Several months ago, I received an invitation from the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) to visit the Scenic City, as it’s also known, and share with you its accessible sights and experiences. I’ve been to other parts of Tennessee and really enjoyed it, and based on everything I was told, I knew visiting Chattanooga would also be a special experience. However, nothing could have prepared me for some of the special things my hosts had in store for me! Read (and watch) below for nine awesome reasons for wheelchair users to visit accessible Chattanooga, Tennessee.
1 . The beautiful scenery. I’m a sucker for gorgeous views, and Chattanooga certainly didn’t disappoint. Given its location on the Tennessee River, there are plenty of hills and low mountains from which you can enjoy spectacular views of the surrounding area–even seven states at once! Lookout Mountain rises 2,000 feet above sea level and overlooks Chattanooga. The views are as amazing as the attractions that call Lookout Mountain home: Rock City, Ruby Falls, the Incline Railway and Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park.
My first stop on Lookout Mountain was Rock City Gardens, a privately owned park that winds through lush green areas on your way to some of the best views in Chattanooga. It also features massive ancient rock formations and gardens with over 400 native plant species. Because it’s privately owned, the ADA doesn’t have to apply, and the mulch-covered “accessible” parking spaces bordered by rocks are a testament to this. That being said, there is a marked wheelchair accessible route to Lover’s Leap and the great “Seven States” view from the upper terrace. Some parts are narrow and steep, so take care heading downhill. Park access is limited for wheelchair users, but I thought the view was worth it.
My second stop was Point Park Battlefield, a unit of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park located on Lookout Mountain. This was the site of the Civil War battle commonly referred to as “The Battle Above the Clouds.” The visitor center houses a 33′ by 13′ mural painted by James Walker, an eyewitness to the battle, and has several short audio-visual presentations about the painting and battles for Chattanooga.
There is a paved (accessible) walking path around the park that takes visitors by several historic tablets, monuments, confederate artillery positions, and a scenic overlook. The largest monument in Point Park is the New York Peace Memorial, which was erected by the state of New York as a tribute to peace and reconciliation between Union and Confederate veterans after the war. There are many parts of the park that can only be reached by steps, but I actually thought the river views from here were even better than from Rock City.
2 . The fascinating – and downright haunting – history. The name “Chattanooga” comes from the Creek Indian word for “rock coming to a point.” This refers to Lookout Mountain, which begins in Chattanooga and stretches 88 miles through Alabama and Georgia. The city itself started out with two different names: Ross’s Landing and Lookout City. In 1838, the city officially took the name of “Chattanooga.” Because of Chattanooga’s strategic location, river and rail systems, some of the hardest fought and most complex battles happened during the fall of 1863 on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge.
Lots of battles means lots of dead soldiers–34,000 to be exact, second only to Gettysburg–and some people believe lots of ghosts. I stayed downtown at the luxurious, historic (and very accessible) Read House hotel, which has quite the interesting past. The hotel was originally built in 1847 and was conveniently located across from the railroad. Known then as the Crutchfield House, the hotel burned to the ground in 1867, and the Crutchfields decided not to rebuild. This decision paved the way for Dr. John T. Read to purchase the property years later and build a ten-story building in the Georgian architectural style. But prior to the new construction in 1926, the hotel had served as a Civil War hospital (1863) housing hundreds of sick and mortally wounded Union soldiers.
The site of the hotel had a gruesome past. Many suicides, murders, and natural deaths were said to have occurred in both buildings located at this site. Ghost hunters know that the spirits of the dead may sometimes remain attached to a location, not necessarily a building. Reports of ghostly activity have been reported at the hotel for many years, and it’s this belief that still keeps the legend of Annalisa Netherly alive in Room 311 at the historic hotel. You can take a tour of the hotel, which includes this room, and decide for yourself!
Chattanooga’s train history dates back before the Civil War, and with the city’s developed rail lines and river, it was a strategic location for many of the battles. Chattanooga was made famous by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, who recorded their first gold record with the song, “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” Opened in 1909 as Terminal Station, the famed train depot welcomed thousands of travelers during the golden age of railroads. Today, Terminal Station stands as part of the world famous Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel. The complex boasts on-site dining, retail shops, tranquil rose gardens and much more.
The Glenn Miller Gardens is actually where you want to roll to see some of the historic train cars. You can’t access the cars themselves, but you can roll between them and read about their history on placards throughout the gardens. The gift shop is technically accessible by a locked narrow side door (knock to get the clerk’s attention), but beware that space inside is tight.
I also made a brief stop at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, known as a beacon for community involvement and cultural awareness. Located in an area once dubbed as the city’s black enterprise zone, the museum’s original goal was to present the many contributions African Americans made to the development of Chattanooga. In 1996, a newly renovated facility became the new home of the Chattanooga African American Museum and the Bessie Smith Hall. The facility was established to pay homage to the late “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith, through the establishment of a Performance Hall within the complex. The exhibits include everything from African artifacts and art pieces to reflections of African American influence in pop culture, sports, and commerce.
3. Adaptive outdoor off-road adventure! When I was looking through my Chattanooga itinerary, I noticed something about an adapted vehicle of some sort called a SWINCAR. I thought my hosts were just taking me to see it in a showroom, or maybe a demo. Little did I know that I was going off-roading in this fully hand-controlled adapted buggy in the wooded hills of Chattanooga!
Adventure Sports Innovation (ASI) is the company that does this, and they truly offer an adventure for everyone. ASI curates the latest inventions and innovations in adventure sports and outdoor activities, providing individuals and groups with fun things to do. ASI is the first company in the USA to have one of these adapted e-Spider vehicles for wheelchair users, and boy, was I grateful for that! For a full hour, my tour guide, hosts, and I crawled over small logs, rocks, dips, twists, and turns through some of Chattanooga’s most beautiful scenery at the Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center.
Like any adaptive sports experience, the SWINCAR off-road experience isn’t for everyone. You will need significant upper body control and stability, as well as enough use of your arms and hands to steer the vehicle, squeeze the hand brakes (like those of a bicycle), and press the thumb throttle continuously. It can be a rough ride in several spots, as you are on horse and bike trails with several obstacles. If you have any injuries or chronic pain that could be exacerbated by getting jostled around, this might not be for you.
However, if it sounds like you can do this, here’s the adventure that awaits!
4. It’s easy to get around. Downtown Chattanooga isn’t very large as US cities go, which means it’s easy to roll between many of it’s most popular attractions. The sidewalks are in good shape, as are the curb cuts at intersections. However, if you want to save on battery power, arm power (if you’re a manual chair user), or you have a walking companion who needs a rest, you have two great options.
CARTA’s Downtown Electric Shuttle is the easiest way to get around downtown, it’s wheelchair accessible, and it’s free! Electric buses run daily from the Chattanooga Choo Choo to the Tennessee Aquarium. The Downtown Shuttle runs daily about every 5 minutes from 6:30 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. on Weekdays, 9:30 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. on Saturdays, and 9:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. on Sundays. The North Shore Shuttle begins at Shuttle Park North and runs every 15 minutes Monday through Friday from 7:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m., and on Saturday from 10:00 am. until 6:00 p.m. The Shuttles are not in service on New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Day, and run on a holiday schedule on M.L. King, Jr. Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day. For more information about the Shuttle, call CARTA at 423-629-1473 (TDD 423-624-4534). For a route map, CLICK HERE.
CARTA also has regular bus service throughout the city, and its buses are 100 percent wheelchair accessible. For more information on how to ride the bus in Chattanooga, fares, routes, etc., CLICK HERE.
You should know that there are no wheelchair taxis available in Chattanooga, and you must be a local resident to use CARTA’s paratransit service. However, CARTA bus service does depart from the Chattanooga airport. You can take Route #19 (Cromwell Road) to the downtown area to get to within a few blocks of your hotel. Here is a map of the route in case you need to book a hotel close to the bus route.
5. Nothing beats the blues. Chattanooga has a solid place in the annals of jazz and blues history, and the variety of live music venues and festivals are a testament to this. Famous artists from Chattanooga in this genre include Bessie Smith, Valadia Snow, Jimmy Blanton, Lovie Austin, Yusef Lateef, and Wilfred Middlebrooks. For a listing of live music venues and festivals (you’ll need to call to determine wheelchair accessibility), CLICK HERE.
If you’re a music fan in general, you won’t want to skip a visit to Songbirds Guitar Museum, a vintage guitar-oriented, pop culture museum experience in the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel complex. You can experience American history and the evolution of the guitar from the 1920s through the 1970s through Songbirds’ extensive anthology of permanent and revolving exhibits. Each exhibit features the guitars that made the music as well as the stories and artists that brought them to life. Songbirds is historically accurate, educational, and fun for both guitar enthusiasts and those new to the world of fretted instruments. It’s also an accessible live music venue! For a schedule of events, CLICK HERE. You can access the museum by elevator on the north side of Glenn Miller Gardens, and accessible bathrooms are on the first floor.
6. Get your art geek on. Without fail, you can find me at an art museum at every destination I visit. This is why I was so excited to visit the Hunter Museum of American Art, especially because I knew I’d discover artists whose work I hadn’t seen before. Built on a ninety-foot limestone bluff overlooking the Tennessee River and comprised of a 1905 classical revival mansion, a low-slung 1970s building and a 2005 contemporary structure, the Hunter Museum of American Art showcases 100 years of architecture and houses the finest collection of American art in the Southeast.
The collection of the Hunter Museum spans the history of American art from the colonial period to the present day, and covers a wide variety of media including painting, sculpture, contemporary studio glass, and crafts. I was particularly happy that the museum had two Chihuly pieces and some Andy Warhol prints! The Hunter is universally accessible, wheelchairs and strollers are available free of charge at Visitor Services. Service dogs are welcome in the building. Please check out their tours page to arrange special needs group tours.
If that’s not enough for you, you can roll right next door into the Bluff View Arts District. This is a creative haven in a historic neighborhood that sits high atop a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River, and specializes in the visual, culinary and landscape arts. Whether you are meandering through the sculpture garden or watching the local artisans bake breads, make chocolates or roast coffee through the large paned windows throughout the district, there is something for everyone. Make sure you grab some coffee or enjoy a delicious lunch there! Some parts of the district are hilly, so manual wheelchair users might need a push or extra care braking on the downhill.
7. When food is a lifestyle. I’ll be the first one to admit that eating is not a priority for me when I travel. I eat to stay alive, avoid getting ill when traveling alone (which is almost always), and often skip meals when I’m busy. However, I had some great meals and snacks in Chattanooga, and I learned that there is no shortage of great restaurants in the city for all kinds of food, from steaks and barbecue to Italian and ice cream.
I had a wonderful lunch of mushroom crepes and salad at the beautiful Old Gilman Grill, around the corner from my hotel. I also had a fantastic lunch of meats, cheeses, and grapes with fresh bread at the Public House in Warehouse Row (which is great for shopping, by the way). After visiting the Chattanooga Choo Choo, I rolled up the ramp on the north side for an appetizer at Stir, which is a great place to sit outdoors at sunset to people-watch. If you’re a chocolate lover, you need to cross the street after Stir and visit The Hot Chocolatier, which is famous for its (you guessed it) hot chocolate, as well as its confections made in-house.
8. Your kids will love it. Being a mom of two adolescent boys, I’m always on the lookout for family-friendly (and accessible) activities that the three of us would be able to enjoy together. This is one of the many reasons I loved the Tennessee Aquarium! It’s one of the top-rated aquariums in the country, and what’s really cool is that it’s divided into two buildings – one for freshwater (rivers, lakes, etc.) and the other for the ocean.
Along the way, you’ll have opportunities to come face-to-face with feisty otters, enormous Arapaima giant catfish, and tons of turtles. You can also touch a sturgeon (I totally did). Enjoy playful penguins (my favorite animals), touch a stingray, and marvel at toothy sharks, lemurs, and butterflies. Plan on spending at least three hours to enjoy observing and learning about all of the Aquarium’s diverse gathering of animals.
All exhibit galleries at the Tennessee Aquarium are wheelchair accessible. I particularly loved the huge ramp that spirals down several levels in between two huge tanks filled with giant fish! The Aquarium has a limited number of wheelchairs which are available for rent on a first-come, first-served basis (No Reservations). The rental fee is $7. A photo ID is required to hold until the unit is returned. The wheelchair rentals are located at the Guest Services Information Desk near the River Journey Gift Shop.
Another option for kids (which I didn’t personally visit) is the Creative Discovery Museum, a hands-on children’s museum offering activities and exhibits featuring art, music, science, and technology. Visitors can float boats through a lock and dam system in RiverPlay, dig for dinosaur bones in Excavation Station, or build a rollercoaster and learn about electricity in the Inventors’ Clubhouse. In Arts Alley, budding artists can create clay sculptures, play musical instruments, or ham it up in the “Back Alley Theatre”. The Museum’s threestory Lookout Tower features a moving 3-D sculpture on the first floor, an optics gallery and active beehive on the second floor, and an observation deck on top that overlooks the city. Visitors can also venture outdoors to the Museum’s Rooftop Fun Factory where they can launch balls in the air and lift themselves off the roof with pulleys.
The entire Museum is wheelchair accessible except for the tower located on the second floor and the upper levels of RiverPlay. There is a ramp located on the front of the building for access to the Museum and an elevator located by Dino-Mite Café for access to the second floor. All Museum restrooms are wheelchair accessible.
9. It redefines the relaxed morning/evening stroll. If anyone ever tries to tell you that I’m a morning person, they’re either a liar or flat-out crazy. However, very early mornings are sometimes necessary in the photography and video business because, let’s face it, sunrises are beautiful. I can say it was totally worth getting up at 6AM to visit the iconic and historic Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge at sunrise with only the occasional jogger or dog walker for company.
Erected in 1891, the Walnut Street Bridge is actually one of the world’s longest pedestrian bridges, so make sure your battery is charged before heading across. The photos I took from the bridge, as well as the drone video I shot of the bridge and surrounding area from the Northshore, were pretty awesome. The Bridge is open year-round, free to the public and is completely ADA compliant.
Another great place for a leisurely roll/stroll is the Tennessee Riverpark, which includes over 150 acres along the Tennessee River with unique scenic vistas, naturalized areas, open green spaces, playgrounds, public art, recreational areas, fishing piers, historical sites, and facility rentals. The Riverwalk part of the park offers a 13-mile family and wheelchair friendly paved multi-use greenway. Beginning north of Chattanooga at TVA’s Chickamauga Dam and stretching south 13 miles along the Tennessee River through downtown Chattanooga to St. Elmo, the Riverwalk leads to multiple parks amenities and offers breath-taking views along the river. I used the ramped entry point right across from the Hunter Museum and easily rolled well past the Aquarium and back.
DISCLOSURE: I visited Chattanooga at the invitation of the Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). I was compensated for my time, writing, and media sharing with hotel accommodations, meals, and admission fees. Except when noted, all of the experiences above are my own – authentic and honest.