Tumbling Rock Cave is a large cave near Scottsboro, Alabama. It is one of the most popular horizontal caves in the TAG Corner geological region. Many cavers have their first trip in this cave. The only known entrance is on property leased by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy, Inc., or SCCI. It is open to the public every weekend, although there is a nominal donation of $10 to SCCI for non-members to visit, which goes towards conservation of the cave and maintenance of its grounds. If you wish to visit on a weekday, just call the contact (usually a member of Huntsville Grotto) listed on the NSS website.
Tumbling Rock remains open despite the rash of cave closings due to the WNS scare, since less than ten bats live in the cave at the moment (most of them found at the back of the cave). The surveyed portion of the cave is over 9000 feet long, but there is over 1000 ft. of passage as yet unsurveyed near the back of the cave. Current studies show that more than 99% of the cave is underground.
Tumbling Rock is named for a large boulder that appears to be precariously wedged between a ledge (which it is mostly overhanging) and the ceiling, looking as if it could at any time roll down into the primary stream passage. This is easily spotted right at the entrance to the Suicide Passage breakdown.
One of the most popular excursions into Tumbling Rock for those that have the stamina and endurance is the trip to the back of the cave to Mt. Olympus, and, for those with enough remaining energy, the top of said structure. Mt. Olympus is not the very back of the cave. Beyond it, if one knows how, is the biggest room in the cave: Grant's Tomb, which leads back into Terry's (Terrible) Tiger's Teeth. However, the way is not obvious, and involves quite a nasty little back-breaking chimney named Dowell's Dilemma.
One begins one's excursion to Mt. Olympus at the entrance (where else?) which is a crouch-walk down a borehole passage which quickly becomes tall enough to stand up. Along this passage, there are two cracks which would allow access to a lower stream bed level which has some water in it when the cave is particularly wet. The second of these cracks has a rock placed across it but the first one can just jump over.
This soon opens up into the ante-room. The way forward to this room is obvious here. Heading down towards a sandy stream bed, someone has cut a pair of steps in the dirt up into the first large room in the cave. In flood situations, this room can quickly turn into a 10 ft. deep lake filling up almost to the entrance on one side and on the other side to a mound with worn formations on top and rimstone down the side. Climbing over this, and sliding down the other side, one enters a room with some nice formations along the walls and a dry stream bed down the center (except occasionally in the winter and in flood situations of course). The back of this room is Sugar Loaf Mountain, which one can either climb along stair-like rocks and eroded channels on the left or by carefully working up the mud slope to the right. In the summer the mudslope can become dangerously slippery as the cave tends to be blowing out air during this season and water condenses here just inside the entrance. In the winter it is quite sticky mud and it is feasible to traverse without much risk of careening down the 20 ft. fall below.
The top of Sugar Loaf Mtn. I affectionately call the handstand room. It is wide and flat and gives plenty of space to tilt up into a handstand, but the ceiling slopes gently down toward the walls so that anyone can find a place such that their feet rest on the ceiling while handstanding. Visible on the walls here are graffiti from as far back as 1813, all documented and confirmed. Presumably, many of these graffiti were drawn by workers at the historical saltpeter workings that begin here. Once upon a time, a cable ran across the room behind Sugar Loaf Mtn. and one can find holes drilled here in the rock where the supports for this cable were inserted if one looks carefully. This cable facilitated the transportation of distilled saltpeter from the vats one finds casts of in this room (evidence of what this article calls a "Type A" saltpeter works). It stands to reason that the earliest graffiti here was from 1813, as a great demand for saltpeter arose during the War of 1812. Many of these graffiti also date from the 1860s, corresponding with the renewed need for saltpeter during the American Civil War. The casts of the vats are evident: large square vats were built and filled with tons of of dirt through which water was run, and from which nitrate deposits were leached. The wooden vats have long since rotted away leaving giant squares of dirt, each with a sign on top marking it as a historical artifact.
Beyond the saltpeter workings lie the Elephants' Feet, a row of massive columns formed by eons of water trickling down from cracks in the ceiling. The base of each is a large, rough, and perfectly rounded mound. Surrounding them on all sides is thick rimstone which are filled with water in the winter. The largest of the Elephants' Feet can be climbed, entering a squeezy borehole passage that one can follow, with some effort and technique, into a large room with ceilings that appear to be around fifty feet . A rather hairy traverse (assisted by a rope if you're smart) can gain one access to the top of this room which leads into a rather beautiful and infrequently travelled portion of the cave called the Vu Ja De. Another entrance to this region is possible by climbing a waterfall along the wall near the stream below the Elephants' Feet.
Dropping back toward the stream from behind the Elephants' Feet plateau leads to a borehole passage that actually runs above the stream. The water is beneath your feet in this room even in the summer. The truly brave can drop into the water through a hole in the floor, and slog through the waist deep water back to a place where it emerges into the open air again in a place it is easy to climb out. Soon one comes back to the actual stream again. If it's winter, one may as well get one's feet wet here, as eventually it gets to be harder than it's worth to try and stay dry. Also, walking in the stream is the fastest route. Somewhere along here you will find a shelf which, if rapped sharply with the fist, rings out with a deep tone like a giant tuning fork. There is also a rock which appears to be shaped like a shark from one angle, a favorite picture taking spot of cavegoers.
If one knows how, one can enter the Sewers from here, through passages found high on the walls. Soon, one runs into the Wildcat Breakdown and there's nothing to do but go over it. One can actually mount the top of this rockpile quite easily if one knows where to look, although the most obvious routes appear to involve some exposed climbing. This is completely optional, however, as reattaining the streambed as quickly as possible avoids some rather interesting climbdowns. However, crawling around on this breakdown is what led to the discovery of the Wildcat Extension in the early '60s, so finding one's way into that might be worth the side trip.
The stream bed here is called the Wind Tunnel, although it isn't all that windy most of the time. It is high and wide and breezy to move through, however, so one quickly arrives at the base of the breakdown climb up to the Totem Room. This is probably the most interesting room in the cave, and a great place to take pictures. There are quite a few columns, stalactites and stalagmites everywhere, soda straws all along the ceilings on the sides, and even a few helictites creating some quite spectacular flowering shapes if one knows where to look. In short, every limestone speleothem imaginable can be found here.
Climbing back down the other side of the breakdown, and continuing, one ducks under a sheer vertical wall, and around the corner, climbs a pile of rocks coming out of Hidden Door. It is so named because on the way back out of the cave, way back through this hole is hard to spot, and there are side passages here that look like more promising exits. However, there is a somewhat wet bypass for Hidden Door here, so even if one never spots it, one can get out okay.
If it's winter, one will already be able to hear the King's Shower from here. It's just up ahead. There is a pile of rocks in the middle of the passage and a large jagged hole in the ceiling. If it looks out of place here, that's because it is artificial. Once upon a time, some genius decided that since there was only an inch or so between the ceiling of this passage and the floor of the passage above, a sledgehammer would create a much simpler route to Topless Dome. As deplorable as cave vandalism is, they were right: popping up through the ceiling here is much easier than the exposed climb and crawling that were necessary before, and it really would have been just a few more centuries before the water cut this particular hole in the ceiling anyway.
Topless Dome is one of the more impressive sights in this cave, and a few minutes should be spent here admiring and photographing it. It is over 200 feet high, but in the winter, it's impossible to see the top without extremely powerful lights due to the shower of water falling from the ceiling and the spray it kicks up. Bolted all around this dome is a rock climbing route that is more than 500' long and spirals around the dome at least 7 times. It was last attempted in the early '90s, last completed in the '70s and is still considered the most difficult underground climb in North America. According to the last folks to climb, the passage at the top where the water emerges quickly thins out to a hole just big enough to admit the water; it doesn't go. Recently, some very nice pictures of the entirety of the dome have been taken by hoisting powerful lights to the top of the dome by large helium balloons.
Also in this room there are some lovely muddy belly crawls (but don't do them naked or you will receive quite a number of cuts and bruises) and a nice little canyon one can practice canyoning in that leads to a ledge overlooking the next room.
The next room has a high ceiling and is occupied by a pit shaped like an inverted cone. It is possible to climb down into the pit and climb back out the other side, but it's a lot easier to just crawl around the edge of it on the shelf to the right side. This may be what is referred to on the survey maps as the Great Hall of Mysteries, or that may be another name for the room in which Christmas Tree is located, which is usually just called the Christmas Tree Room.
Christmas Tree is a flowstone stalagmite approximately the size and shape of a fir tree. During the holiday season each year, this speleothem is draped with garlands and lights, which are lit on weekends by a battery carried into the cave so visitors can take pictures with it.
At the back of this room is a steep mud hill. Along the top of this hill, there are several holes which one can squeeze into in the floor, but none of them go. There is one hole low down in the right wall, however, which leads into the most difficult section of passage in this cave. A crawl here leads in Emperor's Room, another one of the largest rooms in the cave. Behind this, the only way forward is through an 8" squeeze called the Blue Crawl. Beyond this is the Inner Sanctum which leads into the shale breakdown marking the beginning of the back section of the cave.
Once upon a time, that was the only way to reach Mt. Olympus, but some shifting of the rockpile above the stream bed created the Suicide Passage bypass. Although this route involves some twisting and crawling through some 3D maze kind of passage through the breakdown, it's really not as bad as its name would seem to imply. Just remember to take careful note of the place where one emerges from the stream bed behind it into the shale breakdown, as it is well-hidden from the other side. On the way back, once one is in the stream bed, it is easy to find the Suicide Passage again due to the "Slow 15 MPH" graffito someone spraypainted onto the rock over its beginning.
Once out into the shale breakdown, one goes straight across the big room here. To the right is Allen's Alley, which is a dead-end, except for a sketchy rope climb down into another stream passage. Over the hill directly ahead, and then toward the right wall, it becomes easy to follow one's nose to the Asphalt Ooze, where natural tar drips fresh from the ceiling and stains the rocks black. At the back of this room is a long, low crawl (which is bypassed by the stream passage under Allen's Alley for those who hate crawling) which leads into the room where lies Mt. Olympus. There are several large gypsum flowers hidden just along the outskirts of this room if one knows where to look.
Climbing around the rocks at the base of the mountain, begin to work towards the left wall, as the climb up is much, much less sketchy on this side. Once one is above the rock pile and on the mud slopes, the center face of the mountain smooths out and gets steeper, while the left side retains many rock outcroppings and quite a number of hand-carved (into the mud) foot holds. (If you ever watched the old Nickelodeon TV show GUTS, just picture Super-Aggro-Crag without the lights and buttons and giant foam boulders falling down.) At the top of Mt. Olympus there is a register. As you're taking a water break after that strenuous climb, you'll feel like you accomplished enough to deserve signing it. From the top of Mt. Olympus (and only from the top), the Pillar of Fire is also visible. This is a giant flowstone stalagmite much like Christmas Tree, but it is much taller and much less accessible, standing on the edge of a sloped ledge suspended 20 ft. or so above the side of Mt. Olympus.
The way back down the mountain is the same way you came up, but about five times faster, because you can boot-slide most of the way. Just be sure to use proper boot-sliding technique, as sometimes people get severely injured coming down here when they slide out of control and start tumbling. Then, leave the cave the same way you came in, but backwards. Total time for this trip as described is about six hours if you keep moving at a reasonable pace. It's possible to do it in an hour and a half if you know the cave well and move quickly.
Once you're out, be sure to take advantage of the provided changing rooms (with lights, since you're bound to have come out after dark!) to put on clean clothes before riding into town for supper at the Huddle House.