We recently took a road trip to Tennessee, and we had a fantastic time exploring all the areas around Chattanooga. My girls loved it so much. They can’t wait to return and experience even more. Who knew this region is filled with so many kid-friendly adventures?!
While there are many great hotels to choose from in the city, we wanted an Airbnb experience that was close to all the attractions, but with a more “country” feel — and we found just what we were looking for in Ooltewah. This small, charming town offers everything you’d want in the countryside and yet it’s close to the city and all the conveniences you may need. Ooltewah is about 20 miles from Chattanooga and around 95 miles from Knoxville. We drove straight there from Miami, but we took a little break halfway through the trip. In total, it takes about 12 hours to get to Tennessee. I woke the girls up early in the morning so we could arrive by nighttime. Trust me, if the kids are entertained, they won’t even notice the long drive!
Here are some of our favorite experiences that we recommend in and around Chattanooga:
Situated on the Chattanooga Riverfront, the Tennessee Aquarium promises a memorable experience for the whole family. Here you can not only marvel at penguins, sharks, eels, turtles, and all kinds of colorful fish but also discover land creatures such as lemurs, reptiles, birds, and butterflies. In addition, the IMAX theater offers immersive viewing experiences of sea life documentaries and movies sure to leave you in awe. We were blown away by how impressive this aquarium is. And I love that it’s divided into two buildings — one for freshwater exhibits and one for saltwater.
This stunning waterfall located deep within Lookout Mountain is a spectacle that shouldn’t be missed. To reach Ruby Falls, you descend 260 feet into the mountain via a glass-front elevator. Then, your guide will lead you through the cavern formations until you reach the waterfall located at the end of Ruby Falls Cave. Here you’ll discover a magnificent 145-foot stream — the tallest underground waterfall that’s open to the public!
While visiting Lookout Mountain, consider also stopping by Rock City, an enchanted, 4,100-foot walking trail situated on top of the mountain where you can explore rock formations, gardens, and sweeping views of the lush Tennessee Valley. Check out Lover’s Leap, where they say you can see seven different states with a good pair of binoculars (OK, maybe you actually just see 3 or 4, but it’s still pretty cool)! The little ones will love this magical paradise, especially Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village.
After all the fun at Lookout Mountain, we hopped onto the Incline Railway, which took us on a scenic one-mile ride up the mountain. The views from up there are quite spectacular! Once we came back down and disembarked, we stopped for ice cream at Clumpies, regarded by some as the best ice cream shop. So of course, we had to try it. The whole family loved it, especially after a long, hot day!
The Lost Sea Adventure in Sweetwater
Deep in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, you will find an intricate underground cave system filled with history. The guided tour begins with a walk through the cave paths and leads to the largest underground lake in America, known as The Lost Sea. It’s a bit steep and slippery so be careful. The Lost Sea Adventure tour continues with a boat ride around the lake spanning four acres.
I highly recommend planning a day trip to the Smoky Mountains, just a three-hour drive northeast of Chattanooga (2.5 hours from Ooltewah). There are plenty of interesting stops along the way, including Knoxville, Pigeon Forge, and World’s Fair Park. Also, be sure to drive along the scenic Cades Cove loop trail, where you can find all kinds of wildlife. We spotted wild turkeys, horses, deer, and a black bear.
Gatlinburg is located at the bottom of the Smoky Mountains. Here you will find plenty of ways to enjoy the surrounding mountains and expansive views. Ride the Chondola to the top of Anakeesta Mountain, where you will find a theme park featuring roller coasters and zip lines, dining, and other activities perfect for the whole family. For more breathtaking views of the mountains, ride the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway, explore Gatlinburg SkyLift Park, or take in 360-degree views from the Space Needle’s 407-ft. high observation deck. Oh, and look out for black bears roaming the streets! We had dinner in Gatlinburg, and as we were leaving the restaurant, a big black bear was crossing the street right in front of us heading toward one of the hotels. This was definitely a memorable experience!
Cloudland Canyon State Park
Located not too far across the northern border of Georgia, we explored Cloudland Canyon State Park, a sprawling natural area featuring hiking trails, waterfalls, and of course, spectacular views of the canyon. Here you can also find lodging and campgrounds if you’d like to spend more than one day exploring.
Raccoon Mountain Caverns
Known as Tennessee’s top-rated cave, the Raccoon Mountain Caverns include five and a half miles of mapped passageways where you can discover countless natural formations throughout. You may even catch a glimpse of some geckos and grasshoppers in there! You can take a guided tour of the Crystal Palace, or for those who prefer a more adventurous experience, you can choose the wild cave expedition, where you visit some of the deeper, undeveloped areas of the cave.
After visiting the caverns, we let the girls try out the gem panning experience, which is something they’d been asking to do for a long time. It’s offered at Raccoon Mountain. Here you can purchase a panning bag and sort through the dirt to uncover semi-precious gemstones, including amethyst, quartz, sapphire, and topaz, as well as arrowheads and fossils. Each bag is preloaded and guarantees you will find a variety of stones. It’s exciting to watch your children sift through the dirt and water in search of hidden treasures. This is a fun activity that’s great for rock collectors of any age!
As far as dining recommendations, there were a couple of places that stood out. The owner of our Airbnb suggested we try Countryside Café for some good old-fashioned country cooking, and it didn’t disappoint. In fact, we ate there two nights in a row. Try their award-winning meatloaf and banana pudding! For lunch or a sweet treat, I recommend the vintage-inspired Ooltewah Whistlestop, which serves up out-of-this-world milkshakes and delicious sandwiches. The nostalgic vibe and welcoming ambiance of this café place really won us over.
We are looking forward to returning to Tennessee in the future, so we’ve already started a list of more things we’d like to do, including a visit to the Sweetwater Valley Farm and tubing down the Tellico River. I can’t wait for our next road trip adventure!