Tuckaleechee Cavern, Townsend TN

Mountains High, Valleys Low… and Caves Way Down Below?

With so much to see above ground in the Great Smoky Mountains, you might be surprised to know just how many caves are etched out below your feet. Tennessee has between 9,200 and 10,000 caves – more than any other state.

Several are open for public tours, and others you can scope out through backwoods trails and some bushwhacking. However, exploring caves comes with caveats. You’ll probably be even more surprised to know that federal law prohibits the release of cave names and location lists.

All that secrecy probably intrigues you even more. No worries – we’ve done the legwork to help you plan a fun, sage, and legal underground adventure.

Tuckaleechee Cavern-Townsend
Tuckaleechee Caverns | photo via dallaslovephotography

Cave Safety in the Smokies

Before we head to the underground eccentricities of the Smokies, we need to talk about some safety precautions and how to prepare for cave exploration.

To avoid burying the lead, entering any cave or mine shaft at Great Smoky Mountain National Park is absolutely banned. Most of the ones we know about are already covered with bars to keep people out. However, you can access the entrance to the caves, and we’ll give you some guidance on that.

Secondly, caves provide a vital habitat for bats. These flying mammals are facing a massive threat due to white-nose syndrome (WNS). Any cave you visit will provide specific safety steps to take before and after exploring underground.

Finally, not all caves are easy to walk in and explore. Some require ropes and rappelling. The safest cave exploration in the Smokies is at the places where expert tours are offered. Should you get lost or hurt in an unknown or off-limits cave, there’s no way to call for help.

Tuckaleechee Cavern-Townsend
Tuckaleechee Caverns | photo via dallaslovephotography

Show Caves Near the Smokies

Even with the rules and regulations, there are some epic underground spots to seek out in the Smokies. If you think the waterfalls above ground are amazing, wait until you see the underground ones!

A few things to expect on any guided cavern tour:

  • A lot of stairs and walking
  • Mild temperatures in the mid-50s, with water dripping from various places or covering the ground.
  • Most tours include a part where the lights are turned off and you’re in pitch-black darkness for a few minutes.

Tuckaleechee Caverns

Distance from Gatlinburg: 25 Miles

Touted as the “Greatest Site Under the Smokies,” Tuckaleechee Caverns is in Townsend. That’s west of Gatlinburg and past Wears Valley. The guided tours last anywhere from one to two hours along a mile of cave trails – that’s just 10% of the full length of this massive cave.

Along the way, you’ll go through the Big Room, which is almost the size of a football field and 150 feet from floor to ceiling. Silver Falls is a 210-foot double waterfall at the apex of the tour. I’m fairly claustrophobic, and there were only a few spots where I felt the slightest bit of anxiety.

The guides explain the different formations you find, go into detail about Cherokee history in the cave, and allow plenty of time for photo ops at unique spots.

Tuckaleechee Caverns is open seasonally from March 1 through November 30. The tour does include a lot of stairs (410, to be exact) and slippery, wet surfaces, so it’s not ideal for those with mobility issues.

Forbidden Caverns Sevierville
Forbidden Caverns | photo via neo_queene

Forbidden Caverns

Distance from Gatlinburg: 35 Miles

The irony about Forbidden Caverns is that it’s one of the few in the Smokies that isn’t forbidden. This cave tour is in Sevierville, closer to Douglas Lake than Gatlinburg.

With a name like Forbidden Caverns, the named spots inside play into the theme, such as Grotto of the Dead and Grotto of Evil Spirits. The unique formations are amplified by colored lighting.

Forbidden Caverns also has a waterfall, like nature providing an underground shower. After a rainy day, more water features are displayed throughout the tour.

The tour does include stairs, including a 50-stair descent through a narrow corridor, and you’ll need to duck down in some places. Forbidden Caverns is open from April through November, with guided tours available approximately every 45 minutes to an hour.

Cherokee Caverns-Knoxville
Cherokee Caverns | photo via sara.mika.3557

Cherokee Caverns

Distance from Gatlinburg: 57 Miles

Cave lovers flying into Knoxville should check out the events at Cherokee Caverns before heading to Gatlinburg. Cherokee Caverns offers a unique experience, with movies, trick or treating, and a Christmas party in the cave.

They don’t offer regular cave tours, but this is an all-volunteer effort that only wants to raise enough money to pay for cave insurance costs. Without this group, the cave could end up being vandalized or worse.

The Lost Sea Adventure-Sweetwater
The Lost Sea Adventure | photo via marienlawrence

The Lost Sea Adventure

Distance from Gatlinburg: 72 Miles

The name sort of gives it away, but the Lost Sea Adventure in Sweetwater provides a unique cave experience on a boat.

The 75-minute tour takes you 140 feet below ground, with three-quarters of a mile hike before reaching the boat dock. Front there, you’ll ride on the Lost Sea, the largest known underground lake in the country.

Another reason to visit the Lost Sea is the unique formations known as cave flowers around the underground lair. It’s a National Natural Landmark for its unique and abundant shapes. Also, the remains of a prehistoric jaguar were found in the hollowed halls of Craighead Caverns, which houses the Lost Sea.

Note: While most of the cave tours near the Smokies are first come, first served, you should make reservations for the Lost Sea Adventure at least two weeks in advance. You should expect some steep inclines on the tour but no stairs.

Linville Caverns

Distance from Gatlinburg: 135 Miles

While slightly outside of the Great Smoky Mountains, this is as close as you’ll get to legally exploring a cave in North Carolina.

The first mention of the caverns was in 1858, when angler Henry Colton wrote, “We emerged into an immense passage, whose roof was far beyond the reach of the glare of our torches, except where the fantastic festoons of stalactites hang down within our touch. It looked like the arch of some grand old cathedral, yet it was too sublime, too perfect in all its beautiful proportions, to be anything of human.”

Linville Caverns is the longest-running show cave compared to the previous two, starting in 1937 and expanding ever since. The tour includes massive underground rooms all the way to hunching over to avoid hitting your head.

One reason this is worth the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Gatlinburg is the wheelchair access, which includes most of the tour aside from two narrow spots. Tours are available from March through November.

Ruby Falls-Chattanooga
Ruby Falls | photo via sagarrett93

Ruby Falls

Distance from Gatlinburg: 155 Miles

You’d never guess that visiting one of the most stunning waterfalls in Appalachia starts with a scenic view over the Tennessee River and then descends 26 stories underground. This is among the “highfalutin” cave experiences in the South, with a glass elevation taking you to the cave below.

The underground waterfall known as Ruby Falls was discovered by accident and named after the accidental adventurer’s wife. One of four guided tours fill in the blanks of that surprise story. Options include a tour to Ruby Falls and back, a longer tour focused on history, and a lantern tour.

When it opened in 1930, two caves were open for tours. However, Ruby Falls stole the show, and the second cave was closed. A zipline and a climbing wall offer more adventures overlooking Chattanooga.

Cave Entrances in the Smokies

An unknown number of caves run below the Great Smoky Mountains, and inside the national park, we have details about a few of the spots you can explore.

The most well-known cave entrances are in the Cades Cove area, which sits on an erosive limestone bedrock. You can only hike to these caverns. Bars will prevent you from entering.

The most well-known and easiest-to-access cave in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Gregorys Cave, about a half mile on the trail from the John Oliver cabin. This cave was once open for tours before the park was established. Now, only researchers with a permit from the Park Service can go inside.

By taking the Schoolhouse Gap Trail, you’ll be able to see Blowhole Cave and Rainbow Cave. This is in the White Oak Sinks area. The hike is easy enough, but it requires taking unmarked trails. The Blowhole Cave gets its name from the cold air that escapes the opening. Rainbow Cave has a waterfall from the top dumping into the cave abyss. This is not the same place as Rainbow Falls.

The deepest cave in the Eastern United States is Bull Cave, tucked in the backcountry of Rich Mountain. You’ll need to take narrow, winding backroads to get to the Ace Gap Trailhead and then take a side trail to the Bull Cave entrance. It genuinely looks like the mouth of Earth opening up – hauntingly beautiful.

Alum Cave - Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Alum Cave | photo via @went_wandering

What About Alum Cave?

If you’re a first-time visitor to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s worth mentioning that Alum Cave isn’t a real cave. However, the epic hike is worth it if you’re up for it. Alum Cave Trail spans five miles one way to Mt. LeConte, but you can do a five-mile out and back just reaching the Alum Cave Bluffs. I like to call it a “Cave Light.”

The overhang of the cliff above makes it look like a huge cave entrance, but it’s more of a massive rock shelter. You’ll also walk under Arch Rock, which feels like a cave, but the same type of erosion forces that formed Arches National Park worked through the softer bedrock here.

Alum Cave gets its name from the aluminum sulfate once mined from the walls, first as gunpowder by the Cherokee and then for an Epsom salt company.

Want More Appalachian Caves?

If you can’t stop thinking about caves, how about parlaying your trip to Great Smoky Mountain National Park with a four-hour detour to Mammoth Cave National Park? It’s the longest cave system in the world and was protected at the same time as the Great Smoky Mountains. You’ll also get to experience more Appalachian lifestyle and history.

What is your favorite cave in the Appalachian Mountains?

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