Spelunking, boating, waterfalls, campouts... all fun trips with the family. But what if I said one destination had all of these things!? In the middle of a mountain in east Tennessee is a lake so enormous as to merit the title of America’s largest underground lake in the Guinness Book of World Records. The 4.5 acre Lost Sea is part of an extensive cave system called Craighead Caverns, located near Sweetwater, TN in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (The largest underground, non-subglacial lake in the world is Dragon's Breath Cave in Namibia, 4.9 acres in size.)
The caverns are named for their former owner, Cherokee Chief Craighead. In the “Council Room,” almost a mile from the entrance, a wide range of Indian artifacts have been found, indicating the cave was long used by the Cherokee for habitation and as a meeting place.
Starting with the 1820s, the first white settlers in the Tennessee Valley used the cave for storing potatoes and other vegetables, since the underground temperature is a cool 58° year-round. In subsequent years the cave was utilized by Confederate soldiers, who mined the cave for the saltpeter needed to manufacture gunpowder.
|the descent underground|
The Lost Sea was discovered in 1905 by a thirteen-year-old boy named Ben Sands. The water level of the lake fluctuates depending on precipitation, and by the time Ben had convinced his father to return to explore his discovery further, the water level had risen and concealed the entrance; local explorers only rediscovered it several years later. Today the lake is stocked with rainbow trout, and although fishing is not allowed, visitors can take a ride on the lake on one of four boats powered by electric motors.
In 1939, off-duty cave guides found the bones of a Pleistocene jaguar. A portion of the remains are now on display in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, while others (and plaster casts of the cat’s tracks) can be viewed at the visitor center. Around this time a mushroom farm was operating near the Historic Entrance in the “Big Room,” and it was in 1947 that the nightclub “Cavern Tavern” operated underground, complete with dance floor. It didn’t seem surprising to hear the cave had also long been used for moonshining and cockfights.
|a few of the crawling tour options...|
In the 1970s cave divers explored the Lost Sea and discovered several additional rooms that are completely filled with water, totaling more than 13 acres. The full extent of the underground sea has yet to be fully explored.
In addition to historical relics, the caverns also contain stalactites, stalagmites and a waterfall. However, it’s the presence of cave flowers, rare crystalline structures called anthodites, which resulted in Craighead Caverns being added to the National Park Service list of National Natural Landmarks in 1974. According to the Lost Sea website, Craighead contains 50% of the world’s known formations of anthodites.
Want to explore the cave for yourself? Various tour packages are available (see website for details), ranging from an hour-long visit of the lake and main rooms, to an overnight “Wild Cave Tour” adventure that includes a cavern tour, various crawling tours in the undeveloped section of the cave, a boat ride on the Lost Sea and an overnight sleepover; this is the option that gets our vote! Roberts and Lauris emerged into the early morning fog absolutely covered in mud, tired from their adventure but with grins on their faces and quite a few stories to tell… It has already been decided that they won’t get to hog all the fun next time!
Thanks to Roberts for use of his photographs!