Overnights in a Cave
The term “pitch black” takes on new meaning deep inside an unlit cave, where you can’t see your own fingers wiggle in front of your face. Not everyone can brave that sort of darkness for even an hour, let alone spend the night there. Yet the expert spelunkers at Raccoon Cavern promise you’ll sleep like a rock if you can overcome your flight response and bed down beneath their stalactites.
With the right gear, sleeping in a cave is actually quite comfortable. Humidity is high, at 95%, so warm layers are essential, but the temperature remains about 60°F (16°C). Yes, you will share space with the few creepy critters that can hack the cool, damp darkness—mostly salamanders, millipedes, and crayfish—but, preferring low temperatures, they won’t get near warm human bodies. What about the bats you’ll see if you tour the cave by day? Don’t worry—they fly the coop at night in search of food.
Before bedtime you’ll have plenty of time to adjust to the atmosphere and the dark. Raccoon Cavern’s 4-hour overnight tour leads you through 21⁄2 miles (4km) of mapped passageways past stalactites, stalagmites, limestone draperies, and vast “rooms” with waterfalls and 75-ft. (23m) ceilings. You’ll traverse some passages on your hands and knees and slide on your belly through others. A few tight “squeezes” are optional, but 75% of participants try them and manage to break on through to the other side. Raccoon Cave provides helmets, lights, gloves, and knee pads for the tour. Guests bring their own sleeping bags and camping pads, and most fall asleep quickly after dining and setting up camp.
Reservations for overnight tours must be made at least 2 weeks in advance. If you’re satisfied with seeing the caves by day, you can just show up for the Crystal Palace walking tour or, if you don’t mind getting muddy, a Wild Caves Expedition to little-explored sections of the system.
The Ruby Falls Lantern Tour, deep within nearby Lookout Mountain, is another unique underground experience. Tours start in an elevator that descends 260 feet (78m) inside the mountain. The guide and a few designated members of the group carry small hand-held electric lanterns, which make shadows dance on the walls as you walk toward the falls. Your guide tells tales of unexplained phenomena and the history of the Ruby Falls Caves, and then a rainbow of colored lights illuminates the waterfall.
This region of Tennessee is teeming with natural wonders and opportunities for hiking, camping, mountain biking, climbing, and skydiving (see www.outdoorchattanooga.com for details).
Raccoon Mountain is also just 10 minutes from historical downtown Chattanooga, the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, and the Tennessee Aquarium. And, thanks to Raccoon Caverns’ onsite bath house, you don’t have to head into town looking like a troglodyte just because you slept in a cave.
When to Go: Year-round.
Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport.