If you’re new to the Southeast, there are probably many geological features that shock you! I, for example, was shocked by the number of waterfalls in Tennessee, and it took me nearly 3 additional years to realize just how many caves we have access to! Some sources report there are as many as 9,600 known caves in Tennessee, and that doesn’t even take into consideration the caves only two hours from Nashville in Alabama and Kentucky!
Lightning 100’s Team Green Adventures not only explored one of these many caves in late July, we camped underground in it—an especially refreshing experience when cave temperatures remain a constant 54-57 degrees year-round! In the spirit of such an exhilarating adventure, this week’s Adventure Blog spotlights some of our favorite caves, and favorite cave features!
Typically made of limestone, caves are formed by the slow movement of water through cracks in the rock. This water contains carbon dioxide from the air, which chemically reacts with the limestone, similar to a weak acid. Over time, the limestone dissolves away creating cavernous formations. Fortunately for us, limestone is abundantly available in the Southeast, making for not only fantastic outdoor rock climbing but also great spelunking!
Stalagmites and stalactites make up for many of the most beautiful features within any cave system. Stalagmites start at the base of the cave floor and extend upward (think “mighty”) while stalactites are attached to the cave ceiling and extend downward (think “tight” to the ceiling). They form simultaneously, as moisture from the ceiling drops to the floor and calcium bicarbonate is deposited with it. In limestone caves, it can take up to 1,000 years for only 10 centimeters of these features to form! For this reason, it is so important to be careful when exploring caves. One chipped cave feature could mark the destruction of thousands of years worth of nature’s work.
Another fascinating feature, though not necessarily “geological,” is the phenomenon of complete darkness in a cave.The only other similar experience I can imagine would be actual blindness. After sitting in complete darkness with my eyes opened and my hand in front of me, I found it difficult to tough my finger to the tip of my nose. My only explanation is that my mind created an image of my hand for my eyes to process, and when I attempted to touch my nose with the hand I thought I saw, my mind misjudged the actual dimensions of my hand… and I missed!
I literally had no hand-eye coordination!
Aside from the thrill of complete darkness, hearing your voice reverberate into unknown depths, and challenging yourself to squeeze through tight muddy spaces, caves also offer their own unique ecosystem with fascinating cave-dwelling creatures.
Among the most known is, of course, the bat. As adults, we should know by now that bats are blind and (with the exception of a few rare species) eat bugs and fruit. Unfortunately, many caves have had to close down since 2008 due to a killer fungal disease known as White Nose Bat Syndrome. It was inadvertently transported to the US by humans, and has spread to at least 26 states and 5 Canadian provinces from bat to bat. It is known to affect hibernating bats and has killed at least 5.7 million bats since 2006. Some bat colonies have experienced 100% fatality, a devastating fate for such a peaceful creature.
The rare Tennessee Cave Salamander can also be found in this region. This variety of salamander can grow from 3-7.5 inches long, are identified by pale pink to brown skin with spots, and have bright red external gills and lidless eyes. In 1995 the Tennessee Cave Salamander was officially appointed as the State Amphibian for Tennessee. Way to go, little buddy! Unfortunately, due to the deteriorating condition of its already sparse habitat, the Tennessee Cave Salamander is on the list of threatened creatures compiled by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
No matter your motivation for entering a cave system, make sure you have the appropriate equipment to keep both you and the cave safe! Boots with ankle support, a helmet, and a headlamp (plus a backup light source) are essential. When visiting a cave with a “wild tour” option (that is, an excursion in which you’ll likely crawl on your belly and fit through tight spaces) soft knee/elbow pads and gloves will go a long way in providing comfort. Be sure to use soft knee and elbow pads, however, like the ones used in volleyball, not the hard plastic knee and elbow pads used for rollerblading. The hard plastic will scrape the natural cave deposits, which (as we learned above) can take thousands of years to form!
All that being said, below are four of our favorite nearby cave systems:
Cumberland Caverns is a privately-owned cave in McMinnville, TN with expertly run programs ranging from simple cave walking tours, to wild cave excursions, to underground camping and even underground musical performances with their Bluegrass Underground concert series! The volcano room features an underground concession stand and fully functional restrooms. The daily walking tours are well-lit with clearly marked walking paths, while the wild cave tours bring you into their deepest, darkest passages and through tight tunnels. A guide explains the features throughout each tour and makes sure everyone in the group makes it safely out.
They even offer Caveman Campouts, a fun event for kids and adults alike. The groups check in at 5:30pm, experiences the daily walking tour and an easy-to-moderate wild cave tour before settling in for the night. The next morning participants can head home, or continue the adventure with their more strenuous wild cave tour, Higgenbotham’s Revenge.
Mammoth Cave National Park is about an hour and a half drive north into Kentucky. It has many of the same features and programs as Cumberland Caverns, except that it’s run by the National Park Service. Mammoth Cave also has bragging rights as the longest cave system known in the world, and represents archaeological significance with respect to Native American burials.
Buggytop Cave in South Cumberland State Park near Sewanee, TN is also referred to as the Lost Cove Cave. Lost Cove Creek is a river that runs through the cave, entering at the Big Sinks and emerging from the Buggytop entrance towards Lost Cove. Unfortunately, Buggytop Cave has become home to the White Nose fungus wiping out our nation’s bat population, so the cave itself is closed to the general public.
Cedars of Lebanon State Park is just a short drive outside of Nashville in Lebanon, TN. Not far from the Nature Center, along the Dixon Marritt Trail, is Jackson Cave. It has wide passages with low ceilings and a muddy, clay-like cave floor. It’s a fun and easy-to-access cave that can give you, your friends, and family, a glimpse at complete darkness without having to wander too far away from civilization!
If you’re interested in learning much more about caves, be sure to schedule yourself for a guided cave tour at Cumberland Caverns or Mammoth Cave National Park, then consider joining a local spelunking group like Nashville Grotto.
– Keeley (Team Green’s Director)