5 Hidden Caves Under the Smoky Mountains You Didn’t Know Existed

red cave with body of water in tennessee

Forbidden Caverns is open seasonally in Sevierville, Tennessee, near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (photo by digidreamgrafix/stock.adobe.com)

East Tennessee is known for the mountains, but its many caves might surprise you

We’re used to the wonders of the Great Smoky Mountains. It has sweeping vistas, mountain streams and massive green forests as far as the eye can see. But did you know there’s a hidden world of wonders under the mountains almost as amazing as what’s above the surface?

The world below the surface can be just as interesting. There are a series of massive caves in the limestone rock under the mountains. Some are made commercially available for tourists while others are off-limits. So in this article, I will discuss life under the Smokies.

There’s more beauty to the Great Smoky Mountains than just the mountains themselves. If you’re in the area, visit some of its caves. Some of them are accessible and considered tourist attractions, like the Forbidden Caverns. And of course, some are part of the national park and are off limits, like Gregory’s Cave. Others include Tuckaleechee Caverns in Townsend and caves at The Lost Sea, a little further from the Smokies.

Gregory's Cave Short Distance View
Gregory’s Cave in Cades Cove was once an improbable fallout shelter (photo by Bill Burris/TheSmokies.com)

1. Gregory’s Cave

I’ll start with a cave that is accessible, free and almost completely off-limits. Located in Cades Cove, Gregory’s Cave is located on land that belonged to the Gregory family. In the decade before the National Park, the Gregory family brought in generators and other equipment to turn the cave into a tourist attraction. The operation continued for a brief time even after the transition to the National Park. Once the park took complete control, the cave was marked as off-limits. During the 1950s, the cave was approved as a fallout shelter for up to 1,000 people and was stocked with supplies.

I’m curious about how a fallout shelter in that location would have worked. In the event of a nuclear disaster getting to the cave would have been – presumably – difficult. Who had permission to shelter there? I suppose there was a list at Oak Ridge. However, the logistics of getting 1,000 approved people to a remote mountain cave during the aftermath of a nuclear explosion doesn’t seem practical. But, they did some crazy stuff during the Cold War. I can’t rule it out.

Anyway, today the cave is off-limits. You can slide down into the mouth of the cave and see a little bit of it before you reach a massive impassible gate. But you should probably be aware that the opening is small and you certainly can’t see if an animal has taken refuge in there before you get in. I think the view from outside is probably good enough.

a path inside forbidden caverns
Forbidden Caverns offers guided tours on lighted walkable paths (photo by digidreamgrafix/stock.adobe.com)

2. Forbidden Caverns

Located in Sevier County, Forbidden Caverns was known to the native peoples of the area for hundreds of years. It provided shelter in the winter and the cave river’s water was refreshing and clean. In later years, the cave was a moonshiner’s haven – again the water supply was useful. In 1967, the cave was opened to the public as a tourist destination. Today for $25 or less, depending on discounts, guests can take a guided tour that lasts about an hour, weaving its way down and through the massive underground grottos. Open April through November, the caverns stay 58 degrees year-round.

A waterfall at tuckaleechee caverns
An underground waterfall at Tuckaleechee Caverns (photo by Nature’s Charm/shutterstock.com)

3. Tuckaleechee Caverns

Located in Townsend, the Tuckaleechee Caverns were the stamping ground of a couple of young boys who went to Maryville College together in 1949. They played around the caverns as kids, wriggling on their bellies through tight spots and lighting the way with homemade lamps. Later, they dreamed of opening the caverns to the public again. They’d been open for a brief time in the early 30s and closed due to the Depression. The duo trekked to Alaska to work and earn the money to buy and convert the caverns. They worked together, building the steps and passageways, and opened the cave in 1953.

Things changed, however, when the Big Room was discovered in 1954. The room – 400 feet long, 300 feet across and 150 feet deep – is now part of the guided tour. Today the tour also includes SilverFalls, a 210 waterfall that is believed to be the tallest subterranean waterfall in the US. Tickets are $24 for adults and $12 for kids at the time of this writing.

a view of alum cave with mountains in the background
View of Alum Cave in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (photo by Melinda Fawver/shutterstock.com)

4. Alum Cave

I know what you’re thinking. And I hesitate to include the Alum Cave found along the Alum Cave Trail in this list because it hardly qualifies as a cave at all. It’s really just an overhang on some bluffs overlooking a vast expanse of mountains. But this cave does offer some of the best views in the Smokies and is considered a premium hiking destination, so I’m including it. It’s a 2.5-mile hike to the caves, one way. The steep trail follows the edge of a ridge in some sections. With an elevation change of 1,200 feet. Experienced hikers list the trail as moderately difficult approaching fully difficult.

Briefly used for Epsom Salts mining in the middle 1800s, the rock formation above provides shelter, even in the pouring rain. But since there are no cave walls you don’t feel like you’re down in a cave. There is a part of the trail that cuts through the rock, giving a bit more of a cave feel but you never lose sight of daylight.

5. The Lost Sea

Now, I’m technically venturing out of the land of the Smokies, but I want to mention one more commercial cave that might be of interest on your next visit to the mountains. Located in Sweetwater – just off exit 60 on I-75 – is the Lost Sea. It’s a massive underground lake that is viewable on the one-hour and 15-minute guided tour. The Lost Sea is America’s largest underground lake and at one time was used by the Cherokee. A wide range of Native American artifacts have been found in the cave.

In the 1800s, Early European settlers used the cave for food storage. In the 1900s the cave was used for dances, parties and cockfighting and moonshining. Part of the Craighead Caverns, the full extent of the Lost Sea is still unknown today. The visible portion of the lake is 800 feet long and 220 feet wide. Guests can get a look into the lake on glassbottom boats with electric motors. Tours are $28.95 for adults with discounts for children, seniors and military members.

The truth is the full extent of the underground system of caverns and caves under the mountains is still unknown. What has been found and made available to the public is massive and beautiful. While exploring the natural beauty of the mountains from above should be part of any Smoky Mountain vacation, seeing what’s going on underground is worth your time as well.

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