By Jessica Mozo
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.
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.
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 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