Ruby Falls is located in Chattanooga
on Lookout Mountain
. Buried inside this mountain is a 145-foot natural waterfall which is the main tourist trap. Now I have to admit, I usually don't tend to stop at these kind of things, especially with their tacky
billboards screaming at me from the highway, but this one was definitely worth the trip
since it was not your average three hour tour
Lookout Mountain originally had a natural entrance to the cave at the banks of the Tennessee River
. When a railroad tunnel was build through the mountain in 1905, the entrance was sealed off. Leo Lambert
(described in my corny pamphlet here) was known to be a 'cave enthusiast'. The little movie they showed us explained how as a kid, Lambert had explored the cave and was rather bummed out they closed off the entrance. So in 1923, he formed a corporation which raised funds to purchase a section of land on the side of the mountain. From there, he planned on tunneling
down through the side of the mountain until he reached the cave, and then opening it to the public
The land was purchased, and in 1928 the tunneling started. The shaft was emptied of its limestone by the bucketful
which they piled at the top of the shaft. Eventually the rubble was used to build the castle
which sits on the side of the mountain and now serves as the entrance to the falls and where you buy your cheesy Ruby Falls souvenirs.
When the drilling team reached a level of 260-feet above land, they hit an air pocket
. Since the old entrance was only about 50-feet above the river, Lambert knew they had not reached the cave he was looking for, but rather one just above it. With a small survey
team, Lambert descended to the air pocket and then into a passage that was about 2-feet tall and 4-feet wide. He emerged 17 hours later telling tales of the waterfall
he has seen inside. His wife made it down there on his next trip and the waterfall was christened Ruby Falls
after his wife.
Eventually the drilling team made it to the original cave and the shaft was completed. In 1930 both caves were made accessible to the public via a single
which brings you down from the castle level on the side of the mountain to the caves. After 5 years the lower cave was closed to the public since the upper cave with the waterfall was drawing visitors' attention.
The upper cave with Ruby Falls at the end is an amazing walk through a cavern
filled with all kinds of speleothems
formed on the limestone
. Keeping in mind that the crevices in Lookout Mountain were formed naturally (again the pamphlet here is saying earthquake
), when I say walk, I don't mean a nice jaunt through something a landscape architect spent some time designing. The path you follow is one formed by the joints
, or cracks, in the cavern, so you are walking up inclines, making crazy turns that seem to double back on themselves, and there are portions where both of your shoulders will brush the sides of the cavern as you pass through. Waters is dripping all around you, there are puddles on the cavern floor, and you can see (and for those of us who can, smell) the yellow sulfur
dripping along the walls. Back to the pamphlet... calcium carbonate
and other minerals in the water flowing down the cracks in the mountain form geological features such as stalactites
through the cavern. The cavers and geologists have named these formations and have names such as the 'Frozen Niagara Falls', 'The Cactus and the Candle', and 'The Leaning Tower'.
Eventually you reach the falls, which is damn impressive. At dry times of the year the falls can get to be a trickle, but it's always constantly flowing and they haven't seen it stop yet. Fortunately for me it had rained earlier in the week so the waterfall was at full force. The tour guide leads you to an open area a few feet in front of the pool and proceeds to tell you that you are underground in a mountain that's taller than the Empire State Building
. Then they cut the lights, and there is no natural light down there. So you stand in pitch blackness
for a few moments while they play a recording introducing you to the highest underground waterfall open to the public blah blah blah. And they hit the switch and lights com on to illuminate the falls. And this isn't a spotlight from Home Depot
. The colored lights bring your eye up to the top of the opening for the waterfall, 145-feet up above you, and then lead you down to where the water cascades at the bottom into a pool. It's a beautiful thin stream of water that I would guess, starts at an opening maybe a maximum of 2-feet in diameter and cascades down to about a 10-foot diameter. After you look for a while, the guide leads you around a small ledge
around the base of the pool and you follow a handrail behind the waterfall. It's not like Water World
or anything but you do get wet, and you're walking around that ledge hunched over quite a bit and almost hitting your head. Then the cameras come out, and I just laughed at all the tourists
whip out their instant cameras. With the flash going off, they'll all go home with lots of pictures of the light catching the water droplets and probably no picture of the waterfall. I'm sadistic
From there you walk back on a similar path through the cavern. A few varied side routes take you through other passages, one with luminescent
formations lit up with blacklights
, pretty trippy
, and back to the elevator which takes you up to the castle and out the door.
But that's only if you get the standard run of the mill tour
. You see, when we were descending the elevator, a bunch of about 100 school kids were headed back to the top. The elevator holds maybe 10 people tops, so all the while we were taking our tour (it's about an hour long), all the school kids were being sent back up top in quite a few elevator trips. When we reached the beginning of the cave, there was a group of 7 kids and 3 moms sitting there around the elevator entrance. When our tour guide called up on his radio, we were lucky to hear the response echo all around the cave around us, “Uh, Jason, the elevator is broken.”
HA! This is things that happen in movies
. Stuck underground, in a cave that has one elevator, which is broken, and you're standing there with your tour group and a bunch of school kids which will become your new best friends
. GREAT! I started looking the group over, the school kids completely oblivious to what was going on, the mom chaperones
looking too tired to even begin to deal with the situation, and my group, just with the expressions of “noooooooooo” written all over their faces.
Then this is where my tour got very interesting
. We were sitting around, listening to the radio conversations between Jason and the woman upstairs, who's name I know because I heard it a thousand times, Mary. Hearing that the elevator people are on their way, climbing down the shaft, working on the problem, now they're getting the part they need, etc, etc, etc. And Jason, our wonderful tour guide, starts telling us everything you never wanted to know about Ruby Falls
. See, Jason, as a tour guide, knows about 10x the information that they provide on the tour. He works in a cave cause he loves caving and enjoys knowing this stuff, and then on top of that he's provided with answers to any random questions that could be asked by the groups he leads through there. So when a woman asked, “Why does the water from the pool taste funny?”
Jason just laughed. And eventually the rest of us started laughing even though we knew we'd have to witness the horrible event
about to take place.
The water from the pool tastes funny because there's magnesia
, or magnesium
in it. And anyone who has been subject to the torture of an upset stomach is familiar with Milk of Magnesia
, a saline laxative
. The magnesia pulls saline (salt water) from your bloodstream into your intestines, and that shit just flushes you right out
. Except here in our wonderful new home of Ruby Falls, the water down there has a content of about 12x as much magnesium as you'd find over the counter in MOM
. That means it also works 12x as fast as MOM
would. So by the time that poor woman was finished getting the answer to her question, she was holding her stomach and immediately asked where the bathrooms were. Lucky for us, the bathrooms were, you guessed it, upstairs
. Where were we? Downstairs, stuck at the bottom of the shaft while the elevator was broken
. Jason handed the woman a garbage bucket and told her to run
After being down there for about an hour, Jason explained to us, that if they could not fix the elevator, an emergency tunnel was carved from the beginning of the cavern, out through the side of the mountain, about a half a mile hike. So as Jason and Mary are talking about leading the group out the cave, we hear that busses
are already waiting to take us from the end of the emergency entrance back up to the side of the mountain. As the poor woman returns with her garbage bucket, and learns she gets to hike out the cave a half mile, right as she groans, we get the word that the elevator is ta da
back in service!
Our tour group of about 10 people, the moms and kids left behind, and one garbage bucket full of shit
, all piled back into the elevator and took the ride back to the top.
The new pamphlet to Ruby Falls will read, The World's Greatest Underground Laxative