Tuckaleechee caverns of Townsend, TN is reviewed and rated as one of the number one caverns in the eastern United States. It's also called the “Greatest Site Under the Smokies”. The Smokies are one of earth’s oldest mountain chains and Tuckaleechee Caverns are carved beneath and estimated to be twenty to thirty million years old.
The caverns are rich in history and lore in recent years as well. On one end of the tour you will find the “Big Room”. It's big enough to fit a football stadium in. At the other end of the tour, you'll see the beautiful Silver Falls. The waterfall drops 210 feet from top to bottom and is the tallest subterranean waterfall in the eastern United States. The tour length is 1.25 miles round trip.
History of the Tuckaleechee Caverns
There's a lot of history associated with Tuckaleechee Caverns. The Cherokee Indians knew about the caverns and used them to hide in when they needed to. The first white men to settle in the area arrived in the late 1700’s. However, they didn’t discover the caverns until the middle of the 19th century. This is when sawmill workers noticed the water from a heavy downpour of rain disappeared into a sink hole. The hole was filled with debris. However, one of the men found an opening in the rock and made his way into what is now the caverns.
Before the caverns were discovered by white settlers they already knew there was a cool spot associated with a sink hole when they lingered there. It was more than likely the constant 58 degree temperature in the caverns wafting up through the sink hole and making a small cool area around it. Local women would sometimes take their sewing or other chores to sit near the sinkhole. They did this in the hot days of summer so they could indulge in the cool breezes coming from below in the cavern. The same breezes they felt then are now piped right up into the visitor center and used to air condition the buildings at the site.
- Tuckaleechee Caverns Tour Length 1.25 miles round trip
- Tuckaleechee Caverns Tickets and Admission - Adults $15 a ticket | Children $7 a ticket | Children under 4 are free.
Bill Vananda and Harry Myers
A clear water stream runs through the length of the cavern, draining much of the surface water from a small cove, Dry Valley, located directly above the cavern. The valley was named Dry Valley before they knew why the water disappeared after a heavy rain.
Tuckaleechee Caverns officially opened to the public in 1931 then ended up closing because of the Depression.
Bill Vananda and Harry Myers of Townsend ventured into the caverns as children. They played in them as if it were their underground fort. In 1949 while in college, the two talked about the idea of opening the cavern to the public.
When Hal Boyle, the Associated Press Pulitzer Prize Winning columnist, interviewed them around 1960. Myers informed him, “We played Tom Sawyer in the main passage as kids. We explored it for three quarters of a mile, sometimes wriggling on our bellies, and lighting our way with homemade lamps that were pop bottles filled with kerosene.”
Vananda and Myers decided they'd try to turn the caverns into a tourist attraction over a cup of coffee. But no one would lend them the money to get started. Both were married with children and couldn’t afford to get it started on their own. So they picked up and went to Alaska. There, they worked construction jobs to raise the money to take on this venture.
They returned and after four years of carrying hundreds of tons of sand, cement and gravel on their backs. This was so they could build passageways and stairways. They opened the cavern in 1953.
The Big Room
Then, the big event occurred in 1954. The National Speleological Society discovered the Big Room. The group, headed by Burt Denton Jr. of Nashville, was part of the Tennessee Geological Cave Survey. Now open to the public as part of the mile long guided tour, the Big Room is more than 400 feet long, 300 feet across, and 150 feet deep. Mammoth Cave in Kentucky has a maximum ceiling height of only 120 feet. The Big Room has stalagmites up to 24 feet high. The Survey Team remarked they hadn’t seen something as impressive as the Big Room east of Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.
In 1955 the Big Room was opened to the public at the same time they added electric lights so they would no longer have to guide folks along the tour with lanterns. A few months later another group discovered another beautiful room near the Big Room but the owners decided not to open it to the public because it would take destroying part of the caverns to accomplish that.
The newest section open to the public includes Silver Falls, which is a 200 foot double waterfall. Only the lower section can be viewed but visitors can look into a lighted upper room and see the upper portion.
The Reopening of the Caverns
The National Speleological Society hosted a dinner for about 65 members in the Caverns on April 9, 1958. John and the late Norma Wilson of Wilson’s Hillbilly Restaurant served the meal on white tablecloths deep beneath the Smokies. The spelunkers were attending a national convention in the area at the time.
Bill Vananda and his wife, Golden, and Harry Myers and his wife, Nita, owned and operated the caverns until 1982. Each couple operated the business on alternate days from April through October, seven days a week. The Myers sold their interest in the caverns to the Vanandas in 1982.
The Caverns popularity has risen over the years from approximately 2,000 visitors a year to over 50,000. It is one of the 8,350 known caves in Tennessee.
Cave Formations of the Tuckaleechee Caverns
There's many cave formations located inside Tuckaleechee Caverns. From twelve foot tall stalagmites to ribbon flowstone to multi-colored formations, you can find almost anything inside these beautiful caverns. Cave formations are also known as Cave Onyx. It’s a form of calcium carbonate which is the same thing as limestone. Its only real value is the beauty it adds to the caves. It's brittle and breaks similar to glass. The acids and oils from a person’s hand when they touch cave onyx will destroy the natural gloss on the formation and make it dull and unattractive. It's said it can also stop growth of the formation.
Cave onyx is formed when carbon dioxide combines with surface water. The carbon dioxide is given off by plants. When they combine it forms a mild carbonic acid. The acid dissolves limestone rock, which is calcium carbonate, and forms calcium bicarbonate which is soluble in water. This is the solution that seeps down into the cave. The limestone will only stay in bicarbonate form as long as the carbon dioxide is present. And since carbon dioxide is normally a gas, it takes pressure and low temperature to keep it in the solution.
This pressure is furnished by the earth as the solution seeps through and the coolness is supplied by the natural coolness of the earth also. When the bicarbonate solution reaches the cave ceiling the pressure is relieved and the solution warms up. This releases the carbon dioxide and the bicarbonate turns back to plain old calcium carbonate which is not soluble by water. This is when it is deposited on the cave ceiling or floor in the form of cave onyx.
The rate of drip is an important factor in the growth and shape of formations. If the drip is slow, most of the deposit is left on the ceiling. If it is fast, the major deposit is left on the floor. A slow drip makes a faster growth than a fast drip. The average growth of formations is about one cubic inch per 100 years. That give visitors a clue to how old these caverns are when they see a 12 foot tall stalagmite.
A Short Drive...
Tuckaleechee Caverns are only a short drive from Gatlinburg, Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Knoxville, Tennessee. Having the tallest underground waterfall in the eastern United States, Tuckaleechee Caverns are the most active, and one of the most ‘alive’ caverns the public can visit on earth. Located underneath the Great Smoky Mountains, they're located in Dry Valley of Townsend, TN. The caverns are only two miles from Cades Cove, another beautiful site in the Great Smoky Mountains and also the place where the caverns actually originate. They begin at White Oak Sinks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Tuckaleechee Caverns also host the most sensitive seismograph system on the plant and it's monitored by the United States Military, Department of Defense and the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Real-time, world-wide, earthquake and nuclear activity are displayed in the Welcome Center. Any questions can be answered by the staff and they can give you hints and instruction on what's happening at any given time while you’re looking at the equipment.
Tours are conducted along lighted walkways and visitors will be able to walk along an underground river, one of the few caverns that have this feature. There are a few steps to contend with during your tour so be aware of this. Also, Tuckaleechee Caverns are like other caverns for the fact that the temperature is very cool and constant inside. A light jacket may be suggested if you're easily chilled but then in the summer, the chill of the cavern air will be a welcome respite from the heat.
Just this past August, guide Lauren Webb was looking around in the creek for pieces of quartz when she saw something a little strange. She picked it up and knew right away it wasn’t a rock. It wasn’t quartz. Instead it was the tooth of a mastodon. Experts at the University of Tennessee have authenticated it. It's thought to come from a three-hump mastodon. The cavern is a natural time machine and probably hold more secrets yet to be found. The owners of the cavern have been looking around the area and have spotted more bones but they haven’t been verified exactly what they are at this time. It’s been said it’s very likely there are more bones buried in the section called ‘The Beach’.
It’s not unusual from mastodon remains to show up in Tennessee. A few years ago one was found at the Gray Fossil Site. The large, hairy animals that resembled elephants flourished during the Ice Age thousands of years ago. At the time, eastern Tennessee was rich grassland. But 10-20,000 years ago, the climate began to heat up. Some say this is the reason the mastodons died out.
It is thought the mastodon either fell into the caverns or was corralled there somehow and that’s why it passed away in the cavern, leaving the tooth as evidence that it existed. There could be more located somewhere in the depths of the cave, more pieces of historic evidence of the Ice Age that existed here in eastern Tennessee.
The guide who found the tooth has changed the way she sees the caverns. Never considering the fact that mastodons once roamed the local landscape has opened up her eyes to new and exciting possibilities hidden in the caverns.
Directions to the Tuckaleechee Caverns are as follows:
From Route 321 in Townsend, turn on to the Old Cades Cove Road. Go about 8/10’s of a mile until you see the sign for Dry Valley Road. Turn left on Dry Valley Road and go another ½ mile to Cavern Road (stay left at the ‘Y’). From here it’s just down a little way on the left hand side. There's also billboards located around the region to direct you to the best Caverns in the Smokies.
Tuckaleechee Caverns Tickets and Admission:
- Adults $15
- Children $7
- Children under 4 are free
Tips and Things to bring along would be a good pair of hiking shoes, some bottled water, a camera with flash and possibly a light jacket since the caverns are a bit chilly.
The address for Tuckaleechee Caverns is 825 Cavern Road, Townsend, TN. 37882
The season runs from opening day on March 15th through closing day November 15th. Tuckaleechee Caverns hours are everyday from 10 AM to 5 PM.
Photos courtesy Dallas Epperson