Steve Vananda spread his arms and declared, “This cavern is large enough to hold an entire football field.” Moments later, he was standing next to a stalagmite formation rising from the cavern floor – a formation three times taller than him and yet tiny in comparison to the cavern. I was standing in the Big Room – and it wasn’t even the most impressive thing about exploring Tuckaleechee Caverns.
The caverns are located in the Great Smoky Mountains beneath Dry Valley – named so because water from rainfall almost instantly disappears into the caverns below. The private attraction is owned and operated by the second generation of the family who originally opened it for tours. It’s not exactly a hidden attraction – you’ll see marketing signs everywhere around Townsend – but it is one of the best things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains. And the best thing to do under the mountains.
Developing Tuckaleechee Caverns
Bill Vananda and Harry Myers grew up playing near the entrance to a cavern in Townsend. The cavern’s existence wasn’t a secret – Cherokee had used it for shelter and early settlers for storage – but it had never been opened to the public. While attending Maryville College, Vananda and Myers agreed to personally fund opening the caverns as an attraction.
To achieve that dream, the men moved to Alaska to work manual labor to save enough money for the venture. Returning home to Townsend, they carried thousands of pounds of sand and gravel on their backs through narrow passageways to construct the steps, paths, and bridges. Finally, in 1953, Vananda and Myers achieved a lifelong dream when they held a grand opening ceremony for Tuckaleechee Caverns.
In 1982, Bill Vananda bought Myers’ half of the business. Since then, Bill’s son, Steve, has taken over operations of the family business.
Guided Tour of Tuckaleechee Caverns
When I arrived at Tuckaleechee Caverns, I was excited to explore something entirely different in the Great Smoky Mountains – a journey beneath the earth. In an article written by Dean Stone for the Maryville-Alcoa Daily Times, he described the caverns as the “Greatest Sight Under the Smokies.” I was eager to verify this praise.
I met Steve Vananda in the gift shop. Steve – the son of Bill Vananda – is now the second generation of the Vananda family to operate Tuckaleechee Caverns. With a big grin on his face, his enthusiasm for exploring the cavern was undeniable. After a quick discussion of typical safety rules – the floors could be wet and uneven – we were trotting through the long entrance tunnel.
Lighted Paths and Stalagmites
The tour began with a long descent down a staircase into the cool and damp caverns. The temperature is almost precisely 58 degrees year-round – making it the perfect escape from the summer heat or winter chills.
The paths long ago built by Vananda and Myers now included lights. The lights were tastefully -almost artfully – placed along the paths in nooks and crannies of the caverns’ walls. Some were hidden behind rock formations, while others were disguised as a formation itself. The result was well-lit paths and rock formations that made it safe to explore and fun to view.
Stalagmites and stalactites – rock formations rising from the floor and dropping from the ceiling, respectively – were conversation topics on the guided tour. They all had names like Totem Pole – a 12’ tall stalagmite in the Big Room.
After years of traveling through other caverns, I knew to wear close toed, comfortable hiking shoes. The paths were sometimes wet, but never really slippery. The guided tour last shy of an hour, covering 1.25-miles of the cavern floor between the Big Room and Silver Falls.
The Big Room
In 1954 – just a year after Tuckaleechee Caverns opened to the public – a survey team from Nashville made a thrilling discovery. Burt Denton, Jr. was heading a team from the National Speleological Society to explore the mile-long cavern when they discovered the most enormous cavern any of them had seen east of Carlsbad Caverns.
It was instantly named the Big Room. The ginormous cavern measures 400 feet long, 300 feet wide, and 150 feet tall – making it taller than any cavern at Mammoth Cave National Park. In 1955, the Big Room was opened to the public along with the first installation of electric lights for illuminating paths and formations.
Steve spread his arms wide and declared, “This cavern is large enough to hold an entire football field.” I must have looked quizzical for the briefest of moments because Steve suddenly said, “Watch this.”
He marched across the Big Room from my vantage point near the middle, heading toward a stalagmite formation. As he got closer, the stalagmite got bigger – it was like some kind of illusion happening right before my eyes. By the time Steve stood next to the formation, it was clear the rock pillar was nearly 15 feet tall – and tiny compared to the vastness of the Big Room.
“See what I mean?” he shouted. My laughter echoed through the cavern for a few moments.
The Tallest Underground Waterfall?
I could hear the crashing water echoing through the otherwise silent cavern. A crystal-clear creek ran alongside the path through the cavern. Although I couldn’t tell if it was Steve that was more excited to reach our destination or me, our pace picked up speed.
A small footbridge crossed a shallow pond beside Elephant Rock – a dome-shaped formation smoothed by centuries of water crashing onto its top. Standing at Silver Falls’ base, Steve pointed to the very top and shouted over the noise, “This is the tallest underground waterfall in the country.”
I scratched my head for a moment as I recalled my adventure at Ruby Falls in Chattanooga. “I thought it was the highest underground waterfall,” I asked. After all, that was how they marketed the attraction.
Steve laughed. “They love to brag about it! Here’s how it actually works.” He explained that Ruby Falls is the highest uninterrupted underground waterfall on the East Coast – falling 145’ from a ledge into a pond about 1,200 feet below the surface. However, Silver Falls tumbles 210’ from top to bottom, but it is split into two tiers with a pool about midway down the descent.
Pushing the debate about the tallest underground waterfall from my mind, I stood back and enjoyed the sheer beauty of watching Silver Falls splatter across the Elephant Rock. I do love chasing waterfalls, after all.
Visit Tuckaleechee Caverns
Tuckaleechee Caverns is located about twenty minutes from U.S. Highway 321 in Townsend on Cavern Road. Getting there is relatively easy, but don’t rely on cellular GPS devices because the signal is very weak in the valley.
On the way to the caverns, you’ll pass Davy Crockett Riding Stables – a sister business to the caverns operated by the Vananda family. Horseback adventures are offered by trained guides for a reasonable price – about $30 an hour – and would make a great companion to touring the caverns.
Tuckaleechee Caverns is open seven days a week. The best time to visit is weekdays during the hot and humid summer months – the caverns are always a comfortable 58 degrees.
The caverns are not ADA accessible. The initial descent into the caverns requires travel along a staircase with no ramp or elevator available.
825 Cavern Road, Townsend, TN | 865-448-2274 | https://tuckaleecheecaverns.com
Where to Stay in Townsend
My favorite place to stay in Townsend is the Little Arrow Outdoor Resort. It’s located literally at the edge of the national park so it’s only about twenty minutes from Cades Cove. With a nice campground, glamping tents, tiny homes, and cabins, there is definitely something you’ll want.
The Townsend River Breeze Inn doesn’t look like much on the outside, but on the inside you’ll find recently updated rooms with modern furnishings. The swimming pool is surrounded by a chain link fence but on the plus side you can admire the mountains while floating in the water. The motel has King Rooms with a sleeper sofa and Double Rooms with two queen beds.
The Highland Manor Inn is a wonderfully nostalgic place to spend a few nights in Townsend. The motel is located in an old building but the furnishings and bedding are relatively new and in good condition. They have a fantastic outdoor swimming pool and the lounge is a great place to hang out. They have a Standard Room with two queen beds, Deluxe Queen and Deluxe King Rooms, and a King Room with a private balcony.
The Tremont Lodge and Resort is located in an older building but after the property changed hands in 2017 the new owners have been updating the furnishings. The free breakfast in the morning leaves a lot to be desired, but otherwise this is a comfortable place to spend the night and enjoy the outdoor swimming pool. The hotel has King Rooms, Queen Rooms with two queen beds, and a pet-friendly Family Suite with two queen beds and a sleeper sofa.
The Best Western is the budget-friendly go-to in Townsend. The hotel has King Rooms and Queen Rooms with two queen beds. With an outdoor swimming pool and moderately nice free breakfast it’s a great place if all you’re looking for is a bed and shower.
The premiere overnight destination in Townsend is the Dancing Bear Lodge. The lodge features rustic mountain decor, rooms with wood burning fireplaces and full kitchens, and outdoor recreation in the 36-acre property. The lodge features rooms in the villa and cabins with one or two bedrooms, and some of them are pet friendly!