By Pam Windsor on October 21, 2021 in Travel
Home to more than 10,000 caves, Tennessee offers a wealth of underground adventures. Whether you want to see majestic stalactites and stalagmites, explore an underground lake in a glass-bottomed boat, examine Native American cave art, see an underground waterfall, or listen to music in an underground amphitheater, Tennessee’s caverns are sure to delight.
The majority of the Volunteer State’s caves are in the middle or eastern part of the state. These areas are rich in limestone, a sedimentary rock made of calcium carbonate. It’s a hard rock, but also soluble, which means it can erode or wear away when exposed to dripping or flowing water. Over hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years, erosion creates crevices, pathways, and large open spaces. It also causes unique and spectacular rock formations, many of which are awe-inspiring. Let’s check out some of Tennessee’s most incredible caves.
Craighead Caverns and the Lost Sea
Every year, tens of thousands of people travel to the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains near Sweetwater to get a close-up view of the Lost Sea. This four-acre body of water deep within Craighead Caverns happens to be America’s largest underground lake.
As you begin your journey toward this remarkable body of water, you’ll see signs of the cave’s extraordinary history. Jaguar bones date back some 20,000 years ago. Pottery and old arrowheads show how Cherokees used the cave. Plus, a date etched into one of the walls points to the presence of Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.
Nevertheless, the Lost Sea remained hidden from the public for years. A 13-year-old boy discovered it in 1905 after he pushed himself into a narrow opening in the rock and through a 40-foot tunnel. Today, visitors can tour the caverns and ride a glass-bottom boat across the lake as they peer into the deep, dark water below.
If you want to see countless stalactites, stalagmites, and other colorful and unique mineral formations and get some understanding of the way water moves through pools and streams underground, visit the Forbidden Caverns in Sevierville. This cave is buried deep within English Mountain in the Great Smokies.
Thanks to a steady water supply, many different groups of people have spent time in the caverns throughout the years. Hundreds of years ago, the Eastern Woodland Native Americans used the cave for shelter, while much later, during the 1920s and 1930s, it offered the perfect hiding place for moonshiners trying to subvert the National Prohibition Act. During the tour, you’ll see the remnants of an old still once used to make illegal whiskey.
Known as the “the Greatest Site Under the Smokies,” Tuckaleechee Caverns in Townsend has a couple of attractions you won’t see anywhere else. The first, called the big room, is an area 400 feet long and 300 feet across. In the middle, massive stalagmites measuring as high as 24 feet tall stretch to the ceiling. Another big draw is Silver Falls, the tallest subterranean waterfall in the eastern United States. A spectacular sight, it tumbles 210 feet.
Located deep inside Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Ruby Falls is the tallest and deepest underground waterfall in the U.S. open to the public. To get there, you must ride a glass-door elevator that lowers you 260 feet into the earth. It’s well lit, so make sure you pay close attention to the many stone formations you’ll see along the way. The mountain complex has an interesting history. Native Americans, early settlers, and Civil War soldiers all used the cave. However, when railroad workers built the tunnel through Lookout Mountain in the early 1900s, they cut off passage to the falls. Then, in 1928, a man named Leo Lambert was part of a group drilling into the mountain for commercial use when a passageway suddenly opened. As Lambert began exploring, he discovered the falls and named them in honor of his wife, Ruby.
Raccoon Mountain Caverns
Lambert also discovered Raccoon Mountain Caverns in 1929. Originally, he called it Tennessee Caverns when he opened it to the public in 1931. Situated just outside Chattanooga, it stretches for more than five and a half miles. During your visit, you can explore the cave’s many passageways on walking and expedition tours, and pan for gemstones, arrowheads, or fossils. Raccoon Mountain Caverns is open year-round and connected to a campground.
Nickajack Cave Wildlife Refuge
Nickajack Cave is another cave located near Chattanooga. This one is not open to the public, but it still draws a lot of people. In years past, many different groups moved through the cave. Native Americans once sought refuge inside it, river pirates used it as a hideout, and during the Civil War, soldiers on both sides went there to mine saltpeter, an ingredient used to make gunpowder. Today, the Tennessee Valley Authority has closed the cave and turned it into a sanctuary for the endangered gray bat. However, people still come in the early evenings during the summer for the opportunity to see a spectacular ritual. Whether by boat, kayak, or from a viewing post, if you time it right, you may see hundreds of gray bats as they all lift off their perches together and head off to dinner. It’s a sight to behold.
If you like caves and love music, you may already be familiar with The Caverns in Pelham, Tennessee. With passages covering more than 8,000 linear feet, the cave offers natural splendors to see and explore. However, The Caverns is more well-known for great live music. Bands perform at an underground amphitheater that’s also home to the Emmy-winning TV series “Bluegrass Underground.” To plan your visit around seeing a show, check the concert schedule online.
Bell Witch Cave
One of Tennessee’s most famous caves comes with a ghost story. The Bell Witch Cave is named after John Bell, who once owned a secluded farm and nearby cave. It’s supposedly haunted by a vindictive neighbor who swore she would haunt Bell’s family after he allegedly cheated her in a land deal.
Whether you believe the story or not, it may interest you to know that something here once spooked former president Andrew Jackson. After spending a night at the Bell farm, he supposedly said he’d rather “face the entire British army than spend the night with the Bell witch.”
Due to COVID-19 precautions, the cave and farm are currently closed, so check the website before you plan a visit.
Dunbar Cave State Park
The earliest visitors to Dunbar Cave in Clarksville go back to prehistoric times. The walls display more than three dozen drawings. Experts believe prehistoric Mississippian Native Americans created them around 1350 AD. You don’t get a chance to see this type of cave art often, so if it interests you, plan a visit.
If you’re planning a visit to some of Tennessee’s many caves, get ready to see some amazing sights as you venture underground. With so many to choose from, you can tailor your trip to what interests you most, whether it’s seeing an underground lake, a mesmerizing waterfall, or ancient Native American art on the walls. Each cave has its own unique history and view of nature at its most spectacular — and it’s waiting for you to come see it.