Caving, or spelunking, is increasing in popularity across the world. That’s partially because some of the largest caves on Earth have only been explored in the last couple of decades, and we are still mapping them. The United States has a massive number of explorable caves, and many of them are in the stunning state of Tennessee. The number of caves in Tennessee is estimated at approximately 10,000, giving the adventurer plenty of territory to explore. We’ve scoured the internet and found the absolute best caves in Tennessee for you to explore this year. Let’s roam!
Explore Tennessee with Let’s Roam!
You can’t spend all your time underground. You’ll need to include a few terrestrial items on your Tennessee vacation itinerary (you need Vitamin D, ya know!). Take a few minutes to explore one of the amazing cities or small towns in Tennessee on our interactive scavenger hunts. We have bar crawls, urban art walks, ghost tours, and sightseeing scavenger hunts all throughout the state that will add a little extra culture and knowledge to your caving trip. Our hunts are a compelling mix of fascinating trivia, photo/video challenges, and community competition. They’re an efficient and crazy fun way to explore a new place. Check out the full list of Tennessee hunts and add a few to your plans!
The Best Caves in Tennessee Worth Exploring
Underground streams, ripping through the limestone layers of Tennessee have produced thousands of explorable caves. As you might imagine, these caverns are highly varied. Some are gigantic galleries of rock formations, naturally showcasing nature’s art to the masses. Others are tiny fissures only explored by the most masterful climbers. Some are in public state parks, others are wild caves only available to those who do some serious seeking. We’ll highlight some of the best and attempt to include a few for every level of adventurer.
1. Cumberland Caverns
Cumberland Caverns is the gold mine of caving experiences. It’s got it all! The cave system encompasses approximately 30 miles of a subterranean wonderland that boasts underground waterfalls, mesmerizing rock formations, hidden pools, and even a live music venue (??). You heard that right. The Volcano Room hosts seasonal live music concerts.
Cumberland Caverns is the second-largest cave in the United States. It’s located in McMinnville and offers daily walking tours and overnight caving tours! The walking tours involve following a path through a large, well-lit portion of the cave. The Adventure Tours involved climbing, crawling, and squeezing through the dark portions of the caves via headlamps. All tours at Cumberland Caverns are guided.
2. Craighead Caverns
Another one of the most popular caving destinations in Tennessee, Craighead Caverns harbors the largest underground lake in the U.S. known as The Lost Sea. What makes exploring a mysterious cave even better? A glass-bottom boat ride on a crystal-clear underground lake! Start your journey with a guided tour of the cave system. The guide will point out the interesting formations and rare anthodites, or “cave flowers” as well as inform you of the cave’s interesting history. It was once a shelter for Cherokee Indians as well as a saltpeter mine for Confederate gunpowder. The cave is also registered as a U.S. National Natural Landmark.
The tour lasts approximately one hour and 15 minutes, and they often sell out. Book tickets ahead of time. It’s a simple 3/4 mile tour with a few steep spots. It does descend 140 feet, so the climb out can be a bit—breathtaking. They also offer a Wild Cave Tour for groups that explore the undeveloped nooks and crannies of the cave system. Craighead Caverns is located in Sweetwater Tennessee, halfway between Knoxville and Chattanooga, so it’s a great day trip from either city.
3. Bristol Caverns
Located in Northeast Tennessee, Bristol Caverns offers three levels of caverns to explore. The cave system surrounds the ancient Underground River, 180 feet below the ground. The cavern boasts stunning stalagmites and stalactites of every shape and size. The guided tour takes you through all three levels and highlights the history of the cavern as well as its colorful formations.
The cave system was used by Native Americans during the Colonial Period to raid the settlements of Europeans. Knowing the routes, they would raid a village, then disappear into the underground as if by magic. This caving adventure is for the masses. It’s well-lit with paved walkways but does include several stairs.
4. Appalachian Caverns
Located in Blountville, Appalachian Caverns have long been used by early Woodland Native Americans for shelter. Archaeologists have found evidence of habitation going back 1300 years, including burnt firewood, pottery, and arrowheads. The cave has also been used by Civil War troops and by prohibition-era smugglers for storing moonshine. Native American history, American war history, moonshine, and natural beauty… these caverns might encompass all the stereotypes of Appalachian culture.
Regular walking tours leave every 30 minutes. They do involve several stairs and last about 45 minutes. Extended wild caving tours must be scheduled. They generally last 1.5 hours and need to be scheduled at least 24 hours in advance.
5. The Bell Witch Cave
Located in Adams, near the city of Clarksville, the Bell Witch Cave makes our list not for its natural beauty, but for its supernatural allure. Of all the Tennessee caves, it might be the creepiest. Local lore says that a couple of people have perished in the cave. This may be due to the jealous ghost that supposedly inhabits the cave.
The story goes that Kate Batts, a neighbor of the Bell family, felt wronged by John Bell over a land dispute. She vowed on her deathbed that she would haunt him for eternity. Other stories talk of a poltergeist that haunted the Bell cabin for years, torturing their daughter and eventually killing John by poison. The story became famous even before John’s death, and people flocked to the farm to experience the strange happenings. It’s one of the best-documented ghost stories in U.S. history, appearing in multiple publications since the mid-1800s.
The cave is also on the National Registry of Historic Places, and you can tour the Bell farm as well as the cave. Guided tours are available during the summer months… if you dare! The cave is located just 40 minutes from Nashville. To make it a full-day trip, kayaking rentals are available along the Red River so you can get some solace after your creepy caving adventure. Then, you can stop in another historic Eastern Woodland Heritage cave at Dunbar Cave State Park! Dunbar Cave is home to several sacred writings and drawings made by the Mississippian culture.
6. Tuckaleechee Caverns
Situated in Townsend, Tuckaleechee Caverns is touted as the “Greatest Site Under the Smokies.” The website claims that the cavern is below the “oldest mountain chain on earth” which probably is not accurate, nor are the dates it lists, but that fact out of the way, the caverns are truly stupendous. Within the cave system, Big Room is large enough to hold a football stadium, and Silver Falls is the tallest subterranean waterfall in the Eastern United States at 210 feet. Unlike Ruby Falls, however, Silver Falls is a double fall, and you can only really view the bottom section. The cave also has ties to Cherokee Indian tribes.
The tour is a 1.25-mile round–trip tour. It generally takes about two hours.
7. Ruby Caverns
Ruby Caves is also famous for its underground waterfall. Discovered in 1928, inside Lookout Mountain, Ruby Falls has become one of Chattanooga’s most visited attractions. The falls tower at 144 feet and is a mesmerizing sight to behold. There’s an elevator that takes visitors 260 feet below the ground to view the waterfall from its base. Aside from the cave system, Lookout Mountain boasts wonderful outdoor adventures, including ziplines over the Great Smoky Mountains! Ruby Falls tours must be booked online in advance. There are no tickets sold at the site.
8. The Caverns
The second, and much more famous, music venue on our Tennessee caves tour is home to the PBS television series, Bluegrass Underground. The Caverns boast a subterranean amphitheater that possesses both excellent acoustics and extreme natural beauty. The concerts are labeled, “The Greatest Show Under Earth.”
Aside from concerts, The Caverns staff offer daily walking tours for caving viewing and adventure tours for a more exhilarating experience. The Big Room is large enough for three football fields and is one of the largest cave rooms in the world. If you find yourself in Pelham, The Caverns are a must!
9. Forbidden Caverns
Forbidden Caverns is located in Sevierville. The cavern was used for centuries by local Indian tribes and was another location for moonshine runners during Prohibition. During the 1960s, a group of entrepreneurs had the cave fully excavated and opened to the public.
The tour features well-maintained trails through towering chimneys and sparkling mineral formations. It’s well-lit but does involve stairs. The cave system has numerous grottos and a lovely underwater stream to guide you. The tour takes approximately an hour. Forbidden Caves is the perfect day trip from Gatlinburg or Knoxville, approximately 40 minutes from both cities.
10. Snail Shell Cave
Moving away from show caves, Snail Shell Cave only draws the most advanced spelunkers, and those looking for a little danger. The cave is subject to frequent flooding. Any tour of the cave involves tubing, kayaking, or diving. Some of the mapped areas are available by conventional tour. Proper equipment, including fully submersible lighting and a wetsuit, are musts. Several people have drowned in this cave system, and many more have had to be rescued by authorities. Snail Cave should never be attempted alone.
The cave system is one of the most biodiverse in the United States. Entrance to the system is through a vast sinkhole, through which you will need to drop your flotation device (kayak, tube). There are over nine miles of mapped routes in the 13-mile system, and two main routes within the cave. In order to explore Snail Shell Cave, you will need a permit from the Southeastern Cave Conservancy, Inc. which owns and is in charge of the cave’s conservation.
11. Worley’s Cave
Located in Bluff City, near Bristol, Worley’s Cave is another wild caving experience in Tennessee. The 4.5-mile cave is located on private property. Though you must sign up for a visit (just so they know who is on their property), there are no guided tours, no lights, no designated walking paths, and no amenities. The cave is completely natural.
The family currently charges a $10 parking fee. They do not allow solo caving ventures, and you will need to bring all your own equipment. The family states that most people spend two hours in the cave, but if you want to reach the end, it takes 4-5 hours.
12. Jackson Cave
Amongst the glorious hiking trails of Cedars of Lebanon State Park, Jackson Cave is a series of interlinked subterranean sinkholes. The entrance is a surface vent for groundwater and at the cave’s base an underground river empties into a deep pool known as a sump. The cave is over a mile in length and contains a small waterfall. Park staff lead tours inside Jackson Cave, but it’s at the discretion of the park manager due to flooding dangers. You may want to call ahead and ensure that the cave is open on the day your plan to visit. Permits are available at the visitor’s center.
13. Raccoon Mountain Caverns
Located in Chattanooga, Raccoon Mountain Caverns is a 5.5-mile series of underground passageways that captivate its viewers. The cavern is considered one of the most geologically active in the South of the United States. It’s a natural amusement park of completely natural formations.
The most popular tour at Raccoon Mountain is the guided walking tour-Crystal Palace Tour. The highly educated rangers point out and explain the wide variety of stalagmites and stalactites, and helictite formations. They also discuss the rare bats and salamanders in the cave system. The tour last between 45 and 55 minutes and only covers 1/4 mile of the cave.
For those looking for a bit more, their Wild Cave Expeditions, allow you to get muddy, crawl through tiny crevices, and do some climbing too. These tours last approximately two hours and all necessary equipment is provided for you.
Raccoon Mountain is an all-inclusive experience. There are excellent campgrounds, a top-rated RV site, and gem panning opportunities. It’s a stunning park and a great place for families to spend a long weekend!
14. Blue Spring Cave
Blue Spring Cave is the longest cave system in Tennessee and is located in Sparta. It’s the ninth longest in the United States at just over 38 miles. It’s a marvelous adventure through ancient fossils from the Ice Age, including footprints from a Pleistocene-age jaguar that was twice the size of a modern jag.
Until 1989, only 500 feet of the cave was explored. Then, a blowing crack was enlarged to reveal a large passage now known as Johnson Avenue. Now, there is a secondary entrance to the cave that was excavated in 2001. From the historic entrance, you must crawl through the first 500 feet in a fairly tight passage. If you enter the secondary, Carr Entrance, you can get to Johnson Avenue without all the squeezing.
The cave is located on private property and is gated. You will need express permission from the landowner in order to tour the cave. Information on accessing the cave is a bit difficult to find. A few forums suggest that the best way is to schedule a visit with a local caving club that knows the terrain and can get access. Try Huntsville Grotto for starters.
With more caves to explore than any other state, Tennessee is a wonderland for the adventurous. The caves in Tennessee are varied and verifiably fantastic, offering an excursion for everyone. From simple walks in illuminated show caves to thrilling expeditions into some of the most dangerous caves in the U.S., you’ll never be short on adventure in the caves of Tennessee!
Want to explore more of “The Volunteer State?” Check out our new travel guide on “15 Terrific Small Towns in Tennessee!”
Many of the best caves in Tennessee are located near Chattanooga. For a few above-ground itinerary fillers, take some cues from “The Best Things to Do in Chattanooga.”
Frequently Asked Questions
The longest cave system in Tennessee is Blue Spring Cave. It’s located on private property in the town of Sparta and is just over 38 miles long.