The South Cumberland region is well-known for its scenic beauty and outdoor recreational opportunities, but many may not be fully aware of the hidden natural world that lies beneath the surface.
A layer of porous, easily erodible limestone underlies much of the Cumberland Plateau and adjacent regions. This results in the area known by the caving community as TAG (Tennessee–Alabama–Georgia) being the cave capital of the country, with the three states combined having over 14,000 known caves. It is estimated there are over 7,000 caves within an hour’s drive of Chattanooga. North Alabama has one of the highest densities of caves in the world, with Jackson County having the most of any county in the state.
What you’ll find if you venture into a cave varies considerably. Underground passageways range from spaces you can barely crawl through to massive, cathedral-domed rooms large enough to contain a multistoried building. You’ll find formations known as stalagmites, stalactites and columns, as well as underground streams and waterfalls. Some caves contain deep pits. Ellison’s Cave in Northwest Georgia holds the two deepest pits in the continental U.S., with 440- and 586-foot depths. There are animal species in caves, including bats, cavefish, crayfish, salamanders, millipedes and cave crickets, many of which are known as troglobites, meaning they only exist in caves. Jackson County has more troglobite species than any county in the continental U.S.
You may have been told that serious cavers refer to the activity as spelunking. That may have been the case in the past, but today, I only hear the term "caving" used. While I’m certainly not a hardcore caver, I have occasionally dabbled in the sport. One of the main appeals to me in venturing underground is that I can feel like a real explorer. While the earth’s surface has been pretty much explored and photographed by satellite, underground, I can still feel like there’s a possibility I could discover something that no human has seen before. Another attraction is the temperature underground, which reflects the year-round average, locally about 58 degrees.
If you want to try caving
If you haven’t experienced caving and are thinking you’d like to try it, I wouldn’t recommend just going out on your own and looking for a cave to explore. There are very real and potentially life-threatening dangers to encounter and protocols that should be observed, not only for your own safety, but also for the protection of the cave environment.
I would suggest you first visit one of the commercial caves in the area. If you want something less crowded than Ruby Falls, Raccoon Mountain Caverns are a good nearby destination. In addition to a regular tourist-type tour through a lighted cavern on paved walkways, they offer guided wild cave tours that involve wearing a helmet, carrying a lantern and crawling through some tight spaces, an excellent introduction to caving.
If that experience has whetted your appetite for more, you might try a guided wild cave trip at Cloudland Canyon or Pigeon Mountain with the Georgia Girl Guides.
If by now you’re really getting enthused about caving, you should get acquainted with one of the local caving groups, known as grottos. The Chattanooga Grotto has been active for 50 years and meets monthly at Outdoor Chattanooga. The Sewanee Mountain Grotto is another local group that’s very active.
If you decide to try caving, be prepared to get muddy and perhaps wet. And don’t take on more than you’re prepared to until you’ve had some experience. Safety measures I’ve always taken when on an unguided cave outing include having at least two sources of light in case one fails and never going into a cave alone. I also inform someone on the outside when I’m going into a cave, with the expectation that I’ll let them know when I’m out.
Bats and white-nose syndrome
In recent years, caving has been affected by the appearance of a deadly bat disease known as white-nose syndrome. There are now at least 28 states and seven bat species confirmed to have the disease. While not harmful to humans, its rapid spread caused many caves on public land to be closed in order to help prevent it from being spread to other caves by human visitors. As it’s become apparent that these measures haven’t kept white-nose syndrome from becoming more widespread, many caves have been reopened, at least seasonally. It’s best to check with the managing agency or a local caving group before visiting a cave to see whether it’s open. But there are still measures that cavers are requested to take in order to help prevent the spread of the disease. Learn more here.
More cave-related organizations
Local grottos are members of the Southeastern Regional Association. The SERA Karst Task Force is a group within SERA that works to clean up caves, sinkholes, cave watershed areas and such.
SERA is, in turn, a member of the National Speleological Society, headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama. The NSS, in operation for over 70 years, has 10,000 members and is the umbrella organization for 250 local grottos.
The Southeastern Cave Conservancy works to conserve caves, currently owns 23 cave preserves and manages over 180 caves in six states.
If, despite the drawbacks, you’ve decided to try caving, a hidden world of wonder awaits your exploration. A local caver expressed it well with her favorite quote, "Unearthly beauty lies underground for those who venture in."
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 article belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.