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Townsend, Tennessee

Tuckaleechee Caverns

Mile-long cave system near Great Smoky Mountains. 

A mile-long cave system near Townsend, Tennessee, the Tuckaleechee Caverns reach depths of up to 150 feet, drawing in spelunkers from near and far. Nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains, Tuckaleechee takes its name from the Cherokee “Tikwalitsi,” which has an unknown original meaning, but has stuck nonetheless.

The Cherokee, though, still maintain a lot of influence in this region. According to the legend of the Cherokee Indians, the caverns were used to hide from the white man and others before they were discovered by European settlers around 1850. All of the Cherokee Indians knew of this site and the entire population lived in the area before being pushed out and forced to move to Oklahoma.

Around the time that the caverns were discovered by Europeans, the history switches from Indian legend to written record. The tour guides tell the story that two boys, ages 6 and 8, were the first people to explore the cavern. According to legend the boys dragged a dead tree to the opening and cut a majority of the limbs off and slid it down 30 into the opening. They climbed down and using only glass bottles filled with kerosene lit with a rag, like a Molotov cocktail, for light the explored. The records say that the Tuckaleechee were found by sawmill workers watching water from a heavy rain pour into a sinkhole. A small opening in the rock, where the water was rapidly disappearing, led to the immense cave system.

Visitors come here to see both the strange and impressive geological formations, but also the crystal clear stream that flows through the entire system of caverns. The streams drains Dry Valley, a small cover above the cavern system that is so named because, whenever it rains, the water disappeared quickly. Now we know where all of it is going.

The caverns were first opened to the public in 1931, but closed only a year later because of the Great Depression and lack of tourism dollars. A couple of friends, after moving to Alaska and working a variety of construction jobs to raise the necessary funds themselves, reopened the cave in 1953. Prior to the reopening of Tuckaleechee, the friends spend four years carrying in hundred of tons of sand, gravel and concrete to build passageways and steps for the less adventurous tourists they anticipated receiving.

It was pure luck that the Big Room, an enormous cavern in the middle of the system, was discovered only one year after the system reopened. Discovery of the Big Room by members of the National Speleological Society, brought in new tourists after it was added to the mile-long guided tour. The Big Room is more than 400 feet long, 300 feet across, and 150 feet deep, according to Tuckaleechee’s official website. Stalagmites, those that grow from the floor toward the ceiling, reach up to 24 feet in the middle of the Big Room.

Know Before You Go

The Tuckaleechee Caverns are located about 18 miles from the center of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and 32 miles from Knoxville, Tennessee.