Chattanooga: Ruby Falls

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Of the trio of popular tourist attractions in Chattanooga (Ruby Falls, Rock City, and the Incline) for which you can buy an all-inclusive admission pass, the underground waterfall of Ruby Falls is most definitely the most disappointing.  At the same time, it’s remarkable, and quite an amazing discovery.

There are, at last count, just slightly less than one billion signs, barns, and billboards advertising Ruby Falls.  You’ll start seeing them 100 or more miles away on the interstate, and around every corner in Chattanooga.  It’s easy to be convinced that you must see any attraction that has so many signs.  So if you cave under the pressure (pun intended), and decide to visit, here’s what you can expect.

Ruby Falls is located on the side of Lookout Mountain.  Exits 174, 175, or 178 off I-24 will get you there.  I’d give more detailed directions, but why bother?  There are plenty of signs to point you in the right direction.

Ruby Falls was discovered while explorer and entrepreneur Leo Lambert tried to find a different cave.  The natural entrance to the old Lookout Mountain Cave had been sealed off by a railroad tunnel.  Lambert wanted to re-open the cave to tourists, and in 1928, began to dig an elevator shaft.  On the way there, the shaft hit another cavern (260 feet down, but still 160 feet above the old cave).  Lambert explored the chamber, discovered the falls, and named it after his wife, Ruby.  Afterward, the old cavern didn’t seem so important, and Lambert focused on widening the passages that led to the falls.

Your visit begins at the castle-looking building, that Lambert built atop the elevator shaft.  Buy your ticket, and find out when the next tour leaves.

Then wait.

Once the tour is ready to go, you’ll board the elevator, travel down to the cavern, and line up in the narrow corridor.

Then wait for the rest of the group to arrive (it takes several elevator trips to gather everyone).

Once the group is together, you’ll receive instructions on staying together, getting out of the way of groups returning from the falls, etc.  Then, you’ll step forward to the picture taking area, and have your expensive souvenir photo taken.

Then wait for everyone else to do the same.

From there you’ll move forward to a larger chamber equipped with flat panel TV’s, which play a video explaining the history of Ruby Falls (basically, a ten minute version of the paragraph above).

Wait for that to end.  Then, the group starts moving.

You’ll spend about an hour, slowly filing single-file through a narrow passage.  Mostly, you’re surrounded by rocks, not stalactites and stalagmites.  The natural cavern was only a foot high in places, so the passages are more man-made tunnel than natural cavern.

There are a few formations to see along the way.  Above is a stalagmite “which you’re allowed to touch”, according to the tour guide, because it’s already dead.  “It’s the only one you’re allowed to touch”.  No one listens.

Another labeled formation appears overhead.  This one is supposed to look like a donkey’s posterior.

I think this one was called the Elephant’s Foot.

And here’s one more.

At this point, the trip has taken an hour.  That’s a full 60 minutes of standing in line, stopping, walking slowly, stopping again.  If your claustrophobic, this would be hell. If you’re impatient, it would be, too.

And here’s another problem for you photographers out there.  If you stop to take a picture, you’re holding up the rest of the line.  Flash pictures will not turn out, so you’d might as well not even bother.  And if you want to use a tripod, and take a long exposure shot, forget about that, too.  Everyone in line behind you has to wait for you to set up, focus, meter, and click.  The only possible way around this problem would be to volunteer to serve as “the caboose”–and then do whatever you want, since the tour guide is at the front of the line.

OK, so you’ve made it to the end of the cavern, and you’re ready to see the main attraction, Ruby Falls.  The tour guide herds you into a perfectly dark room, where you can hear water rushing.  He/she explains that when the lights come on, you’re supposed to walk around the cascade, then stand and observe the light and music show.

Then they throw the switch…

… and there it is.  You walk around, you stand…

… the lights change color perhaps 2 times, then the over-dramatic music ends, the lights go out, and it’s over.  The whole thing lasts, perhaps, 3 minutes.

  I had just enough time to set up my tripod and take 5 pictures.  That’s it.  Click, click, click, click, click, darkness.  No time to move to a different angle, no time to actually enjoy this remarkable sight.  It was all over, except for the long walk back up the same path.

The trip back only took about 20 minutes, meaning the entire visit lasted about 1 1/2 hours.  If the cavern wasn’t crowded, and if you could have walked at your own pace, you could see it in 10 minutes.  That is, perhaps, the most frustrating part.

It’s important to note that I’d probably have been a lot happier with my visit, if I hadn’t visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico just four months earlier.  Perhaps no other cavern can live up to such a high standard. At Carlsbad, you see an unending variety of stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and pools of water.  There are millions of them at Carlsbad, while at Ruby Falls there are perhaps 10 labeled formations.  And while Carlsbad appears to be a healthy cavern, Ruby Falls appears dead.  Visitors don’t seem to have a respect for the natural formations they’re seeing, and they touch everything (oil from human hands can kill a growing stalagmite).  Carlsbad was quiet, while at Ruby Falls, children ran free and yelled (fueled by boredom from the long waits in line), while adults carried on conversations in their normal voice.  This was a tourist attraction, not a natural attraction, plain and simple.

Perhaps the worst moment of my visit came at the very end.  My group had already returned to the surface, we were led down a hallway, the gift shop was in site, and the tour guide stopped us again.  We stood there for several minutes as she yapped with the people at the front of the line.  Finally someone asked, “is there some reason we’re standing here?” and she let us by.

After all that, I’m not necessarily saying that Ruby Falls is a place you should not visit.  It would be a good destination on a rainy day, or for anyone who really wants to see the falls (the waterfall is amazing).  But if you’re tired, short on time, or just hate paying money to stand in a long line, you might want to find a different attraction to fill your afternoon.  Chattanooga is filled with other things to do, so you won’t be bored.

You could drink water from the pool at the bottom of the falls, but the tour guides warn against it.  They say the water is rich in magnesium, a natural laxative (think Milk of Magnesia), and it’s a long way back to the nearest restroom on the surface.  Of course, this could just be a story concocted to keep people from dipping into the cavern’s deliciously pure water–you’ll have to decide if you’re brave enough to find out (and if you do, please let me know).

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.

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