Cumberland Caverns lies on the south slope of Cardwell Mountain and is undoubtedly one of the most extensive cave systems in Tennessee with more than 32 miles of passages trending beneath the Cypress sandstone benches and slopes of the mountain, an outlier of the Cumberland Plateau.
Cumberland Caverns provided Rocky Topper passes for the purpose of reviewing this tour.
The Story Of Cumberland Caverns
The caverns include what was previously known as two separate caves, Higgenbotham and Henshaw Cave.
Higgenbotham Cave was discovered in 1810 by surveyor Aaron Higgenbotham during a cold winter’s day when he spotted fog rising from a hole on the mountain from the warmer cave air escaping it’s entrance. According to legend, while exploring the cave Aaron’s torch went out and he found himself trapped on a ledge for three days in total darkness before his horse and gear were found outside the cave and rescuers found him. In the years following the Civil War the cave was used to host haywagon parties with visitors making the long, arduous trip through the historic entrance to the Ten Acre Room (now commonly referred to as the Volcano Room).
Henshaw Cave was used for the mining of nitrate during the War of 1812 and the Civil War and it is believed that saltpeter manufactured at the cave was ground into gunpowder at Powder Mill Springs near the head of nearby Blue Spring Cove.
The caves were eventually connected in 1953 when cavers S.R. Gorin, Dale Smith, and Thomas Barr identified a tight, narrow, and jagged crawlspace between the two, which was later enlarged with explosives in 1955. Later, the walkways, bridges, stairways, and eventually electric lighting and facilities that you see today were added and the name was changed to “Cumberland Caverns” before opening to the public on July 4, 1956.
Today, Cumberland Caverns offers a variety of caving adventures for all ages. The Daily Walking Tours last for approximately 1.5 hrs and run 7 days a week, year round, every hour from 9:00am – 5:00pm. They also have various Adventure Tours, with some running on a schedule like the Rocky Topper that lasts for 2.5 – 3 hrs and runs weekly on Saturdays, and others that can be reserved in advance. These tours are popular with Boy Scout and Cub Scout groups who can also book an overnight experience that includes the Daily Walking Tour, an Adventure Tour, as well as overnight camping underground.
First Caving Experience
I’ve been to Cumberland Caverns several times in the last several years for both field trips and Cub Scout Overnight Campouts, but up until this year had never been on wild cave trips. After seeing photos of these types of trips on social media I got connected with the Upper Cumberland Grotto of the National Speleological Society, a group of cavers here in Tennessee and have since been on regular trips. After each trip, I’ve shared photos with my children who have been in awe of the various formations and just the overall adventure that I’ve had. This past weekend, I decided that it was finally time to bring my youngest (ages 7 and 9) on their own first caving adventure along with my oldest (age 12).
Our Rocky Topper Experience!
Arriving at Cumberland Caverns, we parked and made our way to the gift shop where the friendly staff got us signed in for our tour and let us know that our tour guide would be available promptly at 1pm to begin the tour. We had some time to kill so we made our way outside. They have a box setup with passages that children can crawl through simulating some of the crawl spaces you’ll find in the cave. It’s such a simple distraction while you wait but they had a blast and it was difficult to pry them away to get back in time for our tour to begin.
The gift shop has all sorts of caving souvenirs from t-shirts to books, to mugs and hats, along with geological wonders like geodes crystals.
At 1pm our guide appeared and informed us that the tour would take approximately 2 hrs, gave everyone a chance to utilize the restroom, and then proceeded to escort us to the cave entrance.
He relayed the history of the caverns as described above, and we made our way past historical displays of a moonshine distillery and the vats used in creation of saltpeter that was used in gunpowder creation.
Further along we passed a formation that is shaped like a giant whale and has a pool of pristine, clear water that occasionally includes cave adapted albino crayfish.
These areas are all part of the Daily Walking Tour. Making our way past the whale formation we moved through the passage that used to be the tight crawlway that S.R. Gorin, Dale Smith, and Thomas Barr navigated to connect the two original caves that is now clearly expanded.
Further along the passage opens up to the famous Volcano Room, home to the Bluegrass Underground and we got to see Aaron Tippin and Sammy Kershaw playing to a packed room
Finally, after moving through the concert area and down one last passage, we arrived at the equipment room where we all geared up with helmets and headlamps. Afterwards our tour guide brought everyone to a box that is designed to be as tight as the tightest spot in the cave where we each needed to crawl through and demonstrate that we’d be able to fit. Keep in mind, that there aren’t many spots like this, but there were 3-4 spots in the cave that were quite tight.
Once everyone passed through the box we departed on the Rocky Topper Adventure Tour into the depths of Cumberland Caverns. Our group included several small children since the lowest recommended age is 6, as well as a group on a “Ladies Adventure Weekend”. The trip overall isn’t overly strenuous. The 2 hr estimate provided by the tour guide was spot on. It includes climbing up metal ladders and several low belly crawls however.
Along the way geological formations can be seen, below is an example of a gypsum flower which forms in relatively dry conditions. They result from the feeding of solutions (gypsum, which is calcium sulfate) through pores in the rock under capillary pressure. Cumberland Caverns is known for having some of the most impressive examples of these found in Tennessee. The first is an example seen on our tour, but below it is another example seen on another trip I took to Cumberland Caverns with legendary caver Bill Walter to a non-tourist area of the cave.
|Example of a gypsum flower seen during the Rocky Topper Tour|
|Example of another gypsum flower found in a remote, non-tourist section of Cumberland Caverns|
The kids in particular had an absolutely fantastic time since they got to do so much climbing, crawling, and maneuvering through passages, all through the light of their headlamps.
Eventually we made our way to a stopping point where everyone took a seat and shut their headlamps to experience a few moments of complete and total darkness. Most enjoyed it however my daughter was a little spooked considering the level of darkness, which we never really get a chance to experience at home.
From here we finally started our way through one of the most infamous areas of the tour, well known to Scout groups called “Bubblegum Alley” or the “Passage Of Lost Soles”. This area almost always has a high level of moisture, but surface water making it’s way down into the depths of the cave. The dirt clay in this passage becomes wet and has a consistency much like bubble gum, sticking to your shoes. Walking through it sounds like bubble wrap popping and people often get their shoes stuck or even lost in the stuck mud if they aren’t careful…
On exiting Bubblegum Alley we found that it was only a short, 5 minute walk and short crawl before exiting by the caves bathroom facilities near the Volcano Room where everyone had a chance to take off their gear and wash as much of the mud off as possible before exiting the cave.
I HIGHLY recommend taking the Rocky Topper Tour whether it be your first caving trip, or a return trip. It’s a lot of fun and gives you a great taste of exploring the underground and the wonders that can be found there.
Please note that caving can be a dangerous activity for the inexperienced. If you have an interest in exploring caves, check out a local grotto from the National Speleological Society website so you can connect with experienced cavers in your area who will show you the ropes. Also, remember that caves can be on either private property or government land so please always ensure that you either have permission from the landowner or the proper permits obtained before visiting a cave. While there, remember to…
Take nothing but pictures.
Leave nothing but footprints.
Kill nothing but time.