There’s an Abandoned Tourist Cave Hidden Beneath the Smoky Mountains

gregory's cave

Gregory's Cave is an unmarked, hidden treasure in the Smoky Mountains. But it's off limits to visitors (photo by Bill Burris/

Take a look at this little-known hidden cave located in the Cades Cove area of the Smoky Mountains

As someone who grew up in the region, I’ve been in caves that cut under the mountains on several occasions. Places like the Forbidden or Tuckaleechee caverns offer a safe place for visitors to see the wonders of the Smokies’ cave system. However, there are other places in the mountains that are privately owned or off-limits altogether. One such place is Gregory’s Cave in Cades Cove, a former commercial cave that is now only seen by those with permission from the Park Service. 

Gregory’s Cave in Cades Cove is a mostly forgotten spot that used to serve as a commercial cave but is now off-limits. It makes for a decent walking destination but it’s not easy to find. If you make it, there’s a picnic spot nearby. And it’s great if you want to see a piece of Cove’s history. Just don’t go inside.

Gregory's Cave With Rocks Surrounding
Today, Gregory’s Cave is off-limits without Park Service permission (photo by Bill Burris/

The history of Gregory’s Cave

In the days before European settlers, the Cherokee had a settlement in the Cove. Tsiya’hi or Otter Place may have been chiefly used as a seasonal hunting camp near the flats along Cove Creek. The leader of the settlement, known as Chief Kade inspired the name of the Cove. Settlers moving into the Cove coincided roughly with the arrival of European settlers. 

That said, it’s unclear if – or at least I couldn’t find any concrete proof that – the Cherokee used the cave as shelter. However, when European settlers arrived, the cave was used for saltpeter mining which continued through the Civil War. There is also some indication the cave was a stop on the Underground Railroad as the residents of the Cove and a large part of the East Tennessee mountain people sided with the North. 

The Gregory family owned the land on which the cave mouth is located, and in 1925 opened it as a commercial operation. There were wooden planks for walkways and electric lights powered by a generator. The family operated the cave – for an entry fee of 50 cents – for 10 years until the National Park Service acquired the land. Members of the Gregory family remained in the Cove until 1943, but it appears they stopped commercial operation in 1935. 

During the Cold War, in the 1950s, the cave was approved as a fallout shelter for up to 1,000 people and was stocked with supplies.

Gregory's Cave Short Distance View
Gregory’s Cave has a rock formation that is recognizable at first glance (photo by Bill Burris/

Why is the cave off-limits today?

Though I haven’t seen a statement from the Park Service, it’s pretty clear they don’t want people down there. And it makes sense. They don’t want to be responsible for underground injuries or rescue operations. Additionally, it is an important site for biologists to carry out studies in an undisturbed environment.

It’s better for the park service and the rangers if people stay out. It may be possible to get permission from the Park Service to enter the cave. However, my understanding is permission is chiefly granted for above-mentioned scientific purposes. 

Location and how to find it

It’s easy to miss. The National Park Service doesn’t put any signage leading the way. Many directions say to park at the John Oliver Place parking, but it’s a pretty decent walk from there. If you drive further on the Loop Road, you’ll come to a clearing on the right. Once you pass that clearing, you’ll get back into some woods. You’ll see a small dirt road to the right with a gate down the road. There is a pull-off to the left that will fit a car or two. There’s no guarantee you’ll get this spot. Remember you’ll need a parking pass if you’re going to be away from the car for more than a few minutes. 

Once you walk past the gate, you’ll follow the trail to an open area with some old picnic tables. Walk through the clearing and the trail continues on the other side. It isn’t far, like less than five minutes, from the clearing to the cave which is noticeable as a large rock formation at first. 

There is a gate a few feet into Gregory’s Cave preventing entry (photo by Bill Burris/

How close can you get?

You can get right up to and into the cave mouth. The question, I suppose, is if you are allowed to go down into the cave mouth. I am unaware of any rules or signage that indicate you can’t cross the cave’s threshold. But I would not recommend it.

The cave mouth is 10 feet wide but only four feet tall, so you must scrunch down and kind of scoot in. Once into the mouth, it opens up. However, a few feet in there is a massive gate blocking you from going any farther.

Would I as a nearly 50-year-old man slide down into the cave mouth and explore up to the gate? Reader, I would not. In my intemperate youth, I wouldn’t have thought twice about going in. But today, I am older, wiser and less physically able to react quickly if I were to come face-to-face with a wild animal seeking shelter. No. At this age, I am fully prepared to stick to the underground adventures that come with a tour guide.

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