Tuckaleechee Caverns – Townsend, Tennessee - Atlas Obscura

Tuckaleechee Caverns

Mile-long cave system near Great Smoky Mountains. 

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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 word “Tikwalitsi.” 

According to local stories, indigenous residents hunkered down in the caverns to evade white settlers, who came upon them around 1850. Those white people eventually pushed the Cherokee population to Oklahoma.

On the tour, guides recount a story of two young boys coming across the cavern. Legend has it that the boys dragged a dead tree to the opening, cut off its limbs, and then slid it down into the mouth of the cave. They climbed down and lit their way with glass bottles filled with kerosene, illuminating a burning rag. Another story holds that sawmill workers learned about the cave after watching stormwater pour into a sinkhole. 

Today, visitors come here to see both the strange and impressive geological formations and the crystal-clear stream that flows through the entire system of caverns. The caves are beneath an area known as Dry Valley, which earned its name because water disappeared so quickly after rains. Now we know where all of it is going.

The caverns were first opened to the public in 1931, but closed just a year later because of the Great Depression and lack of tourism dollars. After moving to Alaska and working odd construction jobs to raise the necessary funds themselves, a couple of friends reopened the caves in 1953. Prior to the reopening of Tuckaleechee, the friends spent four years carrying in hundreds of tons of sand, gravel, and concrete to build passageways and steps the tourists they anticipated receiving.

It was pure luck that members of the the National Speleological Society stumbled across the Big Room, an enormous cavern in the middle of the system, a year after reopening. This attraction 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, rock formations 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.