Tuckaleechee Caverns

On a rainy day in late March our family decided we needed a day in the Smokies, or, to be more precise, under them. Our destination was Tuckaleechee Caverns in Townsend, Tennessee, about 25 miles south of Knoxville. The word Tuckaleechee is derived from the Cherokee word, Tikwalitsi (original meaning unknown). The 20-to-30-million-year-old caverns are located just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and truly are a wonder to behold. The caves boast unique wonders, including the “Big Room” that could just about fit a football stadium, and Silver Falls, a 210-feet, two-tiered fall, that is “the tallest subterranean waterfall in the Eastern US.”1)Tuckaleechee Caverns. n.d. “Tuckaleechee Caverns, Townsend TN.” Tuckaleechee Caverns: Greatest Sight Under the Smokies. Accessed March 20, 2021.

The massive space is believed to have been a hiding place for the Cherokee when the white man rounded up Native Americans and forced them to leave through the Trail of Tears.2)The Tennessee River Valley. 2021. “Tuckaleechee Caverns: Geologic Feature.” Tennessee River Valley, in association with National Geographic. Accessed Apr 2021. White men found the caverns in the mid-1800s when sawmill workers noticed rainfall water “pour into a sink hole.” One of the workers investigated and found a way down into the area.3)The Tennessee River Valley. 2021. “Tuckaleechee Caverns: Geologic Feature.” Tennessee River Valley, in association with National Geographic. Accessed Apr 2021. In the 1930s, this subterranean area was a playground for two boys, W. E. “Bill” Vananda and Harry Myers, who explored the area with homemade kerosene lamps – “pop bottles filled with kerosene.”4)Tuckaleechee Caverns. n.d. “Tuckaleechee Caverns, Townsend TN.” Tuckaleechee Caverns: Greatest Sight Under the Smokies. Accessed March 20, 2021. After they returned from serving in World War II,5)Tuckaleechee Caverns Tour Guide. 2021. “Tuckaleechee Caverns, Townsend, Tennessee.” Townsend, March. the two friends hatched a plan to open their wonderland to the public. They worked and raised the funds for their dream. They “carried in hundreds of tons of sand, cement and gravel on their backs to build steps and passageways” to make it accessible.6)Tuckaleechee Caverns. n.d. “Tuckaleechee Caverns, Townsend TN.” Tuckaleechee Caverns: Greatest Sight Under the Smokies. Accessed March 20, 2021. After a few stops and starts, they ultimately opened to the public in 1953, using kerosene lamps to light the journey (although not the old homemade ones). Some years later, they nixed the kerosene and ran electric lights throughout. An “underground river runs the length” of Tuckaleechee Caverns, yet it has never been exploited for commercial or industrial purposes, not even for bottled spring water, some of the purest water in the country.7)Tuckaleechee Caverns Tour Guide. 2021. “Tuckaleechee Caverns, Townsend, Tennessee.” Townsend, March. The caverns even play a role in our nation’s defense. The Department of Defense installed “seismic sensors” that recognize “nuclear tests around the world, as well as earthquakes and hurricanes.”

The cave’s entrance is located inside a largish building that houses a gift shop, the ticket counter, and restrooms. The guided tour is 1 ¼ miles round-trip, including 205 stairs (410 total stairs!).8)Tuckaleechee Caverns Tour Guide. 2021. “Tuckaleechee Caverns, Townsend, Tennessee.” Townsend, March. Our guide was a tall young man, a local who knew the caverns and surrounding region well. We descended the first long set of stairs into the rocky otherworld.

Enjoy some of our tour in the photo galleries below.

 

The Big Room

Large enough to fit a stadium, the Big Room is among the largest in the United States, with dimensions at “400 feet long, 300 feet across, and 150 feet deep”9)Tuckaleechee Caverns. n.d. “Tuckaleechee Caverns, Townsend TN.” Tuckaleechee Caverns: Greatest Sight Under the Smokies. Accessed March 20, 2021. and contains stalagmites, stalactites, and rock formations of all kinds. Even though you climb up to the room, it’s the deepest part of the cavern underneath. The area is totally cut off from outside light, and, when the guide turned off the lights, we experienced real total darkness.

 

The “Rock Waterfall”

These flowstones were formed by water dripping down over eons and leaving deposits to create the appearance of flowing rock frozen in time. They reach well over 60 feet and the smooth, shiny appearance of the rock is a sign that humans have not touched it. The oils from one’s skin dulls the surface and diminishes the beauty.

 

The Silver Falls

This 210-feet waterfall is mostly accessible at the very bottom. You can stand at the base of the falls and look up through crevices to the upper portions. (Lights have been installed to show part of the upper section.) What looks like a small island rests where the water has been crashing for untold centuries. One wonders: How many more centuries will pass before it reaches the ceiling?

 

The Beach

This long, level section of the caverns contains a meandering stream alongside the walkway. You can dip your hand in, and, if you’re adventurous, you can kick off your shoes and wade into the icy-cold water. This stretch has a very quiet, peaceful feel to it, and would be a nice spot to sit down for a picnic.

 

Other

**All photographs taken by Tom and Delonda Anderson

References

References
1, 4, 6, 9 Tuckaleechee Caverns. n.d. “Tuckaleechee Caverns, Townsend TN.” Tuckaleechee Caverns: Greatest Sight Under the Smokies. Accessed March 20, 2021.
2 The Tennessee River Valley. 2021. “Tuckaleechee Caverns: Geologic Feature.” Tennessee River Valley, in association with National Geographic. Accessed Apr 2021.
3 The Tennessee River Valley. 2021. “Tuckaleechee Caverns: Geologic Feature.” Tennessee River Valley, in association with National Geographic. Accessed Apr 2021.
5, 7, 8 Tuckaleechee Caverns Tour Guide. 2021. “Tuckaleechee Caverns, Townsend, Tennessee.” Townsend, March.

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