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Situated conveniently along the Tennessee River and numerous highways, Chattanooga‘s long been valued for its strategic importance (it was dubbed the “gateway to the Deep South” during the Civil War). Today the city, nestled in the bluffs and mountains of the Cumberland Plateau, continues to be a convenient jumping-off point for various trips around the region.
Travelers can plan day trips just two hours from Atlanta, Nashville, Knoxville and Birmingham, not to mention countless other regional destinations. If you’re wondering what the best day trips from Chattanooga might be, these are our top picks.
Just two hours’ drive south from Chattanooga (depending on Atlanta’s famously snarly traffic), Georgia’s capital offers shopping, live music, comedy, arts and culture without the need to overnight. You can easily pop down for dinner and drinks before a show and be home for a late bedtime or pick up a friend from the airport before hitting some boutiques. There are arts and crafts at the High Museum, Center for Puppetry Arts and SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film.
How to get to Atlanta: It’s a straight shot down I-75 from Chattanooga to Atlanta.
Music City has earned a big reputation in recent years with revelers looking to celebrate bachelorette parties, boys’ weekends and any other occasion under the sun. But Chattanoogans have an extra advantage in that Nashville is just two hours away, so it’s easy to nip up for concerts, shows at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, a Predators game at Bridgestone Arena or a prix fixe feast at Catbird Seat. Just don’t forget to factor in the time difference – Chattanooga is as far west as you can go and still be in the Eastern Time Zone, while Nashville is on Central Time.
How to get to Nashville: Nashville is two to two and a half hours away via I-24 West.
How to get to Knoxville: All you have to do is get on I-75 north and keep the pedal to the metal for a couple of hours till you reach Knoxville.
How to get to Birmingham: You’ll start on I-24 West out of Chattanooga before merging onto I-59 South for the next hundred or so miles, or about a two-hour drive.
Kitschy Helen, Georgia, is two and a half hours from Chattanooga along one of the prettiest drives in the state. You’ll hug the Ocoee River across the floor of southeast Tennessee to the north Georgia border, with gorgeous views of the mountain scenery. Once you reach Helen, there’s a lot to see and do. The faux-Bavarian town is packed with shops, souvenir stands, beer gardens and fishing spots.
Float the Chattahoochee on a hot summer day – there are several outfitters, including Cool River Tubing, to send you downriver. Lots of fun waterfalls and hiking destinations are in the area on your way to Helen, including Anna Ruby Falls and Unicoi State Park. Reward yourself with a frosty one at King Ludwig’s BeerGarden, a can’t-miss watering hole with live music at the foot of a replica German castle.
How to get to Helen: Take I-75 to Cleveland, Tennessee, before jumping onto US-64 East and US-129 South to State Rte 180 in Union County, Georgia.
Home to the University of South, Sewanee is a curious town on top of Monteagle Mountain. This is a private, Episcopalian liberal arts college that owns 13,000 acres of the Cumberland Plateau, where a gorgeous Gothic campus is laced with nature trails and surrounded by neighborhoods of pretty historic homes. Like every good college town, Sewanee has some beloved businesses where students, faculty and townies can meet and greet.
The fried zucchini at Shenanigans is worth the drive up from Chattanooga all by itself. A coffee at Sterling’s will fuel you up for a day of hiking on the Perimeter Trail or perusing Sewanee’s cemetery for sardonic epithets left by late professors and priests. Speaking of priests, head for the Cross, a giant 60ft-tall Christian symbol on the edge of Monteagle Mountain. The base affords incredible views of the valley below.
How to get to Sewanee: It’s just a forty-five-minute drive up I-24 West from Chattanooga – but make sure your brakes are in good order on the way back. The drive back down Monteagle Mountain is very steep.
On the far end of the long ridgeline of Lookout Mountain, the front face of which overlooks downtown Chattanooga, sits the town of Mentone. Mentone’s plays host to a bevy of private summer camps, but there is so much more to recommend Mentone for a fun day trip, including the whimsical and well-regarded Wildflower Cafe.
Be sure to check out nearby DeSoto Falls, a beautiful three-part cascade that is the tallest waterfall in Alabama. A small dam creates one level of the falls – it was originally constructed to provide power for the homes that sit on the rim of the canyon carved by the Little River that feeds DeSoto. After you hike around the falls, Mentone is full of cute shops and boutiques full of locally made pottery and other treasures.
How to get to Mentone: It’s a 45-minute drive along I-59 S to Mentone.
When Atlanta hosted the Olympics in 1996, it was actually Ocoee where the paddling events were held. The river is studded with Class III-V whitewater rapids, and all along the drive from Chattanooga past Cleveland, Tennessee, the road is dotted with rafting companies that ferry passengers and equipment to put-ins using old retrofitted school buses. But you don’t need a kayak or other watercraft to enjoy a day on the Ocoee. There are plenty of swimming holes, too, as well as hiking trails in the surrounding Cherokee National Forest. Grab a bite at the Ocoee Dam Deli & Diner.
How to get to Ocoee: Take I-75 north some 27 miles before taking exit 20 onto US-74 E. The total trip time is about 45 minutes.
Chattanooga may be called the Gig City thanks to its hyper-fast municipal internet, but Huntsville is still Rocket City, a moniker earned from its long association with NASA. You can learn all about Huntsville’s tech pedigree at the US Space & Rocket Center, but there’s a lot more to see on a Huntsville day trip than spacecraft.
How to get to Huntsville: Start on I-24 W, then peel off onto US-72 W/ to Huntsville – a trip of only an hour and forty-five minutes.
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