Where can you witness 60,000 bats emerging at sunset? Where did Johnny Cash find an angel that lead him to safety? Where do you find rumors of giant catfish that feed on bats? The answer is Nickajack Cave on the Tennessee River. It’s barely three miles from a busy interstate, and you’ve probably never heard of it.
Just a short bit upstream from Nickajack Dam is a very large, partly flooded cave rich with history. Currently, you will find it to be a marvelous sight of nature in the late summer as tens of thousands of grey bats leave their perches in the 140-foot-wide cave and head out for dinner. Like a real-life horror movie, you can witness hundreds of them flying overhead, and if you score a kayak or small boat you can sit in the middle of the cove enjoying the most perfect view of it all. As darkness settles around you, bats have consumed all the nearest bugs and begin zooming over the water, passing you by just a few feet. Their trusty echo-location means you need not worry about a collision with them.
This cave, with an opening height of 50 feet, was long used by the native people of the area, and later as a saltpeter mine. In the late 1960s, a dam project downstream meant the mouth of the cave would be flooded as well as the remains of old prehistoric villages.
There is a fence at the waterline to keep out boaters, but that didn’t deter two divers in 1992. Passing below the fence in search of catfish rumored to feed on any bats not strong enough to hold perch on the roof, they speared a large one but had to return the next day to retrieve it. One of the divers, a man named David Gant, got lost while searching and found himself stranded with his scuba tank running out of air. He survived in an 8-inch air pocket but faced certain death. His dive buddy had made it back to safety and desperately tried to have authorities lower the lake and save Gant. After many hours the sheriff in charge requested TVA open the dam, and Gant was finally saved as the lake level dropped below his 8-inch air pocket. Almost four million gallons of water had been let through the dam lowering the lake by over a foot. As rescuers made it to him he believed they were angels.
Rumor has it that long before Gant another man had a spiritual visit deep in Nickajack Cave. In 1967, a desperate Johnny Cash ventured into the cave intending to be lost deep inside by the time the batteries died on his flashlight. After hours in the dark, he became focused on God and from then on said he was “born again” in Nickajack Cave. (Others dispute this story as the dam was completed in December of 1967, implying the opening would have flooded too much to allow deep passage into the cave by that time.) Maybe only God and the Nickajack Cave know the truth
Know Before You Go
From Chattanooga take the Interstate 24 exit at Highway 156 and go south about three miles. As soon as you see a cove on the left, the cave's mouth will be visible. Turn into the parking area at the far edge of the cove. A walkway leads from the east side of the parking lot about 1,000 feet to an observation platform near the cave. There is a boat launch here but the small parking lot can fill up. There is a campground across the lake, and from there you can canoe about one mile to the cove, crossing under the Highway 156 bridge. It is too low for big boats (water levels may vary). If you are paddling to see the bats, be sure to have multiple lights since you will return in the dark and the dam sees much commercial barge traffic.