Tennessee Caves: Secrets of the Earth

June 1, 2007

By Jessica Mozo

Forbidden Caverns Cave, Sevierville, Tennessee

Forbidden Caverns in Sevierville, TN

With more than 8,000 documented caves, Tennessee offers plenty of spelunking opportunities for both novice and experienced cave explorers. In fact, Tennessee is home to more caves than any other state, according to the National Caves Association.

Most of Tennessee’s caves line up along the west side of the Appalachian mountain chain in East Tennessee, though caves can also be found sprinkled around Middle Tennessee. While many are located on private property and can be explored only with permission from the owner, several others are open to the public for tours.

Forbidden Caverns

A cool 58 degrees year round, Forbidden Caverns in Sevierville offers a welcome respite from the summer heat – that is, if you don’t mind keeping company with American brown bats, cave spiders, crickets, frogs and plenty of slippery salamanders.

Opened to the public in 1967, the limestone cave attracts nearly 70,000 visitors annually during its eight-month season, which runs from April through November.

“People are intrigued by things they haven’t seen – it creates mystery,” says Bob Hounshell, general manager of Forbidden Caverns. “Caves especially attract nature lovers and people who like the out-of-doors.”

Forbidden Caverns draws its name from an ancient Indian legend that tells of the Indian Princess Nutah, who was trapped in the cave. When the princess died, Indians believed angry gods closed the gates to the mountain forever.

A tour of Forbidden Caverns leads visitors 600 feet below the mountain and reveals striking formations. Huge stalactites hang from the cave ceiling, and giant stalagmites grow upward from the floor.

Though the formations entice visitors to touch, touching generally isn’t allowed, because oil from human fingers causes the centuries-old formations to stop growing. “Our goal is to preserve, protect and keep the cave as pristine as possible while letting people enjoy it,” Hounshell says.

Forbidden Caverns is located on Blowing Cave Road off U.S. Highway 411, about 15 miles east of Sevierville. For more information, visit forbiddencavern.com or call 865-453-5972.

The Lost Sea Underground Cave in Sweetwater, TN

The Lost Sea Underground Cave in Sweetwater, TN - Photo courtesy of Tennessee State Photo Services

Tuckaleechee Caverns

Tuckaleechee Caverns in Townsend also served as a hiding place for Indians more than a century ago, but it wasn’t until 1953 that the limestone cave’s beauty was revealed to the public.

Farm boys Bill Vananda and Harry Myers played in the cave as children, and when they became adults, they decided to share their hidden treasure with the rest of the world. Today, Tuckaleechee Caverns is run by Vananda’s sons, Phillip and Steven, and their families.

“Tuckaleechee Caverns is the top rated cave by AAA in Tennessee,” Steven Vananda says. “It’s a huge cave with large waterfalls, a stream and lots of large formations.”

The cave features a “Big Room” with a 150-foot ceiling that Vananda says is large enough to fit a football field in. But the cave’s crowning glory is its 200-foot-high waterfall.

Located near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tuckaleechee Caverns attracts 60,000 visitors each year. Open from March through November, Tuckaleechee Caverns offers a one-mile round-trip tour that lasts about an hour and 15 minutes. For more information, visit tuckaleecheecaverns.com or call 865-448-2274.

Bristol Caverns

Bristol Caverns has been a tourist attraction since 1944, but it was known about long before then.

“In the late 1600s and early 1700s, before Tennessee became a state, the Cherokee Indians used this cave as an escape route,” says Jeff Bolling, a tour guide at Bristol Caverns. “As settlers came into this area, the Cherokee tried to run them off the land. They would raid their settlements, and then disappear into the cave.”

Bristol Caverns offers a one-hour tour on which visitors learn about how the caverns formed, the history of the cave and the cave’s stalactites, stalagmites, massive columns and other formations. For daredevils, Bristol Caverns also offers “Wild Tours,” where groups can venture away from the cave’s paved walkways with a trained guide and a flashlight to explore parts of the caves not shown on the regular tour.

For more information, visit bristolcaverns.com or call 423-878-2011.

Other Tennessee caves worth a visit:

Cumberland Caverns, McMinnville, 931-668-4396

The Lost Sea, Sweetwater, 423-337-6616

Racoon Mountain Caverns, Chattanooga, 423-821-9403

Ruby Falls, Chattanooga, 423-821-2544

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  1. James Croisant says:

    There is a cave with a town named after it somewhere near Boone lake. I think it was Woyer or something like that but now I can’t find it. Any ideas?

    • Jessy Yancey says:

      Hi James,

      I believe you’re thinking of Worley’s Cave, aka Morrill Cave, in the Bluff City area. Hope this helps!

      Jessy Yancey
      Tennessee Home & Farm

  2. Barry Newman says:

    Hi- just a bit of reminiscing, and wondering: I used to go camping with friends a short distance off of I 40 in eastern Tennessee (over 35 years ago). It was on private property, and the cave was over half way up a 3000 foot hill/mountain. The cave opened to the eastern side of the slope and had a moderate entrance with an easy walk down to a larger chamber with about five different exits going deeper into the mountain. There was a pool with running water that we used for our water supply. Another 1000 feet up the mountain was a rather steep climb ending on a flat mountain top that was great for camping except for the numerous burned out trees that clearly were from repeated lightning strikes. great views of the area, but despite having been there a couple of times (friends knew the place) I can’t remember at all where it was. Ring any bells?

  3. Denise Merle says:

    Im Leaving on my once a yr Vacation to my parents in MI. I live in the far east ocean front of SC. Im am going to IN First and will be traveling up Thru Ashville NC and than in to Indiana first. would Not like to get off my rout to much . TN is about my 1/2 way point and would like to visit a Cavern on the west side of Tennessee , In my travels some how. Can you help.. Thank you Denise