See Rock City. That’s what the highway signs said. So here I stand, atop Lookout Mountain. Seeing Rock City.
I am 2,389 feet above sea level. The world beneath me looks like a train model set, filled with thousands of itty-bitty Walmarts and Burger Kings.
I’m overlooking seven U.S. states from a cliff known as Lover’s Leap. I can see Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.
“Long way down,” says a nearby tourist. The man leans over the guardrail and spits, just to watch his saliva fall.
He stares admiringly at his airborne spittle. “Long, LONG way down,” he adds.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve seen slews of highway signs saying, “See Rock City.” They are scattered along backroads between Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and God only knows where else. They are painted on every barn, cowhouse, birdhouse and doghouse.
I have even seen these three words engraved on the boys’ bathroom wall in a local junior high school. “See Rock City” was written just beneath the phrase, “Mrs. Biderbecke stinks,” and “Writing on bathroom stall walls is done for neither wealth nor critical acclaim, therefore it is the purest form of art.”
I’ve also seen those famous three words in places far from home.
One time, in the Philadelphia International Airport, I saw a guy wearing a “See Rock City” T-shirt. I was homesick and thrilled to see anything familiar. I immediately stopped swatting rats and approached him.
“Excuse me, sir?” I asked. “Where are you from?”
“Who the [bleep] wants to [bleeping] know?” he asked.
“Your T-shirt,” I said. “See Rock City? I know where that place is.”
“How about that.” He said. Then he stole my wallet.
But somehow, I’ve never actually been to Rock City until today.
I pulled into the park at lunchtime. I bought a ticket. One adult pass cost me a little over $25. Not a bad deal when you consider that I went to Disney World last summer and had to take out a reverse mortgage.
“We get visitors from all over the world,” said the lady in a nearby gift shop. “Today alone, I had people from Japan, Australia, Norway, even Milwaukee.”
After 90 years of being in business, everyone still wants to see Rock City.
I met a local man on the trail. He has visited the attraction dozens of times. I asked him what was the most memorable thing he ever saw in Rock City.
“One time, in the eighties, there was an old man who was wearing a thong bikini who wanted to see Rock City. It was a pretty small bikini. He saw Rock City, all right. But Rock City wasn’t all that crazy about seeing him.”
The park was busy. I met a man from Sweden who was with his girlfriend. A family from Brazil, just passing through.
A young man from Spain told me he’s seen Rock City five times. “I adore it here,” he proclaimed.
There were smatterings of American children, running in circles, eating cheap, bowel-obstructing amusement park food.
There were elderly couples dressed in activewear. There were entire youth groups who took a four-hour bus ride to visit the park simply so they could scroll on their phones.
It was great.
Rock City is in located in Georgia, technically. But you’re within baseball-throwing distance of the Tennessee line, and only 20-odd miles from Alabama.
The 4100-ft walking trail is filled with geological marvels. You see a 90-ft waterfall. You see a 180-ft long suspension bridge overlooking the Chattanooga Valley that will make every sphincter inside your body tighten.
There is also an impossibly narrow passage leading between two giant rockfaces called the Needle’s Eye.
At times, it feels like the Needle’s Eye passage is only three nanometers wide. So if you’re claustrophobic—how do I put this?—you are dead.
In the Needle’s Eye, I met an older couple from Detroit. They were mid-70s. The man was frozen in place, rapt with fright. He was breathing heavily and sweating through his shirt.
“George,” his wife kept saying, “just keep breathing, sweetie, we’re almost there.” She turned to me and said, “My husband is claustrophobic.”
I asked George if he was okay.
“Oh, I’ll be doing great,” said George, “once I’m able to change my shorts.”
I walked along the meandering pathway, tucked in the Appalachian forest. I took pictures. I oohed and ahhed as I read my brochure.
Rock City first opened its doors as a tourist attraction in 1932 when a man named Garnet Carter decided to develop a residential neighborhood here. The idea fell through.
So instead, Carter created this enchanting place. He did it for his wife, the pamphlet said. Out of love. Out of devotion. And even though the flier didn’t say it, I’ll bet he created Needle’s Eye for his in-laws.
I emerged from the wooded path at Lover’s Leap. I peered over seven states, standing atop the granite precipice. I was overawed.
There were a few kids next to me. And I felt ancient in their presence. Really old. And I felt a little nostalgic, too. Because, you see, I’ve been seeing highway signs and painted barns advertising Rock City for as long as I’ve been alive.
But today, I finally saw it.
Ann Thompson - July 13, 2022 9:20 am
☀️glad you did.
Nan Clark - July 13, 2022 2:16 pm
I still have nightmares of going through Needles Eye as a 4yr old behind what at the time seemed to me a really large lady. I was certain I was going to be stuck there for eternity!
Brenda Lewis - July 13, 2022 9:35 am
Dear Sean, my grandparents lived in Rome, GA. I grew up and still live just below Savannah, GA. Trips to Rock City were such fun for my brother and me when we traveled up to visit our relatives. I returned a few years ago, and it was still much as I remembered it from my childhood. But… DO NOT go through the Fat Man’s Squeeze if you are prone to claustrophobia. (I’m glad you got to finally see the little jewel that is Rock City!)
Barbara - July 13, 2022 9:38 am
You have the most charming skill way of embellishing and I totally enjoy it every day. I’m glad you’re on the road again and thanks for taking us along on the adventure.
Donna Brombacher - July 13, 2022 9:39 am
I grew up in southern Ohio (river rat) and saw See Rock City painted on many barns and, of course, we visited Rock City when I was a little girl. One winter, trudging through a couple of feet of snow, my mother placed a bird feeder in the yard. She make it out of a Zesta saltine cracker box and covered it with the paper from a grocery bag then wrote SEE ROCK CITY across the top – my brother and I thought it was a hoot and the birds seemed to like it. Thanks for the walk down memory lane.
Pam - July 13, 2022 12:13 pm
Went there last fall and loved it. Someday I’ll go back.
Jocelyn - July 13, 2022 9:48 am
Too funny. I have yet to visit even though I travel to Chattanooga annually. Have run and hiked up lookout mtn. Even rode on my bike all around GA and TN in that area. On my list.
Cathie Fowler - July 13, 2022 9:59 am
Loved your column about Rock City. My husband and I went there on our honeymoon 50 years ago. Of course, we also stayed at The New Perry Hotel, which is now defunct, so glad something besides us is still around! Thanks.
Trista - July 13, 2022 10:13 am
Wish I had known you were in Chattanooga. I would have given you a hug.
Just yesterday I was driving on Hwy 11, thinking about your last article, wondering if I would pass you. My (our) daughter just got married; they live in Charleston, TN. God’s beautiful country where people still say, “God bless you, have a great day.”…..even in the public school.
Thank you for writing!!!! Seriously, thank you!
Your books, your words, your voice have helped me along the journey of finding truth and living in it. You are God’s sweet gift to me and lots of other’s.
My husband and 2 adult kids live in Chattanooga now. But we both grew up on the Panhandle. We both graduated from Choctaw. I went to OW for 2 years. We both have logged many hours on the good ole Choctawhatchee Bay. (We are older than you) Then we were married in Destin and moved to Pensacola where both kids were born. Both our parents still live in the area.
I aspire to write words that bring glory to God, words that offer hope and freedom and truth and LOVE. (Not preachy, bang you over the head with a Bible words) bc I’m in the process of collecting those words.
Thank you for writing!!! Thank you for showing that life is hard and even unfair but there is still hope, still beauty to be found. You offer hope to the hurting and real rich laughter for the soul.
I hope one day I get to hug your neck.
Many, many blessings to you and your beautiful bride!
Vivian Holmes - July 13, 2022 10:30 am
But did you walk on down the road and visit Point Park? Breathtaking views down over the city and the Tennessee River. Or drive a few miles south and visit Cloudland Canyon State Park? You passed the Ga Hwy 136 intersection when you drove Hwy 11 into Trenton. We live in a beautiful area with lots to see.
Nan Claypool - July 13, 2022 11:01 am
You need to see it at Christmas!
Paul McCutchen - July 13, 2022 11:05 am
Now, I guess, I will have to go.
Denise - July 13, 2022 11:20 am
I saw Rock City as a kid, them took my own kids to see it. We all loved it. (I did not enjoy Ruby Falls, but you should visit Ruby Falls while you’re there)
Nan Williams - July 13, 2022 12:25 pm
The Needle’s Eye used to be called, “Fat man’s squeeze”. I don’t know when they changed the name of it. Actually during my childhood (40s & 50s), it was common in places like that to have areas with names unapproved in today’s WOKE world. I enjoyed reading about your trip to Rock City. I look forward to your columns every day – they make such a nice start to my day. Thank you. Keep it up.
wfsuga - July 13, 2022 4:51 pm
Thank you, Nan. I thought the same thing. It was always “Fat Man’s Squeeze” when I visited Rock City in my youth. Sad, isn’t it?
Tina Laird - July 13, 2022 12:27 pm
I needed this today. See Rock City is probably in the top 10 of my childhood memories and the place it holds in my heart is more special since those that I visited with are no longer here on Earth. Thank you for sharing!
Roger Todd - July 13, 2022 12:30 pm
One of the most foreign places I’ve seen tHe ‘See Rock City’ was on a model train display in the Frankfort, Germany airport.
Brenda Lynch - July 13, 2022 12:46 pm
My sweet Georgia born and raised daughter lives in Chattanooga and loves Rock City. Actually this, still in Georgia, Mama made the trip to Rock city with this daughter and her sister many many years ago. It was beautiful and they loved it–I actually have two silhouettes of those little girls cut by hand by an artist in the park that day, amazing. But last Christmas, my now Tennessee daughter and I went at night to see the Christmas lights in Rock City, it was sort of cheesy at times, but oh how wonderful it was. I had moments of tears as I remembered a little girl that I held hands with to protect and this time she would reach for my hand to protect me. It was glorious–take Jamie this year and I will look for you there because we didn’t quite get enough and are already planning to go this year. Thanks for bringing back some sweet memories–my eyes may have leaked a little.
Jeanie Morelock - July 13, 2022 12:50 pm
I have lived in East TN all of my life and I’m told that I have seen Rock City! But you just stoked my memory enough that I even remember seeing it! You also stirred a longing to see it again. Thank you!
MR - July 13, 2022 1:08 pm
The following line made me laugh out loud! “ There were entire youth groups who took a four-hour bus ride to visit the park simply so they could scroll on their phones”
I’ve had some hard days this year, so sometimes, the only laughter I may have in a day comes from some of your hilarious observations. Thanks for your medicinal gift. Your writings are like a balm to a hurting soul. I’m so glad you are using the gift God gave you.
Steve McCaleb - July 13, 2022 1:18 pm
I’m another of the generation who grew up riding southern roads seeing “See Rock City” painted on every flat surface from Cutandshoot, Texas to Matewan, West Virginia. It was an integral part of any trip. My parents took me as a mere child. The two high points ( at least as I was concerned) was touring that most southern of shrines…The Moon Pie Bakery in nearby Chattanooga and the trip back down off the top of Lookout Mountain when the brakes on my Dad’s Bel Air 4 door attempted to go out. Let’s just say by the time we got back on flat ground my dad had much the same problem as the elderly gentleman from Detroit. Tell his wife to go by Heaven ( aka Moon Pie Factory) and get him a case of the triple-decker Caramel & Salt moonies. On second thought, just give him a shot of Immodium and a cork. If he eats 7 or 8 of those…. he might require an intervention by a skilled proctologist. Ah, memories of the American south…..pure joy.
ROBERT STORCK - July 13, 2022 1:39 pm
Visited RC along with Ruby Falls in the fall of 1964. Returned in 2013 still love the place. Brings back some fine memories. Yes I have Seen Rock City.
Patricia Gibson - July 13, 2022 1:40 pm
I have been. Beautiful! But my main love is the many memories of traveling with families and seein the signs on barns etc. Great memories
David Britnell - July 13, 2022 1:42 pm
Sounds like I need to do a road trip! Have a great day Sean!
Patricia Stanfield - July 13, 2022 1:49 pm
Growing up in Georgia, I saw “See Rock City” signs everywhere. Only after marrying did I actually see Rock City.
I even bought a birdhouse with that slogan painted on its roof. It hangs from the eaves of an out building here at my Mississippi home, a constant reminder of my childhood in the Peach State. Thanks for this memory trip!
KK - July 13, 2022 1:50 pm
Awwww!! My husband & I made a stop there on our honeymoon. I’d love to go back again someday… It was enchanting.
Cindy Hurley - July 13, 2022 1:52 pm
I moved far away from Chattanooga and my proud is possession is a bird feeder this says see rock city
otho f plyler - July 13, 2022 2:11 pm
…hope you took along a well-worn copy of William Least Heat Moon’s book, Blue Highways And, Ruby Falls is cool, especially this time of year
Kim - July 13, 2022 2:16 pm
I live in Tennessee but have never been to Rock City. Now, I’ll have to make sure to get there. Can everyone get thru the Needle’s Eye? I’m a bit fluffy.
Laurie Pallotta - July 13, 2022 2:26 pm
Go back at Christmas time and take Jamie with you. It’s magical! You won’t regret it.
Cathy W Moss - July 13, 2022 2:37 pm
I live the way you are living. You are doing everything correctly. Live for today and soak it all in . You rock, Sean, no pun intended❤️😂
Judy Riley - July 13, 2022 2:39 pm
I have a large red birdhouse with a black roof that has “See Rock City” on it. I’ve had it for years…never put it out in the weather..one of my favorite things. I’m a person consumed with nostalgia (I don’t take meds for it.) I traveled from KY to GA many times and always loved those barns!!!
Pat - July 13, 2022 2:51 pm
Sean, thank you for bringing back the memory of a trip to Rock City 65 years ago with my parents and grandparents. I still have the black and white pictures. Your words put me right back there. Enjoy your day!
Dot Coltrane - July 13, 2022 2:58 pm
Enjoyed your column about Rock City, Sean. I remember coming as a child from North Georgia, and many years later, as a grandparent. On the second visit, I declined walking across the suspension bridge. I have learned that old people who have had a fear of heights learn to obey their instincts.
Joy DeBusk - July 13, 2022 3:03 pm
I want to share a story that I recently learned from my birth mother, Hazel.
Just to back up a moment, I found Hazel in 2019 when I was 62 and she was 82. She lives in Geraldine, AL and has lived in that general area most of her life, except when she left for South Florida, a world away, without any of her family knowing the true reason for leaving. Plans fell through for Hazel and I was adopted by a loving couple. Hazel returned to Alabama. Now, back to our Rock City story. On this second visit with Hazel, she shared more of her past history, showing old photographs and relating interesting stories. This photograph was of two teenage girls dressed in their Sunday best giggling and leaning against a stone structure in Rock City. On the back of this photograph was the still visible red lipstick mark of a kiss. Hazel blushed at first but then softly giggled again, remembering the time when she and her best girlfriend hitch-hiked to Rock City with two boys in a convertible they had never met before!
Terrie P Allen - July 13, 2022 3:22 pm
Last evening, I was driving several friends from church to serve at a community meal in Minneapolis. On the way back, we got on the subject of road trips and I shared that all the years my family drove back and forth from Florida, I would ask my dad if we could stop at Lookout Mountain/Rock City but we never did. We were always in a hurry to get to Florida or get home from Florida.
I open up my email this morning…mind blown!
Margaret - July 13, 2022 3:55 pm
Beautiful descriptions, as always, Sean! I grew up about an hour from Rock City and have never seen it. I live about 3 hours away from it now, and this summer we were in the area for a day trip and were considering what to do. We decided to hike Lookout Mountain instead and started at the Cravens House. It was a nice hike up the mountain, and afterward we had a delicious dinner at a Thai restaurant, and I still haven’t seen Rock City. I am trying to decide whether it rates being added to my bucket list. Maybe. There’s a cave near where I grew up (Wonder Cave) that was operated commercially for a number of years, and my cave guide friend used to say, “It’s a wonder it’s still there.” Probably true for Rock City as well.
Chris Davis - July 13, 2022 4:13 pm
Rock City is Americana at its best. Read Neil Gaimen’s American Gods book and was thrilled to see it referenced.
Summer - July 13, 2022 5:22 pm
Your last line made me smile. Two weeks ago I was packing up to move from our home of 23 years when I found, in a dark corner of a rarely used cabinet, a big heavy glass goblet emblazoned with “See Rock City” in red and white. It looks just like it did the day it was given me 42 years ago, a souvenir my husband picked up during a family vacation the year we got engaged. The family vacation I’d been invited along, then uninvited at the last minute because my future mother-in-law decided she wanted it to be “just family.” They left the day before my 22nd birthday. I was crushed. When my sweetheart returned four days later, coming straight to my apartment, I wasn’t interested in the big clunky souvenir glass he brought me or the Polaroids of him and his “official” family (including his new brother-in-law) grinning happily as they all enjoyed scenic trails, waterfalls and lovers’ peaks without me. On my birthday. Ah, memories. Despite that bumpy start, my mother-in-law and I (eventually) enjoyed a sweet relationship until she passed away two years ago. At first finding that souvenir glass made me sad so I tossed it in the Goodwill box and continued packing. A minute later I retrieved it. The night they returned from Rock City was also the night my husband proposed, I didn’t get a “rock” right away, so that big ugly Rock City glass was my first engagement token! I laughed as I wrapped it up carefully for the trip to our new home. I’m glad you finally got to see Rock City. (I still haven’t!)
Harriet White - July 13, 2022 10:14 pm
Wow! What an interesting “memory” of Rock City!!
That’s so cool you kept the souvenir!
Linda J - July 13, 2022 5:47 pm
I saw it also, just once with my grandmother, cousin, aunt and a 2nd cousin and his wife. That same night in the hotel I saw the footage on the first moon walk! What an amazing day!
PEGGY CAMPBELL - July 13, 2022 7:02 pm
Love this story ❤️. When I was much younger, if I’m not mistaken, needles eye was called fat man’s squeeze. Love reading your stories.
Linda Moon - July 13, 2022 9:16 pm
Thank you for taking us along on your road trip. I’d love to get back on Route 66 with My Guy and tell you all about it and others we’ve taken from Niagara Falls to Needles, California. Isn’t it amazing what we can see when we’re off the beaten path onto roads less traveled!
Harriet White - July 13, 2022 10:05 pm
I love all the road trip posts Sean and I keep meaning to go See Rock City!
My husband and I are having terrible time with my mother-in-law in trying to find a decent nursing home for her.
When you and Jayme were having a rough time with Mother Mary , I thought, oh no I’m not to far behind them. And here we are. She’s in and out of hospitals
and even got kicked out of me nursing home because she had a bad night of dementia fits.
Your Mother Mary stories especially help me get through what is ahead of us and make me a nicer person.
Also they are hilarious!
I REALLY want to meet you sometime!!
jerri - July 14, 2022 2:03 pm
You haven’t traveled until you’ve been to the “unclaimed baggage” warehouse in Scottsboro, Ala. All the unclaimed airline stuff goes there. Got my first Kindle there – wedding dresses, jewelry, household stuff, Amazing!
DONNA - July 14, 2022 6:43 pm
jerri – July 14th… I never heard of it and just spent over an hour looking and reading all about it. Very cool, wish I had known about it when I was younger and could travel, was up in Gatlinburg and Knoxville, could have made the extra driving for the fun of seeing it. Enjoy your life, that’s so much to see. ! Sean your article was such a LOL one today.. You are awesome.
Gloria Van Nostrand - July 14, 2022 11:13 pm
I agree! Saw signs on barns, roadsides, everywhere to “See Rock City.” Our family was always headed to the coast, Outer Banks, for a month, later headed back home. We all wanted to get there as soon as possible, and stay as long as we could. Routes over to the Cape changed through the six decades as new interstates and highways came along. Never saw Rock City, but have fond memories of those signs! As well as the barn roofs with “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco!” Never did that either!
michael j gantley - July 15, 2022 1:04 pm
Sean, your comment about “see rock city” reminded me of one of my favorite songs, The White Trash Song by Tom Russell. Give it a listen.
froghotdog - July 15, 2022 6:51 pm
btw, love reading these daily
Katy G. - July 17, 2022 3:04 pm
Here’s my “See Rock City” story. While I was in Peace Corps in Zimbabwe, I received a package from my mother’s sweetheart. The customs tag said birdhouse. I don’t remember if it was for Christmas or my birthday, but I thought, “It was so sweet of Hank to send me this gift, but what am I gonna do with a birdhouse in Zimbabwe?” When I opened it and saw that it was a See Rock City birdhouse, I cried. I grew up in middle TN and saw so many barns painted with that. I kept that dang thing, through several interstate and even international moves, for 15 years until it nearly fell apart.
CHARALEEN WRIGHT - July 30, 2022 5:31 am