For the potential explorer, wild caves hold amazing resources, but also challenging dangers.
Most of Tennessee’s caves are in the eastern two-thirds of the state, in areas with limestone. Limestone is a rock laid down as calcium deposits on the bottoms of shallow oceans, millions of years ago. Now hardened into the different rock formations, limestone is also very soluble. When exposed to rain and flowing water, limestone erodes leaving channels and cavities. These cavities can stretch for miles along the original bedding planes or joints in the beds.
Caves can have a variety of secondary formations found within them: stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, and a variety of other forms of calcite left by the slow movement of water in caves. Even the primary formation of caves can leave remarkable channels and sculpted rock, or sometimes large rooms. Because caves can be very stable environments, the animals found living in a cave are unique to that cave. Spiders, millipedes, beetles, and other small critters sometimes evolve in the isolation of their one cave and may be limited to that one cave, or other caves in that area. The karst systems near the common border of Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia (aka the TAG region) contains the greatest diversity of cave-obligate species in North America. Other caves can have ice age remnants of the mammals that used those caves for shelters.
Some caves, after the water, has receded and the cave dry, have cultural remains from man’s human usage. These remains can be from the Native Americans, and be thousands of years old. Some caves may have remains from saltpeter mining dating to the Civil War, or the War of 1812. Some caves might contain the remains of old moonshine stills, placed in caves to avoid detection during Prohibition. But all of these cultural remains are important and most very sensitive. Several caves in State Parks have been gated to protect these cultural resources, and admittance is only allowed when accompanied by a park employee.
Caves Can Be Dangerous
Most deep caves are dark 24/7, and reliable sources of light are your lifeline to the outside world. Most caves are 56 degrees Fahrenheit year round, and if an explorer gets wet or trapped in a wet cave for an extended period, that person may get hypothermia, even if the outside temps are in the 90’s! Some caves flood periodically; some underground passages have rocks that can shift unexpectedly or deep pits that require ropes and equipment to cross.
Because of the dangerous environments often found in caves, State Parks staff does not encourage casual visitation to State Parks caves.
Why are Caves closed September through April?
Caves are closed during the winter to leave our threatened bats undisturbed during their hibernation period. In 2010, a fungal disease was found in Tennessee’s cave-dwelling bats. This fungus creates a condition on the bats called the “White Nose Syndrome” (WNS). This fungal infection leads to the death of many of the affected bats, and several species of Tennessee bats have almost been wiped out due to WNS. Population numbers of the Tri-Colored Bat and the Little Brown Bat have dropped to the point that these species may decline into extinction due to the WNS.
The fungus that causes the WNS is now in Tennessee caves. But we require that all cavers come to our caves clean, and leave with gear either clean or segregated, so the spores that cause WNS don't spread. For the latest in WNS decontamination procedures, please go to www.whitenosesyndrome.org/static-page/decontamination-information. This decontamination process is especially important for cavers that might be traveling. You don’t want to spread it to other states or caves that might be clear of the fungus.
The fungus does not directly affect humans. Although, with the loss of bats, we may see an increase in mosquito-borne carried diseases since bats are such great mosquito eating machines.
You are encouraged to first visit some of Tennessee’s Commercial Caves or join park staff on a regularly scheduled cave trip. If caving is an endeavor that you would like to experience more fully, you are encouraged to get involved with a local grotto of the National Speleological Society. Getting involved with an organized caving group can teach a lot about cave conservation and cave safety.
SAFETY AND RISK
Cavers should fully understand and recognize that there are certain inherent risks, dangers, and perils connected with their participation in caving activities and that cavers accept and assume full responsibility for such risks and any damage or injuries that might result therefrom. Please practice Leave No Trace principles and follow site-specific rules.
To ensure that Tennessee State Parks continues to provide quality areas for recreational caving, all cavers should register online or with park management before their visit. Once you have registered, you will receive a confirmation email/receipt. This receipt is your permit; keep it with you while climbing. At some locations, you may be asked to leave a piece of paper with your registration number on your car dashboard.
- Groups of eight or more people, please call the park before filling out a registration.
- Be sure to follow all Clean Caving Guidelines, Leave No Trace, and all park rules and regulations.
- You will be required to fill out a Liability Release and Clean Caving Acknowledgement.
- Caves are open to the public from May 1 through August 31.
Cedars of Lebanon/Jackson Cave
Cordell Hull Birthplace/Bunkum Cave
Fall Creek Falls/Camps Gulf Cave
Fall Creek Falls/Rumbling Falls Cave
Lost Creek State Natural Area/Lost Creek Cave
South Cumberland/Buggytop Cave
NOTE: All caves on Tennessee State Natural Area lands, with the exception of Lost Creek Cave, are closed to the public, year-round. However, researchers may apply for a permit through the Tennessee Division of Natural Areas.
Hero image Bunkum Cave ©TennesseePhotographs.com.