Chattanooga: Lookout Mountain Incline


All of Chattanooga’s tourist attractions seem to be somehow connected with Lookout Mountain, so at some point you’re bound to end up near or on top of the hill. While you can drive to the top for a sweeping view of the city, you can also take a ride on one of Chattanooga’s historic landmarks: the Incline Railway.

Most people park at the base of the mountain and ride up, then down, however, you can travel either way. To find the St. Elmo Avenue Station (where parking is plentiful, and free), exit I-24 at Broad Street, which is also US Highways 11, 41, and 72. Head south until TN Rte. 17 splits, then follow it for just a few more blocks. There are plenty of signs to help you find your way. If you want to park at the upper station, follow the signs toward Rock City. The station is on E. Brow Road.

A round-trip on the incline costs $12, one way is $10.  For children, it’s $6/$5.  You can also buy a combo ticket, which also includes admission to Rock City and Ruby Falls, for $38 (adults) or $19 (child).  The railway is run by CARTA, which also runs buses in Chattanooga.  You’ll find the most current information on their website.

The Lookout Mountain Incline Railway lays claim to the title of “Steepest Passenger Railway in the World”. Near the top, the rails climb at a 72.7% grade (meaning for every ten feet the railcar moves forward, it gains 7.27 feet). By comparison, the steepest grade you’ll find on most interstate highways is only 6%.

But the trip isn’t that steep at the start. As you board the railcar, you’ll immediately notice that the floor is slanted. It will seem more level at the top.

Standing is allowed aboard the railcars, so I recommend you ask for permission to stand at the very back of the car. This will give you out the car’s rear windows, as you climb the tracks.

As you climb, you’ll pass a small gift shop at the side of the tracks. It’s a good place to find souvenirs, so consider driving back to it later in the day.

Once you hit the steeper portion of the track, you’ll feel the railcar tilt forward. About that same time…

… the view out the front of the car opens up, and you can see the city of Chattanooga far below.

At the upper rail station, take time to walk up to the observation deck (which is free, even for people not riding the incline). This is where you’ll find the best perspective on the tracks. There’s also a small cafe

The Lookout Mountain Incline opened in 1895. It was the third rail line constructed to transport visitors up the hillside. It was also the most successful, running the other two out of business by 1900.

Steel cables are connected to both cars, so that one counterweights the other. Two 100-horsepower motors are at the top, and you can see the giant wheels as the railcar pulls into the upper station. There’s also an elevator-style braking system to stop the cars, should a cable snap.

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.

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