by Jason Frye
Every year, more than 15 million visitors head to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee to play at Dollywood, to discover new tourist treasures in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, and to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With over 800 miles of trails inside the park, visitors get their fill of the great outdoors as they hike and drive through the park. But did you know you can get a taste of the great indoors nearby?
Tennessee has in excess of 8,350 known caves, and just a few miles from Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are two you can visit. While underground in Tuckaleechee Caverns and Forbidden Caverns, you’ll find stalagmites and stalactites instead of trees, underground streams instead of mountainside brooks, and you’ll discover a whole new world under the Smokies.
Just 30 minutes from Gatlinburg in Dry Valley is the entrance to Tuckaleechee Caverns and a 1.25-mile, one-hour tour that includes both an enormous room and record setting waterfall. Discovered by settlers in the mid 1800s but known to native Americans for millennia, the cavern opened for tours briefly in 1931 and permanently in 1953. The Big Room — over 400-feet by 300-feet by 150-feet of space — is among the largest single cavern rooms open to the public in the U.S. But the showstopper — if the 24-foot stalagmites and the crystal clear underground stream aren’t enough — is the 210-foot Silver Falls, the tallest subterranean waterfall in the eastern U.S.
Sevierville may be known as the home place of Dolly Parton, but it’s also home to Forbidden Caverns. This stunning cave system is believed to have been used by Eastern Woodland Indians as a winter shelter and water source for hundreds of years, but known to have been home to more than a few moonshine stills from the 1920s to the 1940s. Though moonshiners explored the cave in the early 20th century, tours began in 1967. It’s known for its stunning cave onyx, which is also called flowstone for the way this calcite deposit appears to drape and flow over the stone walls or hang from the ceiling in curtain like fans. Forbidden Caverns is awe inspiring.
When is a cave not a cave? When it’s a bluff! Alum Cave is a cave in name only. It’s really a humongous overhang a 2.2-mile hike from Newfound Gap Road along Alum Cave Trail and Mt. LeConte Trailhead. Even though it’s not really a cave, it’s worth the hike to cross a stream on a log bridge, ascend a set of stone stairs through a rock tunnel, and finally catch your breath in the deep shade of Alum Cave. If you’re feeling especially energetic, rest at Alum Cave then press on to the summit of Mt. LeConte where you’ll have a tough hike, but the reward — a view of all those mountains sitting over Tuckaleechee and Forbidden Caverns — is worth the effort.
Go deep this summer! Hit the road and explore these Tennessee caverns. Your AAA Travel Agent can lead the way.
(Photos: Sevierville Chamber of Commerce)