Hidden beneath Tennessee’s mossy hills and rolling farmland lies a secret network of over 10,000 caves and passages, some of which are the largest of their kind. One of the most famous show caves in the state, drawing visitors since the early 1950’s and a stop along our most recent trip to the Smokies is Tuckaleechee Caverns. Situated in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, this cave system boasts one of the largest cave rooms in the eastern United States.
On the last day of our hiking trip through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we awoke to scattered thunderstorms, ruining our plans for an early morning hike before departing back to Louisville. As I’ve said before, when the weather above ground sucks, head below ground. With that in mind, a pamphlet laying on our cabins coffee table had a list of nearby cave tours with Tuckaleechee Caverns being the closest one. We jumped at the opportunity to take a leisurely drive through some of the most gorgeous mountain scenery in the area to view one of the greatest sights under the Smokies.
Located in the small village of Townsend, Tuckaleechee Caverns was discovered by two little boys in the early 1930’s. During one of their many outings, playing in the woods near the present day visitors center, they noticed that a small sinkhole would always lay empty even during the heaviest downpours. Realizing that it meant there might be a tunnel hiding underneath the surface, they fashioned a homemade lantern out of a coca cola bottle filled with kerosene and crawled into the hole. They were so mesmerized by the caverns they discovered that they kept it a secret, even into adulthood.
Upon surviving the fighting during their service in World War II, the lifelong friends returned to Townsend looking for a fresh start. Inspired by news of cave tours in the newly discovered Carlsbad Caves of New Mexico, they began purchasing the land around the cave, with the hopes of leading their own tours. Officially opening in 1953, a tour of Tuckaleechee Caverns costs a nickel, thats right 0.05 cents, and you were handed a kerosene lantern and told to go have fun. Till this day, the cave is still owned and operated by descendants of the two boys whom discovered it.
Which leads us to our tour, beginning in the basement of the visitors center, at the original entrance. Consisting of an hour long, 1.25 mile round trip hike, this cave is anything but two dimensional. To enter the cave, we squeezed through a narrow tunnel, exiting onto a series of winding steps leading into the first room within this maze of scattered caverns, which require us to climb a total of 410 steps. Picture M.C. Escher’s famous drawings of his never ending staircase playing tricks on ones eyes, but underground.
Here, a small waterfall splashes down into the large underground river that flows through the entire complex. We’ll be walking along a series of platforms that run over and parallel to this stream for the majority of the trip. One of the more prevalent formations in Tuckaleechee Caverns are the numerous flowstones. Several hang from ledges high up on the ceiling, but non are as impressive as the gigantic Flowstone Falls. This massive formation is the largest in the cave, dropping 80 feet from the ceiling. At 30 feet wide and 6 feet thick, this dormant formation stopped growing long ago, and now sports a layer of moss on its craggy surface and is one of the few formations guests can actually touch.
The majority of the stalactites and stalagmite formations in the cave lie along the banks of the underground stream. Some of them are old enough to have joined together, becoming pillars. I happen to glance over at an open electrical junction along the trail of wires, when I noticed one of the largest formations of “cave bacon” I can remember ever seeing. The winding nature of this tour, force you to pay close attention to your surroundings, in effect making the the time you spend down here seem longer. After climbing several set of steps and ducking under a tight corridor, we entered a large cavern with the famous “Bear Shadow.”
From this room, a staircase descends into a small overlook above the “Drapery Room.” Cave drapery, also known as curtains, are a much larger version of cave bacon. Due to its size, it resembles large curtains hanging from a series of ledges that look like floating shelves. The stream running through the cave has carved a canyon through this area working its way below us, heading into the lower chambers and out of sight.
At this point, we make our way up one of the tightest passages yet. You literally have to duck all the way down, almost to a crawl, while simultaneously climbing up a set of stairs. At the top of the steps is the entrance to the “Big Room.” Standing at over 450 feet wide, larger than a football field, the big room is one of the largest caverns in the eastern United States. Even standing here looking around, its hard to get a grasp at how large this room really is, forgetting the fact that we are currently standing 500 feet below a mountain.
We follow the path leading to a small amphitheater styled area at the back of the big room, looking straight out onto a pit in the center of the room, surrounded by large rock formations. Our guide encouraged all of us to sit on the ledge above the pit, with the floor sliding all the way down into areas we couldn’t even see.
Directly ahead of us, approximately 350 feet away, lay a backdrop of stunning stalagmite columns and rock formations resembling a city skyline. Two of the most prominent columns are the pencil, standing at 22 feet tall, and the palm tree, standing at 23 feet tall and 7 feet wide around.
The entire main column area rests on the back of a rock formation that appears to look like the head of a dinosaur reaching for a thin toothpick. Once you see what I’m talking about, you won’t be able to un-see it. Just above our heads, situated along the ceiling, is one of the rarest cave formations in the cave, a large “palate” formation.
Its named a palate formation due to the fact that it looks to be a free floating platform suspended just below the ceiling. In fact, this palate formation is just barely attached to the ceiling, being held up mostly by the thin rock columns underneath it. Geologists studying the cave over twenty years ago, told the owners that this incredibly rare rock formation could collapse any day, and yet it still stands to this day.
There are still areas of this cave system that have not been fully explored due to a lack of access. At the bottom of the pit, following the stream one mile further underground is another cavern over twice as large as the big room, but partially underwater. Leaving the big room, we head back towards the caves main entrance to view the iconic Tuckaleechee Caverns Falls.
To reach the falls we travel through another set of winding ramps, leading to a succession of beaches along the large underground stream. At one point our guide encourages us to step into the water, dunking our hands and feet into the freezing stream. I picked up a grey rock with rust colored veins and out of curiosity, I took a big whiff. It had a strong metallic odor to it, due to the waters heavy metal content.
A natural wishing well guards the entrance to the waterfall chamber. This wishing well sits in a naturally made bowl, underneath a cylinder shaped hole in the ceiling above. Walking past the last beach head, we followed the sound of splashing water towards the bottom of the falls.
This waterfall is unlike most Ive seen in any other cave tour. The source of the water rushing through the cave is unknown, except for the fact that it comes from a natural spring nearby. Plummeting 150 feet, it has to travel through several cone shaped caverns, creating flowstone rock formations along the way, until finally splashing down onto a large rock.
This beautiful and unique waterfall was a perfect ending to our tour of Tuckalechee Caverns. Unlike a lot of the show caves I’ve had the pleasure of touring, this one has by far the most original character. Most caves attractions, in their lifetime change ownership at least a half dozen times, but not this one.
Having been handed down through the same family, its been able to preserve a timelessness and legacy that other show caves out there lack. So the next time you find yourself traveling through the Great Smoky Mountains, make sure to stop by Tuckaleechee Caverns, to view the greatest sight under the Smokies!