Known primarily for its role in the Civil War (1861-65) battles of Chattanooga and Chickamauga, and for the Rock City, Ruby Falls, and Incline Railway tourist attractions in and near Tennessee, Lookout Mountain is actually a bigger physical presence in Georgia, and even larger in Alabama.
Geologically considered a ridge in the state’s Valley and Ridge province, Lookout Mountain stretches eighty-four miles from downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee, to downtown Gadsden, Alabama. Only three miles of Lookout Mountain are located in Tennessee, while thirty-one miles lie in northwest Georgia and fifty miles extend into northeast Alabama. The mountain’s highest point is located near the community of High Point, Georgia, along the eastern brow, where it reaches an elevation of 2,393 feet.
Lookout Mountain is the southernmost extension of the Appalachian Plateau, a land mass that runs from Birmingham, Alabama, to Knoxville, Tennessee. Lookout Mountain is separated from Sand Mountain (also part of the Cumberland Plateau) by Lookout Valley, a two-mile-wide channel that includes the towns of Trenton and Rising Fawn, Georgia.
Along the top of Lookout Mountain, in Walker County, are incredible views of two different valleys: Chattanooga Valley to the east and Lookout Valley to the west. The narrow, flat top of Lookout Mountain is large enough for small communities and a few roads, and is well suited for homes built along the brow that provide outstanding scenery into the valleys below.
The precipitous drop-offs from the top of Lookout Mountain into the valleys also furnish an excellent site for hang-gliding. One of the world’s best-known hang-gliding schools, the Lookout Mountain Flight Park, is located in Georgia, just southwest of the West Brow community.
Covenant College, a four-year school affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America, is located on top of Lookout Mountain in Georgia. The college occupies a former hotel, and that building’s tower can be seen from miles in all directions. It is possible, for example, to see the Covenant College campus while standing on White Oak Mountain in Ringgold, fifteen miles away. Covenant’s campus sprawls northeast to southwest along the mountaintop, occupying numerous buildings.
Most people know Lookout Mountain through its tourist attractions. Ruby Falls is a commercial cave that takes tourists 260 feet down into the limestone rock, where they can view a 145-foot waterfall and strange rock formations. The Incline Railway ascends the steepest part of Lookout Mountain, near the Chattanooga neighborhood of St. Elmo, reaching a grade of 72.7 percent in one section. On the northernmost point of the mountain is Point Park, part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park commemorating the Civil War battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga. After their defeat at Chickamauga in September 1863, Union troops broke through Confederate general Braxton Bragg’s line the following November during the Battle of Chattanooga, forcing a Confederate retreat and ending the Chattanooga campaign.
Rock City, known for its “See Rock City” signs painted on the tops of barns across the Southeast, is a product of millions of years of erosion of the mountain’s native sandstone, which has produced fantastically shaped boulders. Frieda and Garnet Carter started Rock City in 1932. Garnet Carter also built the world’s first miniature golf course on Lookout Mountain in the 1920s. The boulders that gave birth to Rock City appear all over Lookout Mountain and its “thumb,” Pigeon Mountain, in such locations as Rocktown (a nontourist version of Rock City with equally if not more bizarre rock formations), the Zahnd Tract (a state park), and along the eighteen-hole course of the Lookout Mountain Golf Club.
Outdoor enthusiasts nationwide are drawn to Lookout Mountain’s unusual landscape. Miles of caves wind through the limestone of the mountain. Ellison’s Cave on the Pigeon Mountain extension of Lookout Mountain in Georgia is the deepest cave east of the Mississippi River. Cloudland Canyon State Park offers hiking in and around the deep gorge cut into the western edge of Lookout Mountain in Dade County. The elevation in the park drops from 1,980 feet to 800 feet. In the Alabama section of Lookout Mountain is the Little River Canyon National Preserve, which contains the longest river in North America that runs its course entirely on top of a mountain.
Cherokee chief John Ross grew up at the base of Lookout Mountain, where his father operated a store. Tom Hicks, a noted maker of Appalachian dulcimers, lives on Lookout Mountain in Georgia. The noted Georgia folk artist Howard Finster was born on the western slopes of Lookout Mountain near the town of Valley Head, Alabama. Finster spent his adult life to the east of Lookout Mountain in the town of Pennville, Georgia, where he built Paradise Gardens, an outdoor display of his artwork.