Located in the heart of Alabama’s cave country, Cathedral Caverns shines as one of the shortest, yet most impressive caves in the south. With an opening measuring 126 feet wide by 25 feet high, it stands as the largest commercial cave entrance in the world. Commemorated as a state park in 2000, guided tours take visitors on a journey through several unique geological formations found only here. From standing amid Goliath, the worlds largest stalagmite, starring up at the 400 million year old sharks tooth embedded in the cave ceiling, to venturing through a stalagmite forest containing the caves namesake formation, this tour is one that’ll leave a lasting impression on any visitor. Drawn to the Appalachian Mountains of Northeast Alabama on a recent waterfalls road trip, I made it a point to stop here and explore this much beloved state park.
Map | Cathedral Caverns State Park
Situated in the sleepy village of Kennamer Cove, Cathedral Caverns got its start as a commercial cave in the early 1950’s when it was originally named Bats Cave. Bough for the mere sum of $4,000, Jacob Gurley began taking visitors into the cave, through some of his own hand dug paths, charging guests $0.25 per tour. As we walk into the cave entrance, you suddenly feel as if you’re in the process of being swallowed hole by its immense opening. Remember, this is the largest known commercial cave entrance in the world. The center of this space is filled with rubble piles stretched out as far as a football field, hiding ancient artifacts from the prehistoric peoples that once used Cathedral Caverns as a hunting camp. Beneath some of this rubble, archeologists uncovered a magnificently preserved eight inch stone spearpoint dating back to the Archaic Period, some 8,000 years ago. It was such a rare find at the time, that the specimen was taken and placed on display at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.
We stop just before reaching the back of the entrance near a vintage looking nuclear fallout sign. During the height of the Cold War, state officials decided that this entrance was deep enough underground to be a safe Nuclear Fallout Shelter. Filling it with metal ration drums, the entrance was deemed fit to house 10,000 people for an extended duration. Now that science has caught up with the times, we know that this space would have made a terrible fallout shelter and thankfully it was never put into use. A few feet in front us, next to the entrance into the underground passages, is the site of a band stage which once hosted bluegrass concerts during the 1980’s.
With only 2 miles of explored passageways, this caves short length is made up for with its enormous caverns. The first space we enter just past the entrance is suspended high above a running stream, named the Mystery River. Looking up at above our heads, we spot the first of several prehistoric sharks tooth embedded in the caves ceiling, predating the now extinct Megladon some 400 million years ago. For most of the early cave tours during Mr. Gurleys time, this is as far as any visitors went.
Having a hunch that there was more passages yet to be discovered, he climbed down into the shallow riverbed and followed it until reaching the next wide open room. Coincidentally, during his exploration, Mr. Gurley found himself trapped down here for 3 days when a heavy thunderstorm caused the Mystery River to flood, rising three quarters of the way to the ceiling.
When the water level receded and he finally made his way out, he began excavating the only manmade passageway in the entire cave, leading us to another unique natural wonder. Directly on the other end of this passage, we walk down a ramp to find a massive rock formation, emanating from the turquoise blue waters of a natural pool. Measuring 45 feet tall and 243 feet in circumference, Goliath is one of the largest stalagmites in the world. Its true size doesn’t become apparent until one walks around to the back of it and sees it from a distance.
Walking down the well lit paths through these gigantic caverns, you get a sense that you’re traveling into an underground city. Some of the tallest passages here measure 123 feet tall and almost just as much wide. Even before technical instruments were brought in to take accurate measurements, Mr. Gurley had already devised an ingenious tool to get the very first measurements of some of the caves features. Using a helium filled ballon tied to a fishing line, he stood down at the lowest point in the cave while letting the balloon rise all the way to the ceiling. Geologists brought in to research the cave were astounded to get the same results using far more technical equipment some 30 years later.
Looking down from Gurley Bridge, we get a chance to see the Mystery River flowing through some of the caves original paths. At roughly 18 inches wide and bordered with rusty chicken wire, most of it was barely large enough to fit a grown adult. Most of these original paths, with the exception of a sturdy log bridge spanning the river, have all but eroded away during periods of heavy flooding.
Crossing the Gurley Bridge, the next major feature we encounter is the magnificent Frozen Waterfall. Measuring 32 feet tall by 135 feet wide, this is one of the largest flowstones of its kind. This massive rock formation was initially formed by a stream that once flowed through this area, creating a vast network of shallow rimstone dams just above the falls. After the New Madrid Earthquake of 1812, the flow of this underground river suddenly changed direction, causing the falls to run dry. Today, the state park uses a system of pumps to redirect water from a shallow pool along the path, back to the top of the falls to recreate the effects of this once flowing river.
As we continue down Boulder Boulevard and past the Vertical Room, we enter a large corridor containing Flowstone Wall. This 30 foot high calcite wall is actually one large continuous flowstone, draping from floor to ceiling. With the use of light and shadows, guests are able to make out two of the most famous rock formations in the cave, a caveman holding a spear and Spot the dog. Looking up over our heads once more, is another one of those 400 million year old sharks tooth embedded in the cave ceiling. From here, our path leads to the remarkable room holding the caves namesake.
Cathedral Caverns derives its name from the overabundance of stalagmite columns and totems adorning the pathways of the stalagmite forest which according to Mrs. Gurley, resembled an old cathedral. Of all the caves I’ve toured, this room is by far one of the most extraordinary spaces I’ve had a chance to explore. If you can imagine a rock formation, chances are you’ll see it here. From the wedding bell, a wall of organ pipes, to the massive twin church spire columns known as the Pearly Gates. There are rooms hidden within rooms in this space that can only be accessed by climbing through windows in the rock walls.
This very room also appeared in two films, Secrets of the Phantom Caverns and Disney's Tom and Huck. During filming of Secrets of the Phantom Caverns, production was briefly halted when carbon monoxide produced by generators sent 60 cast and crew to the hospital. In this room we are treated to the shadow of "Abraham Lincoln laying down”, as well as the cave turkey resting on its stoop. Walking another hundred yards through the stalagmite forest, we reach the end of the tour, nearly 3,559 feet within the cave.
Here we see the pinnacle known as “the Improbable Stalagmite”. At only 3 inches in diameter at its base and pitched at a 45 degree angle, this pinnacle rises 25 feet to the cave ceiling. Just beyond the railing overlooking a small canyon, is the last expanse of cave passages known to exist. Climbing over rock piles and squeezing through holes eight feet high above the floor, Speleologists were able to uncover an additional 2,000 feet of cave just beyond this point. On their travels they found another stalagmite forest and a large room twice the size of any currently displayed on the tour called the Crystal Room.
After spending a few moments experiencing total darkness the tour is concluded and visitors are allowed to exit the cave at their own pace, back the way we entered. This is by far the best perk of this tour. After trying to pack in so much of the caves scenery on our way in, rapidly moving from room to room, I am able to casually stroll through the formations and really soak in the scenery on our way back to the visitors center. As an added bonus, for a small fee of $25, photographers are allowed to linger inside the cave taking video and still photography at their leisure.
While this is the only cave tour we will be visiting on this trip, there are several great commercial caves in this region including Rickwood Caverns State Park and DeSoto Caverns. Aside from the large commercial caves, one can also explore the wild caves of Wheeler NWR Rock House Caves and Bluffs, Sauta Cave NWR, Stephens Gap Callahan Cave Preserve, and Tumbling Rock Cave Preserve. While exploring wild caves is something I hope to do in the future, there are plenty of opportunities for spelunkers to dive deep underground in this gorgeous corner of the state. Next on our tour of Northeast Alabama, we will be heading over to High Falls Park to venture out onto the waterfall streaming into the natural bridge known as High Falls Arch. Stay tuned and until next time, see y’all on the trails!