Nickajack Cave. (Photo: Bob Butters)

Nickajack Cave, partially flooded by its namesake lake, is considered to be biologically one of the most important caves in Tennessee. This is primarily because of the thousands of gray bats that inhabit it from late April through early October. The gray bat, a medium-sized short-eared species, is one of over a dozen in Tennessee and is listed as federally endangered.

During the time of year they roost in Nickajack Cave, which is also when they give birth to their young, they emerge each evening around sundown from the mouth of the cave to search for food in a continuous stream estimated to contain over 100,000 bats and lasting about 45 minutes. It is estimated they consume 274,000 pounds of insects a year. Although they prefer mayflies and stoneflies, they also eat mosquitoes, caddis flies, beetles, moths and other aquatic insects. In the fall, the bats move to cooler caves for hibernation.

Over the last decade, a fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in bats has spread from New York over much of the U.S. and Canada, posing a serious threat to bat populations and resulting in the closure of many public caves. But there’s good news. Recently, scientists and conservationists have successfully treated bats for white-nose syndrome and released them back into the wild. Click here to learn more.

Cliff swallows also inhabit the cave, co-existing with the bats and building mud nests on the ceiling.

A gray bat. (Photo: Adam Mann, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Paddle to the cave
From July 10 through Sept. 25, Outdoor Chattanooga will offer Friday evening canoe trips to Nickajack Cave to view the bats as they emerge for their nightly feeding. The group will then meander back to the launch after dark. The paddlers will depart from the Cole City Creek boat ramp near Macedonia Baptist Church, about three-quarters of a mile across the lake from the cave. All equipment will be provided by Friends of Outdoor Chattanooga. Costs are $10 for children ages 13 and under and $20 for ages 14 and up. Reservations are required. To make a reservation or for more information, email [email protected] or call 423-643-6888. Tours may fill up. Check the Outdoor Chattanooga calendar for availability.

If you’d like to go on your own to see the bats, a 1,000-foot boardwalk leads from the Maple View Day Use Area through the woods along the shoreline to an observation platform overlooking the cave entrance. Or you can launch your own canoe or kayak from the Maple View boat ramp. The Maple View site is open 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Central time from April through October. The Maple View area is minimally maintained, but there are a number of picnic tables and a pavilion. The restrooms are closed, but a portable outhouse is provided.

The cave as seen from the nearby overlook. (Photo: Bob Butters)

Some history of the cave
A known landmark for hundreds of years, Nickajack Cave has served as a shelter for Native Americans and, later, river pirates. It was a source of saltpeter, used in making gunpowder, in both the War of 1812 and for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Although there seems to be a variety of opinions on the origin of the name “Nickajack,” there was a Cherokee town of Nickajack located between the cave and the Tennessee River. Both it and the nearby town of Running Water were destroyed by territorial militias in 1794. Various commercial interests have run boat tours into the cave off and on since 1872. Before the lake existed, a creek ran out of the cave. The entrance once measured 140 feet in width by 50 feet in height, but since the formation of Nickajack Lake in 1967 flooded the entrance, the height is only 20 to 25 feet. The entrance was fenced off to keep boats out in 1981 in order to protect the bats. In 1992, TWRA designated Nickajack Cave as Tennessee’s first nongame wildlife refuge.

Directions to Nickajack Cave and Maple View Day Use Area
Nickajack Cave is about 25 miles from downtown Chattanooga. Going west on I-24, take exit 161 at Haletown. Turn left on Highway 156. In about 5 miles, you’ll see the cave across the water on your left. Maple View will be on the left immediately upon passing the lake. GPS coordinates are latitude 34.993228, longitude -85.612788.

The view from near Nickajack Cave. (Photo: Bob Butters)

More canoe outings 
If you’re looking for more canoe trips, here are a couple more being offered by Outdoor Chattanooga.

-Huck Finn Family Paddling Adventure, July 10
Paddle canoe pontoons through the Chickamauga Lock and down the Tennessee River. 

-Lookout Creek National Park Service canoe trip, Aug. 13
This is a one-hour family-friendly canoe tour with an interpretive ranger from the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

Go to Outdoor Chattanooga’s calendar for more details.

Bob Butters explores nature and the outdoors, primarily in and near the South Cumberland region, and publishes the blog www.Nickajack-Naturalist.com. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.