Sustainable Chattanooga Gives Hope to Green Possibilities

06/08/2011 12:55 pm 12:55:28 | Updated Aug 08, 2011

Right before Earth Day 1969, veteran newscaster Walter Cronkite announced on the CBS Evening News that Chattanooga, Tennessee was the dirtiest city in America.

Obviously not the kind of designation a city longs for, this once industrial burg on the Tennessee River took this dubious slap in the kisser as a wake-up call and today, it ranks as one of the cleanest, most forward-thinking cities in America. By 1996, it landed the first U.S. Presidential Award for Sustainable Development.

Starting this weekend, Chattanooga will show off its pristine riverfront, one of dozens of green innovations, at the 30th annual Riverbend, a nine-day music festival featuring Miranda Lambert, Huey Lewis and the News, John Lee Hooker, Alan Jackson, Brian McKnight, Beach Boys and more than 100 other acts that will perform on floating barges turned stage.

If you're one of the 650,000 planning to show up in Chattanooga for the renowned festival, here's your guide for between acts:

Tennessee Aquarium. As the largest fresh water aquarium in the world, this architectural showcase with its triangular glass pinnacles shows off more than 12,000 animals from pettable sturgeon to Amazonian piranhas. There's a huge shark tank, stringrays to feed, a penguin habitat and dozens of jellyfish in tubular tanks that remind me of giant lava lamps. Also in the jelly exhibit are hundreds of Dale Chihuly macchias that look an awful like the aquarium's dancing moon jellies. Right now, there's a fascinating sea horse exhibit, some smaller than the fingernail on my pinkie. Once a quagmire of slag heaps and worn-out coke furnaces, this aquarium at Ross's Landing spurred the city's resurrection.

Hang Ten: Lookout Mountain, one of two mountains fronting Chattanooga, offers the largest hang gliding school in the country. Beginners like me are strapped to an instructor, pulled into the air by an ultralight plane and released 2,000 feet above terra firma. I felt like Superman for the 15 minutes I soared next to a hawk, who like us, was leisurely catching wind currents.

Kitsch and Tell. Also on Lookout Mountain is Rock City Gardens where you can see seven states, traverse a swinging 180-foot footbridge and ogle sculpture of gnomes and other fairy tale characters, eerily illuminated by black light. Practically next door is Ruby Falls, a 145-foot underground waterfall that recently added an exciting ropes course complete with zipline. And while you're on Lookout Mountain, might as well catch a ride on the Incline Railway, a 10-minute trip in a turn-of-the-century railway car that careens down the mountain at 72.7 percent grade.

Bluff View Art District.Next to the Hunter Museum of American Art, a neoclassical mansion with works by Andy Warhol, Mary Cassatt and Robert Rauschenberg, this arts district perched upon a 90-foot bluff has a two-acre sculpture garden, art galleries, a bocce ball court, a B&B, three restaurants and regular culinary demonstrations of chocolate and pastry making.

The great outdoors. Within 15 minutes of downtown are more than 30 miles of mountain biking paths, four rock climbing areas and 50 hiking trails. Nearby Ocoee River offers white water rafting and kayaking. Or if you want to "put in" right downtown, it's easy to do so at Coolidge Park, accessed by the Walnut Street Bridge, allegedly the world's longest pedestrian only-bridge. The 303-mile Cumberland trail runs right through Chattanooga, following the deep gorges and high ridges from which you can get a great view of this now-green city.

Getting around: This compact Southern city is easily explored on foot. A 13-mile paved path along the river connects many sights and attractions such as the Aquarium and Bluff View Arts district. If walking doesn't appeal, a free all-electric shuttle runs through downtown linking the historic Chattanooga Cho Choo with the festival.

Find out more about Nooga, as local calls it, here.