"When was the last time you were inspired by nature?"
-Cumberland Caverns brochure
Located near McMinnville, Tennessee, USA, Cumberland Caverns is a registered National Landmark and the longest cave in Tennessee. It takes its name from the Cumberland Plateu, the mountainous limestone ridge that divides middle and east Tennessee. Although the cave exceeds 28 miles in length, only about a mile of passages can be seen on the standard tour. Several thousand more feet of "wild" (undeveloped) cave is available for those taking the special overnight tour for church and school groups, Boy Scout troops, and other organizations.
Cumberland Caverns is in fact two separate caves; Henshaw Cave, the smaller of the two, is the starting point for the tour. Visitors to Cumberland Caverns walk through the entirety of Henshaw Cave within five minutes of entering the cave. Higgenbotham Cave, a focal point of local cave exploration since the mid-1800's, makes up the rest of Cumberland Caverns.
Cumberland Caverns has many unique features that few other caves in the region, or world, can boast.
The first room of Henshaw Cave contains the remains of a saltpeter mining operation dating back to the American Civil War. Although it is documented that saltpeter was mined here during the War of 1812, the mining implements left behind are from the Civil War era. Two large wooden leeching vats and an iron bowl used in the distillation process remain in the cave. A number of hand tools used in the mining operation and some personal effects of miners were also left in the cave, but these have since been moved to a display case in the gift shop. Although many caves in the Tennessee area have been mined for saltpeter in the past, the number and outstanding condition of the tools and equipment found in Cumberland Caverns is almost unique in the region.
The second room of Henshaw Cave has a huge, living flowstone named Moby Dick for its resemblence to the mythical whale. A large, deep pool at the base of this formation is home to albino crayfish. Behind the Moby Dick formation is a waterfall that eminates from a crack in the ceiling and falls 20 feet into a rocky pool below. The waterfall's intensity depends on the weather; during periods of heavy rain it is a constant roar that guides must shout to be heard over, but during droughts it slows to a trickle. However, the waterfall has never completely stopped.
Although a long, tight passage in the back of Henshaw Cave was once thought to be a dead end, in the early 1950's it was discovered that this tiny crawlway connected Henshaw Cave to the main parts of Higgenbotham Cave. Because of its tiny dimensions (roughly 9" x 11", about the size of a sheet of notebook paper) and sharp, jutting rocks, this passage was dubbed the Meatgrinder. Although the Meatgrinder has since been widened to walking dimensions, some of the original passage is still visible. Without the connection provided by the Meatgrinder, the commercialization of the Henshaw/Higgenbotham cave system would have been impossible.
The pinnacle of the regular tour is The Hall of the Mountain King. Until recently, this was the largest cave room in the Eastern United States and is so immense that only 1/3 of the chamber can be seen at any given time. The tour enters this room at the foot of a massive breakdown mountain, created by partial collapse of the cave roof millenia ago. I have visited Cumberland Caverns many times over the years, but the sight of this tremendous pile of breakdown still takes my breath away. At the foot of the breakdown mountain are The Chessmen, four large stalagmites that resemble the bishop, king, knight, and queen chess pieces. The initials "SW" (Shelah Waters) and the date 1869 are smoked high on the ceiling of this room in a seemingly unreachable spot; the rock Mr. Waters stood on in 1869 was moved during the commercialization of the cave. Shelah Waters is believed to be the first person to climb this huge mound of breakdown and explore the other side.
The massive flowstone formation at the far end of the Hall of the Mountain King is called the Cathedral for its resemblence to a pipe organ. At this point in the tour, guests are seated and shown "God Under the Mountain", an original, inspirational sound and light pageant that recounts several key passages from the Old and New Testaments. Parts of the audio track for the pageant are nearly 50 years old, and the colorful lighting brings living shadows and figures out of the rock, making for a truly unique experience.
Also known as the Big Room, the Ten Acre Room is located at the end of Higgenbotham Cave's Historic Route. The Ten Acre Room is an immense, dirt-floored chamber that was the goal of the "haywagon party" spelunkers of the 1800's. A tremendous number of names are smoked on the ceiling, most dating back to the 1800's. Several major passages lead off the Ten Acre Room, but none are accessible on the regular tour. Despite it's name, the Ten Acre Room is only about five acres in size. The Graveyard, a small cemetary of mock tombstones, marks the end of the commercial tour. When an employee of Cumberland Caverns leaves, their name is smoked onto a flat piece of rock and a tombstone is erected in their honor. Although many cavers in the 1950's made similar grave markers around this spot, most of the early stones have been removed.
The Volcano Room, another destination for early explorers, is named for its steep, high sides and bowl-like floor. A number of large tables have been moved into this room so that visiting school groups will have a place to stop and eat halfway through the tour. The Volcano Room can also be rented for weddings, receptions, or any kind of large gathering. Another unique feature of Cumberland Caverns is the huge chandelier hanging from the ceiling of the Volcano Room. Purchased by cave owner Roy Davis is 1981, the chandelier came from Lowe's Metropolitan Theater in New York City and is handmade from Austrian crystal. The chandelier is equipped with red, white, and blue lights that can be lit in any combination, and every tour group watches a brief light show. The entrance to Dish Pan Alley, a large passage that leads off of the Volcano Room, is visible but not part of the commercial tour.
The Great Extension, a tremendous section of new cave, was discovered in 1954. Although two of the three entrances into the Great Extension are visible from the walking trail in the Hall of the Mountain King, none of the passages are open to the general public. Roy Davis, the current owner of Cumberland Caverns and the surrounding property, was a member of the expedition that discovered the Great Extension.
Among the spectacular features located in the Great Extension is the Crystal Palace, an extensive avenue of exquisite gypsum crystals. Gypsum formations of all kinds are found in Cumberland Caverns, and many experienced cavers agree that the gypsum crystals found here are among the most abundant and beautiful in the world.
One of the other features found in the Great Extension is the Bear Feet Crawl, a tight maze of crawlways that contains the preserved skeletons of a dozen American black bears. Believed to be several thousand years old, the bears are thought to have used an entrance to the cave that has since collapsed. Apparently, the bears became confused and lost after their yearly hibernation and eventually died in the cave. Several small pits dug by the bears are still present in the floors of these passages.
The Crystal Palace and Bearfeet Crawl are only two of the myriad of wonders found in the Great Extension. Many domes, pits, miles of tight crawlways, huge rooms with soaring ceilings, and breathtaking speleothems are found in the Great Extension. It is simply impossible to adequately describe each major feature, room, and formation.
Since it's opening on July 4th, 1956, many improvements have been made to the cave, including modern restroom facilities inside the cave and a nice gift shop. Around 35,000 people a year visit the cave, which is open from May 1st to October 1st. Tours are conducted from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, with the last tour departing around 4:00 PM.
While the last major discovery of virgin cave came in 1976, small side passages are occasionally discovered by spelunkers during the cave's offseason. The local speliological community is divided over the possible existence of more cave beyond the known system. Some experts believe that the tremendous amount of breakdown in Higgenbotham Cave's Oasis Room may conceal the entrance to many more miles of virgin cave; a system of underwater passages beneath the waterfall in Henshaw Cave has been discovered but not yet fully explored. Only time will tell if the primordial darkness of Cumberland Caverns has any further secrets to diverge.
Here are a few tips that will be useful if you are ever fortunate enough to visit Cumberland Caverns:
- The smaller the tour group, the better. By arriving first thing in the morning (9 AM) or catching the last tour (4 PM) on a weekday besides Friday, you are more likely to avoid noisy school groups and most other tourists. In a small group, the guides are less businesslike and will tour the cave at a more liesurely pace. They may also show you things that can't be pointed out to larger groups, like the medicine bottle from the 1800's that is being consumed by the Moby Dick formation, or the Christmas Tree stalagmite in the Hall of the Mountain King.
- Although the walking trails are covered with sawdust and dirt, the rock steps found throughout the cave tend to be a bit slippery. Be sure to wear shoes with good treads.
- Don't forget your camera! Cumberland Caverns management has no problem with photography inside the cave, and tour guides will wait on you if you want more time for pictures.
- Some visitors have reported eerie occurances inside the cave and a mysterious figure has appeared in a photo at least once. Be sure to ask your guide about the ghosts that supposedly inhabit the cave.
- Don't be afraid to ask questions. Many of the guides are avid cavers and can answer any questions you may have about cave terminology. Some of the guides have been allowed to explore beyond the commercial sections of the cave and may be able to tell you about the portions of Cumberland Caverns not open to the public.
- Follow the basic guidelines set out by the National Speliological Society: "Take nothing but pictures, kill nothing but time, leave nothing but footprints."