As adventurous vacations go, the Lost Sea isn’t at the top of the list. No heart-stopping roller coasters. No mile-long zip lines. No wild animals, unless you count a few seldom-seen bats.
But that’s no reason not to visit the western hemisphere’s largest underground lake in nearby Sweetwater, Tennessee. It’s a great way to escape the summer heat—the cave is a consistent 58 degrees year round—and to learn a little bit about geology and history all at the same time.
This cave, officially named Craighead Caverns, has been around a long, long time. Millions of years, in fact, as evidenced by the 1940 discovery of the skeleton of a Pleistocene jaguar in an area now know as the Cat Chamber. The caverns boast an underground waterfall, countless stalactites and stalagmites (some of which have grown together to form columns known as fodder stacks) and beautiful rock formations called anthodites, the Greek word for cave flowers.
Lots of history happened here, and you can learn all about it from the well-rehearsed guides who lead the leisurely ¾-mile walk through the cave. Tours begin at the “yellow tunnel,” a 135-foot-long metal passageway that leads underground. Indians once used this cave–arrowheads and pottery discovered here are proof of that—and historians speculate that the Cherokees may have held tribal council meetings here.
Parts of the cave were mined for saltpeter, the principal ingredient in gunpowder, during the Civil War. The gunpowder was manufactured nearby and distributed to Confederate troops in Knoxville, Chattanooga, and as far away as Atlanta. The date “1863” burned into one of the cave walls points to the fact that
Confederate soldiers took shelter here.
Realizing the cave’s commercial potential, in 1915 its owners built a dance floor and a cockfighting ring in one of the larger rooms. Moonshiners soon began to operate in other areas of the cave. And from 1939-1940, a mushroom farm flourished.
The old dance floor was removed and a new one installed in 1947 in hopes that the “Cavern Tavern” would be a success. It wasn’t. Revelers who over-imbibed in the cave’s low altitude, where the effects of too much alcohol often go unnoticed, found themselves unpleasantly inebriated when they finally made their way up out of the cave. The tavern soon closed.
In 1965, a group of stockholders in the recently formed Craighead Caverns Company officially opened the Lost Sea as a tourist attraction. It’s been a major hit ever since. At the height of vacation season, as many as 30,000 visitors a month stop in sleepy little Sweetwater to explore the Lost Sea. They come, in part, for the geology and history. But mostly they come to ride the famed glass-bottomed boats on the huge underground lake.
Accidentally discovered back in 1905 by a teenaged boy named Ben Sands, the lake is four-and-a-half acres in size and more than 70 feet deep. It’s stocked with hundreds of enormous trout who are so tame that they occasionally jump into the boat when they see the treat-toting tour guides approach.
I toured the cave and rode on one of those boats myself for the first time just a few months ago. Would I dub that trip an adventure? Not if adventure requires a
heart-pumping adrenaline rush. But I had a fine time hanging out in the cool
darkness while an earnest young tour guide named Aaron from Hazlehurst, Georgia shared his knowledge and enthusiasm.
To experience The Lost Sea Adventure for yourself, take I-40 east to I-75 south.
Exit at Sweetwater and follow the signs. They’re open every day but Christmas. Log onto thelostsea.com for details.
(June 23, 2013)