No other name in the history of road-trips is better known than Rock City Gardens atop Lookout Mountain.
The notoriety is thanks to an ingenious marketing plan devised by Garnet Carter, creator of Rock City and inventor of miniature golf.
Carter wanted national attention for his new attraction and, to accomplish this, he hired young sign painter Clark Byers to travel the country searching for barns near well-travelled roadways.
Byers would then offer to paint the barns so he could add a message on their roofs. Thus, the now world-famous “See Rock City barns” were born.
All told, Byers painted more than 900 barns in 19 states, as far west as Texas, and as far north as Michigan.
This idea worked marvelously, and Americans who were just getting a taste of the open road with new cross country highway projects flocked to Rock City Gardens, with little to no idea what the attraction was. So, what is Rock City Gardens?
I’m glad you asked.
More Than a Rock Garden
A city among the rocks was documented as early as 1823, but when Garnet and his wife Frieda purchased the property in the early 1920s, she became fascinated with the unusual rock formations atop the mountain, and set out to develop a rock garden to end all rock gardens.
She mapped paths through the immense boulders, and collected and transplanted wildflowers and plants throughout the gardens.
Frieda is also to thank for a collection of imported German gnomes and fairytale creatures placed throughout the park. Rock City was truly a natural beauty and tourists loved it.
Over the years, Rock City has expanded beyond the natural wonders of the rock formations to include:
- Fairyland Caverns, a storybook vignette where gnomes work, play, and get into mischief.
- Mother Goose Village, which brings her tales to life with models and neon paint.
- Cornerstone Station, the original park entrance that now houses a history of the park.
- The educational center houses the raptor show and offers various educational events.
- Several shops dot the park including a wood shop, leather shop, winery, gift shops, and restaurants.
- A variety of seasonal events and specials.
- Lover’s Leap is the apex of the park, and is home to the observation point from which you can famously “see seven states”.
Having been to Rock City many times from childhood to adulthood, it is still one of my most recommended travel destinations. I have seen it change over the years, but to this day it maintains a homey, down-south, roadside-attraction vibe. Yes, there are more tourists ( more than half-a-million each year), and yes there is more to the park now (see above), but the park continues to be true to the Carter’s intention of bringing people closer to nature.
Rock City today is still in the Carter family, operated by descendant Bill Chapin with the mission to “Create Memories Worth Repeating”, and the attraction holds true to its mission.
So, when you visit Rock City Gardens here is Wil’s Don’t Miss List:
- Try to spot all of the gnomes throughout the park (and not be too creeped out).
- Catch all the names for rock formations or stone cuts (ex. Goblin’s Underpass or Turtle Shell Rock).
- Go see the “Wings to Soar” raptor program which is fun, educational, and amazing.
- Imagine you are a 1930’s tourist venturing to Rock City for the first time. Act Accordingly.
- See and identify all seven states.