda picked up on that image after Frieda laid out a path through the impressive rock formations, festooned it with native plants, and christened it “Rock City Gardens.” They began operating it as a tourist attraction in 1932.
I once visited the place as a child, more than 50 years ago, but not again until last week. It’s amazing how half a century changes one’s perspective. I remembered that there were statues of gnomes, though I didn’t realize that many were imported from Germany. I remembered the “See Seven States” sign on “Lover’s Leap” and believed I had actually seen seven states from that point, though topographers insist that the curvature of the earth makes it impossible to see as far as the sign claims. I vaguely remembered the spooky fairy tale dioramas in “Fairyland Caverns,” lit only by ultraviolet light, and clearly recalled the politically (and grammatically) incorrect but ever-popular “Fat Man Squeeze,” which gave my grandmother pause. It was fun.
What I didn’t remember was the simple beauty of the garden path that winds among the rocky formations, where the earth’s shifting crust and millions of years of erosion from wind and rain have rendered gigantic works of natural art. If you can manage to arrive before the crowds pick up, wandering on the shady path and peering into majestic cracks and crevices to the accompaniment of soft string music on hidden speakers can be like a massage for the soul.
The fun continues with a short trip down the north face of Lookout Mountain to the entrance of Ruby Falls, which I had also visited long ago. A 260-foot elevator ride takes you to the level of a cave where Leo Lambert — while drilling in hopes of opening up the closed off Lookout Mountain caves lower down — discovered an underground waterfall and named it for his wife Ruby.
Visitors walk for nearly half a mile through a natural cave that has been dug out sufficiently to allow walking: Lambert crawled on his belly for seven hours before finding a place to stand when he first explored the place in 1928. The rock formations and few open spaces aren’t as impressive as better known caverns, but the others don’t have the waterfall.
The trail to Ruby Falls leads into the mountain, so one gets deeper beneath the surface as the mountain grows higher, and nearly half a mile in, the path ends 1,120 feet underground in a large vertical shaft carved out by an underground stream that drops 145 feet into a five-foot-deep pool below. Even amid a gaggle of tourists herded in and out by wise-cracking guides, the sight is striking.
Visitors are led into the cavern in virtual darkness, hearing the roar of the falls without yet seeing them, trying to imagine what it would have been like to discover them for the first time. Despite the colored lights and pretentious musical background, it’s jaw-dropping to stand in the heart of a mountain and feel the spray of a waterfall and imagine how it all came to be. (see on video: RubyFalls)
While I like learning more about the geology of the place, about plate tectonics and groundwater patterns and millions of years of erosion and the formation of stalactites or stalagmites one drop of mineral laden-water at the time, one can’t help but feel gratitude to the One who set it all in motion. In reflecting on his discovery of the falls, Leo Lambert likened the experience to finding God:
“At first it is very dark, scary, and uncertain. You don’t know what lies ahead. You bump into things you didn’t even realize were there and you suffer injuries, bumps, and bruises. You fall down into sticky, sticky mud and mire and feel like you cannot go on. But you get up with a feeling that somewhere ahead lies something more wonderful than you could ever imagine. As you add light to what you discovered you find that the things that caused you suffering and injury were wonderful God made things, put there for you to witness and give you joy. It is all more than you ever imagined you could witness. It is God, and the Ruby Falls and Lookout Mountain Cave are God’s creations, made for man to enjoy. I am just a little proud that he used me.”
Preach on, Leo.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.