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Look out, look up and look under in Southeast Tennessee

Courtesy Ruby Falls

In the southeast corner of Tennessee, where the state borders Georgia and North Carolina, the mountainous terrains holds a wealth of secrets for those willing to find them.

There are natural secrets beneath Lookout Mountain, where travelers will find one of the world’s most magnificent underground waterfalls. The secrets of historic and modern Cherokee culture live in the area’s tribal lands, and Victorian mansions hold the secrets of the wealthy families that inhabited them in the 19th century.

Groups touring southeast Tennessee can explore those and other attractions on a trip that starts in Chattanooga and extends into more rural parts of the region. Along the way, sites such as Ruby Falls, the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum and Falcon Rest mansion give visitors insights into some great natural, cultural and historical secrets.

Those sites are part of two Tennessee trails — the Pie in the Sky Trail and the Tanasi Trail — that begin in Chattanooga.

Ruby Falls and more
At Lookout Mountain, which straddles the Tennessee-Georgia line, Ruby Falls is among the most popular Chattanooga-area attractions for groups. This underground cave and waterfall tour treats guests to views they would never find aboveground.

“You go down underground, about the depth of the Empire State Building,” said public relations manager Meagan Jolley. “You go into a cave that was discovered over 80 years ago. At the end of the tour is an all-natural, 145-foot waterfall. You can actually walk behind it and take pictures in there.”

The falls roar and plummet to earth in a large, cavernous room at the back end of the cave, where dramatic lighting and music add to the mysterious effect. Guides escorting each group provide interesting facts about the cave and the surrounding mountain.

Once back on the surface, groups can opt to try a new attraction on the site called Extreme Aerial Adventure.

“It’s a zip line and adventure course in the treetops next to Ruby Falls,” Jolley said. “It’s an obstacle course of ropes, ladders and bridges, and at the end of each course, there’s a zip line. It’s a great team-building exercise, and it’s great for groups.”

The famous Rock City Gardens and the Incline Railway both sit on Lookout Mountain as well and are operated by the same company that owns Ruby Falls.

Sequoyah Birthplace Museum
Although North Carolina is best known as the original homeland of the Cherokee tribe, in the 1700s and 1800s, Cherokee land stretched west into modern Tennessee as well. At the beginning of the 19th century, a Cherokee blacksmith from the area named Sequoyah helped advance tribal culture and history by creating a written language for his people.

Today, the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore tells the story of Sequoyah and his people.

“Sequoyah started in 1809 in a Cherokee blacksmith shop and worked for 12 yeas in trying to create a writing system for the Cherokees,” said museum director Charlie Rhodarmer. “We have a reproduction of the blacksmith shop that we built for the bicentennial back in 2009.”

The museum also has exhibits detailing American Indian history, from ancient tribes that predated the Cherokee through the Trail of Tears. Visitors see archaeological finds from early tribes, as well as an impressive collection of Mississippian pottery. A Cherokee memorial mound at the site holds the remains of 192 Cherokee ancestors.

With some advance arrangements, groups can set up a series of interactive experiences for their visits.

“We can do a Cherokee heritage day and set up different stations where we do Cherokee music and song, Cherokee language and Cherokee games and crafts,” Rhodarmer said.

Falcon Rest Mansion
and Gardens

Since its construction in 1896, Falcon Rest, a 27-room Queen Anne Victorian mansion, has been impressing visitors.

“It was built by Clay Faulkner, who was the richest man in the region,” said George McGlothin, who now owns Falcon Rest. “He promised his wife that if she would move two and a half miles out to his mill, he would build her the grandest mansion in Tennessee. In 1897, they moved in, and it had central heat and air, electric lights, indoor plumbing and closets.”

Today, McGlothin and his wife maintain the mansion in its splendor, with period Victorian furnishings and antiques throughout the home. The property also features an outdoor garden, a Victorian courtyard and a 1,200-square-foot gift shop with more than 2,000 items for sale.

When groups visit Falcon Rest, they often combine a tour of the property with a three-course meal and an interactive show put on by McGlothin and company.

“Murder at the Mansion” is an interactive dinner party with a murder mystery plot; “Ghosts at the Mansion” highlights some of the historical characters who are said to haunt Falcon Rest. The third program, “The Honeymoon Ball of Gen. John Hunt Morgan,” re-creates the elaborate celebration that the Confederate general held in McMinnville on the occasion of his 1862 marriage during the Civil War.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.