Whether you call it caving or spelunking, exploring the hidden treasures beneath the earth has always held a great interest. East Tennessee boasts its share of caves that are ripe for exploration. In fact, Tennessee is home to the most caves in the United States, with over 10,000 registered caves! And, 90% of them are located on private land.
Since caves are primarily formed by flowing water that erodes soft rock like limestone or dolomite, our region is littered with small and large caves. As spring finally begins to warm the air and more sunshine dries out the ground, the time is ripe for the adventurous among us to get equipped and enjoy underground channels of discovery. Do you know where the best sites are for local spelunking? Enjoy this guide and dive into East Tennessee caving!
Why Go Caving?
Why should anyone go caving? Nature-lovers and those interested in science will find more to study and learn about than they can record in trips down under the East Tennessee landscape. Stunningly beautiful formations, native wildlife and challenging physical exertions can all be expected. Beauty is where you find it, and TN caves provide some of the most wondrous scenes ever viewed.
Those with an explorative bent will definitely enjoy the exhilaration of discovery while caving. While popular caves with tours are still well worth exploring, all the fun stuff they may have stored has been removed long ago. Remember, Tennessee has a rich history, and some remains from that culture can be found in previously unknown and unexplored caves.
Some discoveries have been attributed to Native Americans that once thrived in our state. Mining saltpeter for explosives was carried on throughout the mountains of East Tennessee during the Civil War and the War of 1812. Many mountain people made moonshine for a living in the mountains, hiding their stills in caves during Prohibition.
Practice Safe Spelunking
If you plan to go caving this spring in East Tennessee, we encourage you to practice safe spelunking. Here are some recommendations to stay safe and enjoy your experience.
- Never cave alone. Always go in groups of at least 3 or 4, and always let someone else know where you will be caving.
- Always ask permission to explore a cave on private property. Do not trespass.
- Wear appropriate clothing and safety equipment, including sturdy shoes, extra clothes, head protection, lights and batteries, water, rope and a small first-aid kit. Find a complete listing here.
- Know your limitations. Don’t push yourself to exhaustion or attempt strenuous climbs if you are unsure of your abilities.
- Don’t take risks.
- Leave wildlife (plants and animals) undisturbed.
- Do not touch or otherwise deface cave formations.
- Remove your trash. Leave nothing behind but footprints.
- Leave markers to make a path you can follow back out.
- Climb or move about safely, using ‘three points of contact’ to ensure stability.
For more information about safe spelunking, contact a local group or research caving organizations online.
Recommended East Tennessee Caving Destinations
For those wishing to explore caving in safer environments than previously unexplored caverns, East Tennessee has several spectacular caving destinations. Check out these recommendations and add a few to your bucket list for the spring and summer.
Tuckaleechee Caverns boasts to be “The Greatest Site Under the Smokies” with enormous rooms and beautiful waterfalls. Located near Townsend, TN.
Worley’s Cave in Bluff City is a true natural caving experience. This self-guided adventure requires an $8 cash-only fee and sign-in, but is worth far more. Set your GPS for 461 Timber Ridge Rd, Bluff City, TN 37618 in Sullivan County and knock at the white house at the end of the driveway for guidance.
Explore, picnic, camp, mine for gems and more at Appalachian Caverns, located near Blountville, Tennessee. Several levels of exploration are available, from beginner to advanced. Take a group or schedule a private tour.
Retrace the paths once used by Native American warriors as you explore Bristol Caverns. Modern indirect lighting is concealed throughout the caverns to allow for greater enjoyment. Explore all three levels down to the underground river that formed these caves over many years.
Forbidden Caverns in popular Sevierville, TN is an exploration destination for the entire family. Well-lighted passageways and handrails make this one of the safest caves for exploration. Reopening for the season in April, these caverns are rich in Tennessee and Native American history and legend.
Curiosity runs deep near Sparta, TN at Cumberland Caverns. This incredible formation is the second-longest cave in Tennessee and is a natural historical landmark. Enjoy 30 miles of mapped cave passageways and stunning formations in 3 levels of tours: easy, moderate and extreme. Open year-round and available for events and group outings.
Where is your favorite spot for underground exploration in East Tennessee? Share it with our readers in the comments below!