The Cumberland Caverns cave system is known mostly for its Bluegrass Underground concerts, which feature world-renowned musicians and have their own TV series on PBS. But these caves have a lot more to offer than music, and it’s well worth the two-hour drive from Nashville to see them. Here’s everything you’ll want to know about Cumberland Caverns before you go.
It’s not hard to understand why we as a people are fascinated by caves — In a world where every last square inch of land has been charted and mapped and geotargeted, the wild frontier of our past now only exists underground. Caves still offer us the potential for miles of uncharted territory and all that comes with it, from buried treasure to petroglyphs to thousand-year-old mummies.
Ever since visiting Mammoth Cave in Kentucky (which is, at 400 explored miles and counting, the world’s longest cave system), I’ve been fascinated by the hidden world that exists beneath our feet. I love the exotic beauty of stalagmites and flowstones and gypsum flowers and underground waterfalls, and I’ve become determined to see every cave I can in the area — So it was no surprise to my family that I decided we would celebrate my birthday this year with a visit to Cumberland Caverns, just outside McMinnville, Tennessee.
Cumberland Caverns consists of two large caves connected by a passage that was discovered in the 1950s and enlarged by the caves’ owners. The first is called Higginbotham Cave– It was named for Aaron Higginbotham, who discovered it back in 1810. According to local legend, Aaron’s torch went out while he was exploring the cave and he ended up trapped on a high ledge for three days in total darkness before a rescue party found him. During that time spent in the dark, it’s said his hair turned completely white from fear!
A smaller cave was also discovered nearby at around the same time and named Henshaw Cave. It contained saltpeter, a primary ingredient in gunpowder, and was used as a saltpeter mine during the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Some of the mining equipment can still be seen in the cave.
By the 1860s, a man named Shelah Waters had begun exploring more remote areas of the caves– We know this because you can still see his initials in candle smoke and scratched into the rock in the rooms he discovered. For the next hundred or so years, adventurers regularly visited the cave. Cumberland Caverns opened to the general public on July 4, 1956.
More passages have been discovered since that time — Today, more than 32 miles of cave have been accessed, and Cumberland Caverns offers a number of ways to see it. You can choose from a walking tour, adventure tours, an overnight trip, or a Bluegrass Underground concert. For first-time visitors, I’d definitely recommend the walking tour.
I’d also recommend that you call the day you’re planning to visit to make sure there aren’t any large parties scheduled for the tour at the same time you’re planning on arriving. We were running late and instead of getting there at our planned time of 2pm, we arrived closer to 3. Lucky for us, a school group of 50 small children happened to be on the 2pm tour– We were the only ones on the 3pm tour, and that made all the difference.
Cumberland Caverns is open for walking tours from 9am to 5pm, seven days a week. Tours leave at the top of each hour and no reservations are required. You’ll want to arrive at Cumberland Caverns at least 20 minutes before the start of your tour– That gives you plenty of time to buy your tickets ($20.50 for adults, $12.50 for kids ages 6-12), get the lay of the land and pan for gemstones. Bags of gemstone dirt are available in the gift shop- They cost $5 apiece and give the kids something fun to do while they’re waiting.
My kids spent a good ten minutes sifting the sand in the running water outside the gift shop. While they were busy with this activity, Dennis and I chatted with an elderly man in a motorized wheelchair who wore a shirt with the Cumberland Caverns logo and was obviously very familiar with the caves. He told us stories about the old days of Cumberland Caverns and said he still comes to the gift shop most days to greet visitors. I thought this was really neat– Remember this guy, because he’ll come up again later.
Once the kids finished panning, they took their gemstones to this identification board. They had so much fun figuring out what they’d discovered and trading their ‘gemstones’ back and forth that we had trouble tearing them away for the tour!
Tear them away we did, though, so that we could follow our friendly tour guide, Brianna, through the woods behind the gift shop to the cave’s opening. It was a hot day and the cold air that rushed out of the entrance felt fantastic. The cave is 56 degrees year-round, so you might want to bring a light jacket– However, we found that the exertion of walking kept us from getting cold during our tour.
Inside the cave, there was plenty to see. The tour lasts about an hour and a half and probably isn’t a great option for very small children or those who have trouble walking. Anyone else, I think, will love it — This cave system has wonders of its own that are every bit as interesting as what you can expect to see at the more widely known Mammoth Cave.
This pool of water not far from the cave’s entrance is pure enough to drink from– and so clear that although it only looks to be a couple of feet deep, it’s actually 15 feet deep at its deepest point in the middle! If you’re lucky, you might even spot an albino crayfish!
The geologic formations throughout the cave are fascinating, and your guide will explain them to you in detail. When it came to the tour experience itself, Cumberland Caverns absolutely exceeds Mammoth Cave, in my opinion. Mammoth Cave tours typically have at least 50-60 people in them. With so many people, it can be hard to hear the tour guide or to see what he/she is talking about.
At Cumberland Caverns, on the other hand, you probably won’t have too many people in your tour group, which makes each tour feel far more personalized. You can ask all the questions you want — and that matters to my family– We always have a LOT of questions!
The most difficult part of the walking tour is in this room, The Hall of the Mountain King, which is one of the largest cave rooms in the world. At this point of the tour, you must climb these steep steps and carefully make your way through some rocky terrain to get to a small amphitheater. This part of the tour is optional, which means that grandma and grandpa can wait if they like for the rest of you to scale these steps and return a few minutes later. The climb is well worth it, though– In the ampitheater, you get to participate in a fun re-enactment of Aaron Higginbotham’s harrowing exploration of the cave back in 1810. Your kids will love it!
See the S.W. initials on the ceiling? Good old Shelah Waters is believed to be the first explorer to climb this mountain of rubble and cross over to the other side.
After the show, you’ll pass Lamon’s Loop, named for the father and son team of Lewis Lamon, Sr. and Jr., who discovered this section of the cave and devoted much of their lives to conservation and exploration of this cave system. The junior Lamon, our guide informed us, is now 82 years old and still regularly comes to the Caverns to chat with visitors.
Sound familiar? Yep, the older man we spoke with before our tour was Lewis Lamon himself. I looked for him after our tour, but by then he had already gone home for the day. If you see him while you’re there, be sure and ask him for some good cave exploration stories. He’s a living legend and a very sweet guy!
You’ll next head into the massive Ten-Acre Room, a popular destination for adventurers between 1900 and 1950– Many of them have left their names on the stone walls and ceiling here.
The tour ends in the gigantic Volcano Room, where the Bluegrass Underground concerts take place. Be sure and ask to hear the fascinating story behind the room’s crystal chandelier!
If you’ve still got some energy after the cave tour ends, a walking trail is open to the public on the Cumberland Caverns property. The trail includes a portion of the original Trail of Tears, so it’s a great learning opportunity for your kids. I’ve written quite a bit about the Trail of Tears in Tennessee– the backstory is fascinating and well worth reading about, since there’s much more to it than what we learned in our history books.
Other interesting facts about Cumberland Caverns:
–A major ‘new’ section of cave called The Great Extension was discovered in 1954. You won’t see it on the walking tour, but its greatest feature is known as the Crystal Palace, a large hallway of gypsum crystals that experienced cavers say is one of the best and most beautiful examples in the world. Another section is called the Bear Feet Crawl, a labyrinth of passageways you have to crawl through that contains the skeletons of a dozen black bears believed to be several thousand years old. The Great Extension also has more huge rooms with high ceilings- It’s hard to believe that there’s so much more to these caverns that we don’t get to see!
–Some caving experts believe many more miles of undiscovered cave may be part of this system, hidden behind the breakdown of rocks in the cave’s Oasis Room. Underwater passages have been discovered but not explored beneath the waterfall that you’ll see on the walking tour.
–There are several reports of supernatural happenings in the cave– Be sure and ask your guide about the caves’ ghost stories… IF YOU DARE.
All in all, Cumberland Caverns makes for a great day trip. Consider having lunch at either the popular Collins River BBQ & Cafe or the Depot Bottom Country Store in nearby McMinnville (FYI: Both are closed on Sundays). If you visit the caverns, be sure and let me know how it turned out!