Interpreting the Scenic City: A Tale of Two Caverns

by Bryan & Heather

In the last week of 2022, Bryan and Heather embarked on a whirlwind trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee. This is the first in a series of posts reflecting on the history they encountered there, and the ways in which it was related to the public.

High above the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee towers the forested slopes of Lookout Mountain. Known to us–and likely most history-minded tourists–primarily as the site of one of the battles in Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 campaign to relieve the siege of the Union-controlled city, this scenic edifice is also home to numerous attractions celebrating the natural beauty of the mountain itself. One of these, we learned as we planned our trip to Chattanooga in December of 2022, is in fact the tallest underground waterfall open to the public in the United States. Always open for some cool natural history, we eagerly added a subterranean stop to our itinerary.

The first thing we noticed about Ruby Falls as we parked and set off in search of the waiting area for cavern tours was its commercialism. Visitors enter through a massive gift shop selling everything from T-shirts to rough stones & minerals to tickets for a nearby zipline. We then processed through the adjoining cafe to reach the glass-doored elevator that conveyed us down into the cave. From there, guides lead their tour groups along a leisurely half-mile walk to the falls chamber, periodically pausing to play a series of film and audio clips explaining the history of the caverns’ geology and discovery in the 1920s (not to mention making way for other groups returning from the falls to the elevator). While those initial explorers had crawled nearly the entire distance to the falls, the caverns’ opening to the public in the 1930s was preceded by drilling out a passageway for tourists to walk (mostly) upright the entire way, and when we arrived at the elegant, stunning cataract, we were treated to a five-minute light show before being rounded up and led back to the surface.

As we marveled at the wonder that is Ruby Falls, however, we were struck by just how different our experience was from another cavern we had visited soon after moving to Alabama, over a year previously. Rickwood Caverns State Park could hardly have been more different from our family-friendly Chattanooga adventure. After gathering in an educational resource classroom eminently familiar from Bryan’s Boy Scout days, our group was led down into the earth by a guide with a nearly-encyclopedic knowledge of both local and geological history–no film clips required. No other bells and whistles were added to the natural beauty of the cavern, either, leaving visitors to soak in the alien formations, limestone fossil beds, and mysterious underground river (for which geologists are still searching for both source and outlet). Slippery slopes and rickety boardwalks abounded, only to be capped with a wheeze-inducing climb straight up and out on one of the longest, steepest flights of stairs either of us have ever ascended. The only similarity to the commercialism of Ruby Falls was the park campground’s swimming pool, fed by water drawn from the underground river.

It may sound like their was a clear winner in this cave comparison, and intellectually, there certainly was; the skill, knowledge, and authenticity of our Rickwood Caverns experience easily trumped the theme park nature of Ruby Falls. Yet upon further thought, we can’t entirely dismiss our Chattanooga experience. As might be clear from our description of Rickwood, even a standing expedition into a minimally-modified cave system is not for the fainthearted, and we could think of many we know who could not enjoy that tour because they simply could not access it. Similarly, while we may have initially lamented the seemingly-careless drilling of an easy walkway to Ruby Falls, neither of us liked the idea of those magnificent falls being accessible only by hours of crawling on our stomachs with the weight of Lookout Mountain bearing down on us. In our final reckoning, we’re glad we found the ability to tour both of these caverns, and are ultimately glad they exist to offer two forms of enjoying the natural history of our region of the continent.

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