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My First Cave Tour

Emma Morcroft joined The Caverns team in December 2021. Since she had never been on a cave tour before, that was her first order of business. Read her first person account of her first time taking The Caverns cave tour—and join us for your very own underground adventure soon!

Growing up in a large city I didn’t encounter many caves. It wasn’t until I moved to Tennessee that I even thought to tour one, but I have a slight fear of small spaces, so I was in no hurry. That is, until I joined The Caverns team. It was time to put my fears aside and boldly venture underground.

Before leaving Nashville, I took a look at The Cavern’s website for the answer to my first question, what should I wear on the cave tour? Not even owning a pair of hiking boots, I was pleasantly surprised to read “wear comfortable shoes.” So I threw on my city-slicking Doc Martens and work out attire to stay warm and made the short 90 minute drive to The Caverns in scenic Grundy County, TN.

I’d soon learn the ground underneath the interstate I was driving on could be likened to Swiss cheese. Tennessee’s geological foundation is largely made of limestone, which erodes easily. That and the many underground lakes and rivers led to the formation of roughly 10,000 caves in the state.

As I turned onto Charlie Roberts Road, I was greeted with a gust of fresh air and the lovely feeling of being in the countryside. I parked in the spacious lot outside the gift shop emblazoned with a mural of a salamander. I would later learn this was a Tennessee Cave Salamander, the official state amphibian as well as The Caverns mascot, which everyone lovingly refers to as “Sally.” Inside the gift shop, I met Ben, my guide for the tour.

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Our first stop was Big Mouth Cave, a naturally formed cave and a state-of-the-art underground concert hall where The Caverns hosts shows. Prior to joining the team, I had been to see Drivin’ N Cryin’ underground, but I hadn’t experienced the cave tour. I was excited to get a behind-the-scenes scoop.

For instance, during shows there’s two large wooden doors at the cave’s entrance that are always open, but on the tour they were closed and I got to see their beautifully carved, medieval design. Before we ventured inside, Ben told us these doors were hand carved by artist Rob Morrow, and inscribed with words in the Sequoyah script of the Cherokee who inhabited the land prior to European colonization. The translated inscription is a beautiful greeting: “Welcome to The Caverns where the Great Spirit unites us all through music.”

Big Mouth Cave is huge and perfectly lit with two bars for concessions, a merch area, and well appointed restrooms. However, the coolest thing was getting to stand on the same stage as performers like Ricky Skaggs and Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips. It wasn’t hard to imagine the room full of people enamored by whichever performers graced the stage that night.

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The next stop on our tour was Big Room Cave. Our guide first led us to what looked like a well with a padlocked grate covering it. This was the historic entrance to the cave and I nearly freaked out thinking that was how we’d be entering the cave. Thankfully, The Caverns built a much more accessible entrance nearby.

We were led down a paved path to the mouth of Big Room Cave, a mouth that gave no hint toward the cavernous underground room we were about to enter.

The next 45 minutes was nothing short of astonishing. As we were led through the expansive and masterfully lit cave, our guide explained the different names of each rock formation, and how they interacted with each other. Notably, the stalactites which grew down from the ceiling as water dripped, layering new minerals over older rock formations. Conversely, as the water drips to the floor it creates a stalagmite, which “grow up” using the same minerals. After thousands of years they meet poetically in the middle to form a column. I learned it’s very important not to touch any cave formations because the oils on our skin repel water and prevent further growth.

Every 100 feet or so there was a light switch that would illuminate the path ahead of us, and turn off the lights behind, so we were perpetually surrounded by glowing taupe color illuminating the scalloping and popcorning along the cave walls left by long gone underground rivers.

I saw graffiti from the 1930s, a rock formation that had an uncanny likeness to a buffalo, and we even experienced complete darkness after our guide sat us on a bench in the very back of the cave. It was surreal, albeit a bit spooky, to hear the drips of the water from the stalactites in the pitch black. It did however make me appreciate the exquisite lighting job of the cave. When our guide Ben turned on all the lights all the way to the mouth of the cave, we were able to see how far we’d come. It was much farther than I’d thought!

Learning about caves in a high school science class is one thing, but it was an entirely different and much more memorable experience to actually enter one. In the end I was so happy I decided to go out of my comfort zone and take the tour. I was even curious about the more advanced Adventure Tour at The Caverns beyond “Tombstone Pass,” but that thrill will have to wait for another day.