Tennessee has the most caves of any state in the USA. The state used to be completely underwater until tectonic movement lifted the earth up. The caves are also rich in US history. Indians, Civil War soldiers, and animals have all used them as shelter. They were used as strategic outposts during the war and due to the rich mineral deposits, they’ve been used to make gun powder.
The formations exist today as they have for millions of years and you can explore for miles and miles. Most of the caves in the state are well operated and safe for the whole family. That was of interest to me since I have 2 young boys. I wanted to be able to get out there and enjoy what was in our backyard.
You may be interest in this post, 9 mind-blowing facts about Tennessee.
What you’ll find is that in most cases, children are of all ages are welcome. Just keep in mind that strollers and wheelchairs won’t be permitted due to the tight spots and slippery surfaces. Please check each listing below for details.
I would separate the Tennessee caves into 3 different categories:
- Well run and operated, lots of visitors per year, great for family and kids.
- Privately owned and a little less family friendly i.e. more boutique.
- Good for adventures (spelunking etc.)
In this post I’ve answered questions like:
- Are the caves family friendly?
- How far do I have to drive from Nashville to find a cave?
- Can I take my kids with me?
I’ve summarized all the questions above in the table below.
So here you go, welcome to the caves of Tennessee.
Table of Contents:
Tennessee Cumberland Caverns
The Cumberland Caverns are located in McMinnville, Tennessee, approximately 1.5 hours drive from Nashville. They are open year round from 9am – 5pm.
During the Paleozoic Era (about 541 million years ago), all the sediment at the bottom of a large body of salt water was packed down and tightened into the dense rock that you find at the Cumberland Caverns. During this period, The Mississippi River was a huge body of water that fed into the ocean and was covering this part of the South Eastern United States. At some point, tectonic activity raised the area up above the water level.
The caves offer about 27 miles of underground passageways, rock formations, waterfalls, and pools. Parking is easy and you can bring your kids. The tours are really informative and you’ll be stunned with the expanse. This is an experience that is truly a family friendly time.
These caverns are famous for the underground live music. Stop by and see a Tennessee caves concert! Find out more here.
They offer 3 types of tours. There is an easy, 1.5 hour walk that leaves hourly. A moderate, 2.5-3 hour walk that has an age requirement of 6+. They also have a hard, 4 hour walk. You need to be 16+ and there is only one scheduled each day.
The Cumberland Caverns are kid/family friendly and there are tours available.
Out of all the caves I researched, this is the best one.
The Lost Sea
Deep in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains, you’ll find The Lost Sea. This is one of the most popular Tennessee caves and caverns. The caves are located in Sweetwater, Tennessee, about 3.5 hours drive from Nashville and about 50 miles south of Knoxville. This cave has the largest underground lake in America and attracts about 2000 visitors a day. The Lost Sea is also known as Craighead Caverns.
When you arrive you will walk down a long, winding tunnel through a beautiful underground cavern. You’ll then arrive at the lake that they call The Lost Sea. Cherokee Indians used the caves as a shelter in the 1820’s. During the Civil Way, Confederate soldiers used the minerals to make gun powder.
The Lost Sea is open year round and is family friendly. Bring your kids and grandparents.
How deep is the water at the Lost Sea?
The water is at least 70ft deep and covers 4.5 acres. It remains at a temperature of 56 degrees. During a tour you will have the opportunity to take a boat ride on the lake in which you’ll get a chance to feel the water. The lake itself sits 140 feet below the ground.
Are there fish in the Lost Sea?
Yes. In the Lost Sea you’ll find Rainbow Trout. There are about 300 fish in the Lost Sea and because of the lack of sunlight they lose a portion of their eyesight and their color.
This place is great for the whole family. I’m definitely putting it on my must-visit list.
Bell Witch Cave
The Bell Witch site is a historic site in Adams, Tennessee, about a 40 minute drive from Nashville. It’s nestled in the beautiful Tennessee hills and farm land. You’ll really like the drive and peacefulness of the area.
The story of the Bell Witch is creepy. it’s the story of John Bell’s youngest daughter who was tortured by the witch for several years. She was believed to be the spirit of Kate Batts, an unfriendly neighbor of John Bell.
The Bell Witch Cave tour is about 40 minutes long. The guided tour takes you through the cave that was owned by John Bell.
The season runs from May through October each year. Since the site is privately owned and can be closed for unforeseen circumstances (like flooding), I suggest you check out their website for details before you leave.
After researching some reviews on TripAdvisor, it doesn’t appear that the ownership of the cave is very friendly or accommodating to visitors. Opening times can be unpredictable since it’s owned by private owners. I would try and visit but it’s not the highest priority for me.
The Appalachian Caverns are located in Blountville, 5 hours drive from Nashville, TN.
This cavern has been used by humans for many thousands of years. This includes native Indians and soldiers during the Civil War. A crazy fact is that the bat droppings were used to make gun powder.
This is a family friendly place. They allow family members of all ages, you can even bring your dog. The tour guides are well trained. The tours last about 45-60 mins and the pathways are concrete and gravel.
During your stay you’ll see some incredible formations including stalagmites, stalactite’s, cave ribbons, columns, dragon eyes.
This site also has a campground. Check out their website for more information.
Bristol Caverns are located about 5.5 hours drive from Nashville and are open 7 days a week. The Caverns were opened up for visitors in the 1940’s. During the 1930’s it was bought by a man who wanted to open it up to the public.
Although the outside looks quaint and uninviting, the caverns themselves are expansive. The formations are impressive. You’ll be taken to three levels of caverns, all the way down to the underground river, 180 feet below.
This caves, although impressive, are not as impressive or family friendly as the other caves in Tennessee. I would definitely like to visit but will try out the others first.
Tuckaleechee Caverns (also known as the Blue Spring Cave) are estimated to be 20-30 million years old. Located in Townsend, about 4 hours drive from Nashville. It’s operated year round, 7 days a week. It’s visited about 50,000 times a year.
One of the caverns, called “The Big Room” is so big you could almost fit a football stadium inside it. On the other side you’ll find Silver Falls that is about 210 feet from top to bottom. You’ll also find the tallest subterranean waterfall in the eastern United States and millions of incredible formations in the 1 1/4 mile round trip tour.
At the beginning and end of the tour you’ll find 87 stairs. Fortunately the tour goes slowly so take your time. There are no tight squeezes or claustrophobic moments although tall people will have to watch their heads in some spots.
The “Big Room” is a highlight of the tour. It’s huge and has stalagmites up to 24 feet high. The grand finale is the waterfall. It falls 210 ft from the surface.
This cave is really well run and operated. The tours are great and informative, child friendly and easy to navigate. Honestly, this place looks great. I highly recommend and will be visiting with my wife and kids.
Ruby Falls cave is a very well run, major tourist attraction in Chattanooga. About a 2.5 hour drive from Nashville.
Chattanooga itself is a beautiful city but at Ruby Falls you get to go deep inside Lookout Mountain to see the tallest and deepest underground waterfall that is open to the public in the USA.
After buying tickets you’ll ride an elevator down 260ft into the caves where your tour guide will be waiting. The walking tour is amazing. Walking on paved footpath, all you’ll do is look up and around at the formations you see.
Ruby Falls (the waterfall) is named after Leo Lambert’s wife Ruby. The falls are about 90ft tall. A lot people ask, where does the water come from and where does it lead out to? Most of the water comes from rain. If it rains hard enough the waterfall can grow 2-3 times as big. The water also comes from mountain run off, small streams and ponds. The water leads underground into the Tennessee River.
There’s a bunch of other cool things to do at Ruby Falls like the zip line and lookout over Chattanooga.
Children of all ages are welcome. It is not wheelchair or stroller accessible. You would need to carry an infant if they couldn’t walk.
Is Ruby Falls worth it?
Some have shared it’s a tourist trap while others have loved their experience. First, you have to make a reservation for a specific time. However, customer service is friendly and flexible. Parking is also spacious. If you have kids, take them to the restroom before you go down to the cave. There is a lot of standing and waiting so if you have little ones, be prepared.
You won’t have access to a bathroom for at least 1.5 hours. They have a helpful video before you start which really sets the stage. Overall, it’s worth the trip. The path is paved the whole way and there is always railing to hold onto in slippery places. If you are looking for a place that feels untouched and wild, this is probably not the place.
Raccoon Mountain Caverns
Raccoon Mountain Caverns are located in Chattanooga about 2.5 hours from Nashville.
The site allows for RVs, camping and panning. You can also stay in a cabin ranging anything from primitive to premium.
The caverns have 5.5 miles of underground passageways to explore. They are open 7 days a week with regular tours but you must make a reservation. They offer a unique “Wild Cave Expedition Tour” where you can go crawling through small holes to explore other parts of the caves.
Important note: children under 3 years of age cannot go on a tour. Also, the cave is not wheelchair or stroller accessible.
Forbidden Caverns is located in Sevierville, next the Great Smokey Mountains, 4.5 hours from Nashville.
The parking is easy with a large parking lot. They are open 10-5. Closed Thursdays and Sundays. Children of all ages are welcome but strollers and wheelchairs won’t be able to fit through.
Visitors are provided with an entertaining and educational tour past sparkling formations, towering natural chimneys, numerous grottos and a crystal clear stream. Special lighting effects and well-trained tour guides combine to make this a most enjoyable experience.
Cumberland Gap National Historic Park
Cumberland Gap cave is located in the tri-state area of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. It’s located about 4.5 hours from Nashville. It used to be called Cudjo’s Cave.
Looking at the hills in the national park, you wouldn’t think it contained a lot of caves. On the inside however, they are hollow and limestone. The “gap” represents the gap between the mountains that were used as a road for hundreds of years. First the Indians used it. The first settlers came through in 1750 and they noted that there was a good water source. Later, Daniel Boone, in 1775, built a road through.
At first the caves were called the “Big Saltpeter Cave” due to the usefulness it had for making gun powder. The gap in the mountains played an important role in the Civil War as thousands of troops marched through here.
If you’re interested, there’s a really interesting video about the cave here.
The cave, so far, is known to cover 18.5 miles.
The tour is 1.5 miles long that includes 3 cave levels and 183 stairs.
Tours are open to ages 5 and up only. They are not accessible to strollers and wheelchairs.
The Dunbar Cave State Park is located in Clarksville, about 2 hours drive from Nashville. At the entrance of the cave, decades ago, roaring parties were held to take advantage of the cool air coming out of the cave.
Roy Acuff, a big name in country music, purchased the cave in 1948. He would hold dances and Grand Ole Opry style shows at the cave.
As with all caves, it dates back thousands of years and was used by humans and animals alike for shelter. Artwork dating back to about 1350 AD have recently been found and can be viewed during your visit. They were drawn by the ancient ancestors of the native American people.
Dunbar cave tours are offered seasonally and require a reservation that can be made on their website.
Children 4 and under are not allowed.
Worley’s Cave is located about 5.5 hours from Nashville in Bluff City. This cave appears to be more the adventurer type. It’s touted as one of the best spelunking spots with over 4000 feet of caverns and tunnels.
It’s a wild cave that is open to the public. It costs $8 that includes parking, entrance to the cave, access to a picnic area, camping and a dirty clothes area.
This is not the most family friendly place. Kids, strollers and wheelchairs can’t get access as it requires a hike to the entrance.