Sunday, September 25, 2016

Tuckaleechee Caverns, near Townsend, Tennessee

9/19/2016 -  Tuckaleeche Caverns 

GPS Coordinates:  (Latitude,  Longitude)
  Parking:  35.65835   -83.77439
  825 Cavern Road, Townsend, Tn
Miniature bat 'hanging out'
in the visitor center
Pet Friendly: No, sorry.  Like most caves, they won't allow pets in the cave.  There are a few very small bats, however.  A surprise for me was that the bats in this region are very, very small, only about the size of a silver dollar full grown, with a wingspan of a few inches.  Don't worry too much if you are batphobic; the only one we saw was in the visitor center.

Motorcycle Friendly: Yes; there are good paved roads right to the visitor center.

Hiking Statistics:  It's really hard to say how far we hiked since obviously GPS won't work several hundred feet underground.  Our guide said it was about a mile and a quarter from end to end, and we covered all that twice, plus some.  Elevation changes are also hard to estimate.  At the deepest point we went, we were 500 feet below the surface.  But since the caves go up into a mountain, that doesn't really tell you much.  I would rate it as an easy hike, and children should be able to make the trip just fine.

The 'Big Room' - with Bethany and Rick
On our vacation in the Smoky Mountains, we wanted to get out and see as much as we could but weren't too keen on the heat and humidity.  It had been a hot, dry, summer and temperatures were still in the 90's.  In the Smokies, it is apparently humid year round.  My wife Bethany and I gravitate toward caves and waterfalls, and our waterfall hiking in the park wasn't working out so well.  So we thought we would check out the caves in the area that were open to the public.  Forbidden Cave is north of Sevierville, and is worth the trip, but Tuckaleechee Cavern really stands out.  I hesitate to call trips through caves "hikes", but you will definitely get some hiking exercise going through it.  With a year-round temperature of 58 degrees, you get the benefits of natural air conditioning and no chance of sunburn.  Score!

For a cave that has been in the making the last 20 to 30 million years, it has managed to stay relatively pristine and undamaged by humans.  The Cherokees that lived in the area long ago knew of it, but never went inside.  They believed evil spirits existed inside where the sun could not reach, so they held ceremonies at the entrance but never ventured inside.  The loggers that came in the mid-1800's noticed the sinkhole that never filled with water and found the natural cave entrance, only a couple of feet in diameter.  This led to an interior opening with a 60-foot drop off;  these guys couldn't even see the bottom with a tar torch, so they went back to logging and the cave was forgotten again.  Forgotten, that is, until a couple of local 6-year olds stumbled across it in the 1930's.

Best friends Bill Vananda and Harry Myers did what most 6-year old boys would do - kept it a secret from their parents and used it as their private clubhouse and playground.  They tied a cedar tree off to climb down the initial drop and used pop bottles of kerosene with a rag in them to light the way.  For years, they kept the cave a secret and explored it's depths.  After graduating from college and fighting in World War II, they found jobs and saved until they could buy up 200 acres around the cave entrance.  In 1953 they finally opened the caverns to the public and charged 50 cents a head for guided tours.  Bill and Harry are now deceased, but to this day, Tuckaleeche Caverns is owned and operated by their two families.

Early tourists had to carry kerosene lanterns down a 50-foot rope ladder to reach the bottom of the cave.  Fortunately, you won't have to lug a lantern around nor climb down a rope ladder.  A much larger opening has been dug into the cavern, and a set of stairs take you down the last few feet to the cave floor in the initial room.  From there, you go through a series of rooms and passageways until you reach what they call the "Big Room".  It is a big one.  The Big Room is over 300 feet in one direction, and over 400 feet in the other.  It is 150 feet from the 'floor' to the ceiling, and at the far end from where the trail goes is a canyon that drops off another 150 feet deep.  

The Big Room was actually not found for a year after the caverns were first opened to the public.  They opened it to tours at the same time they introduced electric lighting throughout the cavern.  The Big Room is at one end of the cavern's extent and is as far into the cave as tours go.  The underground river that initially created the caverns runs through the canyon on one end of it.  Our guide informed us that divers had found huge rooms, including one with an underground lake further upstream.  There are no plans to develop it further as that would require blasting, which might damage the cave formations.

The 'Big Room'
Heading back toward the entrance from the Big Room, you get to see again all the cave formations you passed on the way into the cave.  Your tour is not over, however.  The cave's entrance is actually midway in the maze of passageways, so we went right by the stairs leading out and continued our tour in the other direction.  One of the stops along the way is an area they call "the beach", where the underground river runs right next to the trail and actually has washed sand up along the shore for a beach of sorts.  The water is far more pure than any bottled or tap water you will find, and they allow you to fill a water bottle and/or drink from the river if you like.

Silver Falls
The trail going into the caverns in this direction culminates in one of the most fantastic sights I have seen in a cave.  Silver Falls is an underground waterfall 210 feet high.  It has two drops and while the base of the waterfall is next to the trail, parts of it can only be seen in the large 'holes' between cavern rooms.  The water filters down through hundreds of feet of rock from a sink in Cades Cove, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park above.  I'm told that there are other waterfalls in Tuckaleechee Caverns during wetter periods, but this feature alone makes this well worth the trip.  We plan on going back for another visit the next road trip we make to the Smokies.  

This is highly recommended for everyone.  Admission is relatively inexpensive, I think it was around $15 each.  I'll leave you with one more little tidbit of coolness.  When you go through the front door of the visitor center, look to your right.  You will see an odd computer cabinet with a strange looking display.  In the ceiling in front of it is a video camera.  You might assume the camera is covering the door for a security system, but that's not it.  The computer system is actually the world's most sensitive seismograph equipment.  The cables for the sensors deep within the cave are visible in the
The blue cable has seismograph sensor wires.
entrance as you go into the cave.  It is used by the U.S. government and the United Nations to watch for nuclear testing.  Yeah, it's that sensitive.  On the front of the cabinet is a printout of the traces from a North Korean nuclear test.  I don't know why they don't have more sophisticated telemetry, but the staff there told me the camera in the ceiling watches the display, and U.N. personnel in Vienna, Austria monitor the feed from it 24/7.  Honest - I can make this stuff up, but I didn't.

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