What makes a garden? Does it have to grow food? That would imply that all gardeners are farmers, which just isn’t the case. Does it have to have plants? Maybe, but there is such a thing as rock gardens. I think that gardening is art made with landscape, be it plants, water, rocks or simply amazing views. Rock City, near Chattanooga Tennessee, has all of these landscape elements and more.
The Rock City area was special to the indigenous Indians and first noted by Europeans in 1832 when a pair of missionaries used the nature rock placements for their sermons. They enjoyed the nature but they weren’t gardeners.
The first gardeners were Garnet Carter and his wife Frieda. Garnet’s plan was to develop a residential community and golf course, called Fairyland, on top of Lookout Mountain. The full-size golf course was taking too long to build, so he invented miniature golf and built the first miniature golf course – Tom Thumb Golf.
Frieda was a gardener. She built the gardens around rock city as a stunning trail that wound through the boulders to Lover’s Leap where there were tall cliffs and the view of seven states. Garnet realized that people would pay to see Freda’s garden and sold his rights to miniature golf to fund Rock City, which opened as a public attraction in 1932
Entrance to Rock City
We didn’t know much about Rock City before our visit, other than the ubiquitous idea that we should ‘See Rock City’ that seemed to be painted on every barn and birdhouse. The start of the garden path was quite pleasant. There were small water features and a fine collection of native plants that were meticulously labeled. We were visiting right before Mother’s Day and we thought our moms would love it here.
The first missionaries described the boulder arrangement “as to afford streets and lanes”. Some of these rocks, like Fat Man’s Squeeze and Balancing Rock, are nearly 1000 tons and the passage requires that you turn your shoulders. Hiding in the gift shops and amongst the rocks were gnome displays and little gnome villages. Perhaps we should have seen the pattern with Fairyland, Tom Thumb Golf and an abundance of gnomes but we had seen garden gnomes before and didn’t think much of it.
Reaching Lover’s Leap
Frieda Garnet’s master plan was for the garden path to end at Lover’s Leap for a reason. The views were spectacular. You had your choice of two bridges to reach the lookout, a traditional rock bridge and a Swing-A-Long Bridge suspension bridge over a 150’ chasm. You know us, we did both.
At the far end of the bridges was Lover’s Leap and the famed seven state view. Skeptics will claim that, due to the curvature of the Earth, the highest points in Virginia would be hidden by the ridges in Tennessee. For the love of fairy tales, I want to believe in the seven state view. I can claim that on a perfect day atmospheric ducting or a Fata Morgana illusion could project the obscured mountains of Virginia past their Tennessee counterparts. Who am I to debunk a great story that is, literally, set in stone.
The other tale of Lover’s Leap is a Cherokee legend of Sautee and Nachoocee. They were star-crossed lovers from feuding tribes. When their illicit love was discovered Sautee was captured and thrown from the top of Lover’s Leap. Nachoocee, in her despair, jumped to her death behind her lover.
The view also included a real-life See Rock City Barn. From 1935 to 1969, artist Clark Byers painted over 900 barns in nineteen states to advertise Rock City. This isn’t even including all of the replica birdhouse barns that people put in their own front yard. Much like Mail Pouch barns or the Ohio Bicentennial barns of my youth, Rock City Barns have become an icon unto themselves.
The views are amazing here and the collection of stories are pretty good too. There are a restaurant, restrooms, and even a small climbing wall. Lover’s Leap is a beautiful end to a garden trail, but we still needed to return to the entrance to Rock City.
Discovering Deer Park
Avoiding droll retracing of our steps, a new and unique trail traced back. First, we dropped through the aforementioned Fat Man’s Squeeze. Carefully we descended the steps and popped out above the Fallow Deer enclosure. These Old World deer are smaller than the American Whitetail and, this particular herd had a few white deer. If gardening is painting with nature, why not include some animals.
The High Falls
Just past the deer enclosure was, perhaps, the most iconic image of Rock City – The High Falls. The High Falls is an artificial waterfall that cascades 150’ down from Lover’s Leap into a small catch pool below. By now we had fully expanded our definition of gardens to include rocks, gnomes, lookouts and deer. Why not also include waterfalls? After all, a gardener paints with nature and natural ideas. This was a beautiful spot for a tall waterfall so why not add one?
The falls were amazingly hard to photograph. We wanted a camera with a much larger field of view, and the shadows from the cliffs were dark next to the bright blue skies behind them. Still, you have to take this shot if you’re going to Rock City.
The path left the base of High Falls and entered the heart of the mountain.
The first cavern we entered after the falls was an unmarked, wet passage. We figured the only way to go was forward, but it didn’t look too inviting. Neither did the marked entrance to Fairyland Caverns. We would have been remiss to skip this part, but we weren’t entirely excited. That feeling changed when we went inside.
Our trepidation was trumped by the amusement of the absurd. The gnomes that we saw intermixed in the gardens were placed in a tour de force. Each nook contained a gnome motif and an excessive amount cave embellishments. I couldn’t tell if it was an authentic speleothem that had been relocated or simply some coral put underground but, whatever it was, it was everywhere. This excess did warm us up for the main underground attraction.
You see, Frieda Garnet loved European fairy tales. Her garden was her passion. Still underground, we passed display after display of famous fairy tales in Mother Goose’s Village. These weren’t your ordinary installations. They were glowing vividly under black lights. I think we had official passed gardening and into installation art. At this point, we were at a loss for words so we’ll just let our pictures speak for us.
Wrapping up Rock City
Somehow, Mother Goose’s Village emptied out right into the gift shop. We considered buying a gnome or birdhouse for our collection. We probably would have shelled out for a black light poster of a fairy tale if they had one. Instead, we left with pictures and some good stories.
Rock City is a pleasant way to spend a day. I would love to see what they do with Christmas or their falcon shows during high season. I don’t know if I would call this a garden, or a tour. You just have to See Rock City to understand.
If you are Chilling in Chattanooga, don’t forget to check out the guide to good times.