Jennifer Bardoner and her two dogs, Scarjo and Juan Pablo, check out the new trail enhancements and seasonal decor at Rock City. / Photo by Jon Long

A visit to Rock City has always felt like a trip back in time for me. The new trailside additions being phased in also help make it feel like a journey to another world.

When I got a press release from the iconic attraction announcing "the most significant trail enhancement project in recent years" in mid-September, I decided it was worth a visit. A month later, as the trees were beginning their own metamorphosis, I headed up Lookout with some additions of my own in tow: my partner, Jon, and Scarjo and Juan Pablo, our two dogs. (You may not have known, but Rock City has always been pet-friendly.)

I'll be honest, I have no idea how long it's been since I went to Rock City outside of the seasonal Enchanted Garden of Lights nighttime displays, but it's been awhile. So trying to pick out the new enhancements was kind of like a game of "Memory." I kept snapping away, taking photos of all kinds of little things — most of which, it turns out, I simply never noticed before or didn't remember: a manmade outcropping that looked like a pipe; a gilded cottage and a whimsical red door which I thought were relegated to the winter holiday installation.

The completed trail additions are centered around the Hall of the Mountain King. There, you (now) encounter an arched stone-like entryway inlaid with colorful glass discs, an ornate iron stairway bedazzled with more colorful discs, and a tunnel illuminated with glowing swirls and patterns that look like part of an enchantment spell. They enhance the park's storybook quality — which I never fully realized.

If you go

Rock City now requires guests to reserve a timed-entry ticket, with visits starting every 15 minutes. My group still hit a few small traffic jams, so guests are required to wear a mask in enclosed spaces or within 6 feet of another party on the trail. We visited later in the afternoon on a drizzly day, so there weren’t too many other visitors to contend with and I felt safe in the fresh air, but it’s nearly impossible to enforce a mask policy along the narrow path. Before entering various installations, though, I was asked by stationed staff members to put mine back on.

The features were definitely noticeable, but Rock City has always managed to invoke a sense of magic for me. My memories were centered around the setting, though. The rustic stone walkway and towering landscape of whispering trees, moss-carpeted boulders and dewy crags feel untouched. The scene always fills me with wonder. It feels like a portal, through which might step an elf or a tourist from another time.

The dogs took a little of that wonder away, pulling focus as they pulled us along the path, but the mountainside still imbued me with a sense of grounding and calm.

On the hunt for changes this time, my focus zoomed in. I did not realize how many gnomes are scattered throughout the landscape. Thinking back, I may have blocked them like some people shy away from clowns. This time, though, they felt appropriate, working with the surrounding landscape to create a fairy tale atmosphere, which the existing details enhanced.

It's a story that's still unfolding. A sign before entering the Hall of the Mountain King notes the "magic in progress," and looking back at the release I now see that it does, in fact, say the enhancements are underway, with more to come through 2021.

"The new trail features include a completed tunnel with glass ornaments set into the sparkling stone ceiling, use of fiber optics for colors and lighting, scroll design in the stone pathway, and steps showcasing fossils and glowing jewels," it reads. "Elements that are currently still in-process involve a decorative railing, troll sculpture and grand staircase. Future installments targeted for 2021 include an all-new Rainbow Hall with windows made from handmade art glass in the order of the rainbow, a bronze door set with colorful glass in the archway, an entrance portal for the Kingdom of the Trolls, and an enormous chandelier with large crystals in the colors of the rainbow."

While the completed additions were a bit anticlimactic compared to the scope I anticipated, I enjoyed my visit and thought they added to the experience, even if they shifted the focus a bit for me.

I will return for the next chapter (though maybe not with the dogs). It seems I needed to reread the current one anyway. And I love stories of escape.