Going back some 200 to 400 million years ago, imagine the tiniest droplets of water making their way into the ground. After seeping through the dirt and rock on top, they slowly continue down into the depths of the earth where they meet hundreds of thousands of pounds of limestone rock.
Here the water finds resistance, but yet it doesn’t stop and continues to find a way downward. Finally, it finds a small crack in the limestone and enters, seeping throughout the length of the crack creating the very beginning of what we have come to know as Appalachian Caverns.
Although Tennessee has more caves than any other state, there are few that are easily accessible to the general public. Many hours of training and a lengthy checklist of safety procedures are needed in order to explore the thousands of grottos under our feet. Most are also privately owned, presenting another barrier to those who would embark on their own subterranean adventure. Thankfully, Appalachian Caverns’ fantastic series of winding passageways, rock formations, and plunging caverns are open to anyone willing to take a short hike.
Located just a few miles from Johnson City in nearby Blountville, the caverns have been an important part of local history for thousands of years. Early woodland tribes used to conduct ceremonies and meetings down in the front half of the cave. Historical artifacts such as broken pottery near the entrance also showed that trading used to be a common practice here. In later years, settlers rediscovered the cave and ventured further into its depths. It was later sealed off in fear of local children being lost or killed in the dark caverns, and was only reopened years later to be developed as the attraction it is today.
Unlike most of the other commercial caves found across the state, Appalachian Caverns is run on a smaller and more personal scale. The guides aren’t required to follow a single script along their walk and tailor the tour to match the particular group they are with. If it’s a group of kids, the trip might focus on the myriad of cave creatures found along the trail. Adults might be more interested in the science behind the formations or storied history. Depending on who you’re with and what guide takes you, you could visit a dozen times and learn new things on every trip.
Another thing we loved is how the individual groups are smaller than other caves we’ve been to. It’s just hard to enjoy the experience when you’re constantly being pushed along in a group of fifty people who just want to move on to the next formation. As stated before, the guides tailor each trip to the particular group. If a specific formation sparks your interest don’t be afraid to linger and ask questions. Our wonderful guide Roger was able to answer all our queries and adapted the tour to focus on the things we were most interested in.
Several different tour options are available. Regular tours last about an hour and will visit the highlights of the cave along a walking path and series of bridges. Portions of this route are wheelchair accessible. Here you will have the chance to see spectacular stalactites, flowstone, and pools ringed with rimstone. Wildlife such as cave crickets and the endangered gray bat frequent the trail. Further down in the lowest reaches of the cave you’ll pass over an underground stream. Due to recent rains it was a roaring river whose sound echoed throughout most of the tunnels on our most recent visit.
If you’re not claustrophobic and ready for more adventure, perhaps you should sign up for either an Explorer Tour or the Wild Tour. The first ventures off the beaten path and doesn’t require much in the way of crawling or climbing, but you’ll probably leave a bit muddy. Wild Tours explore the far reaches of the cave and allow access to some spectacular formations. These are not for the faint of heart and require some squeezes through some tight spaces. Ranging from $20 to $40 per person, these are some great prices compared to many other places! Be sure to give them a ring before heading out, however, as these must be booked in advance. The number to call is 423-323-2337, or you can visit the park website at www.appacaverns.com to get more information.
Not everything at the caverns is underground. An amazing gift shop on the surface is filled to the brim with every kind of rock, fossil, and gemstone you can imagine. Also nearby you will find the gem mine, where the kids can have a great time searching for their very own crystals. A picnic area is also on site for guests to use. If you’re planning a special event, the park grounds include a picnic pavilion as well as a rock-climbing wall. A spacious campground lies above the cave and makes a great place to camp, especially if you’re looking for some place away from the crowds during a race weekend.
This week, we are again offering our readers a chance to win some tickets. To go along with this week’s article, we are going to give away 2 sets of tickets so that you can explore Appalachian Caverns and all its beauty! All you need to do is tell us one of the following in the comments online: 1) If you have ever been cave exploring, what did you like best about it or 2) if you have never been in a cave before what excites you about going? Make your comments online and just like last time, our wonderfully talented publisher will draw two lucky winners for these tickets. Let’s see those comments!