Arriving at the mouth of the cave, there is an air of excitement. The group had spread out to hike in, reforming at the trail junction before dropping the last really steep bit together to the cave entrance. We don our hard hats and adjust our headlamps. Flashlights are located, footwear attended to, muddy cuffs marveled at. "how did we get so dirty just walking here!", a few sips of water, some photo taking of the entrance. Someone runs off for a last minute tinkle-the flow of the steam providing sudden inspiration. I, of course, cajole friends and strangers into mugging for a group photo. Our ranger, Park, goes over the safety talk, which all boiled down is basically, "Don't act like an idiot and say if you need help."
Into the cave! The route has a surprising amount of climbing up and down, the inside of the cave floor is covered in places in huge chunks of breakdown-rock that has fallen from the ceiling. There's grey clay, the kind with the slip and stick quality that makes me want to throw a pot right there. The stream is always nearby, we cross it twice early on before moving away to higher ground and paralleling it. Down and up we go, exploring short side tunnels, stopping to check out the more interesting bits, talking about different cave types and various formations. In some areas the cave roof vaults overhead and in others that hard hat is vital and I press flat against the floor to clear my backpack. I could take it off and push it ahead of me, but the climb is steep and wet. Slithering is easier. I am going up the inside edge, where there are more handholds. To my right, the clearance is much better, but the curve of the flowstone we are climbing daunts me.
We stop for map checks, Park explains what the symbols and numbers all mean. We locate ourselves and check out the route ahead a little. There's a mile of cave tunnel on this trip and it's nothing like any cave tour we have ever been on before. No flat walkways, no handrails, no lights. But it's not as involved as other caves I have been in as a teen-no rapelling, no wading in chest deep water or crawling through openings that require exhaling first because your rib cage needs to compact in order to fit. It's a mile of careful footing, the occasional hand over hand climb up and down and a few tricky bits that the ranger talks you through. One climb down involves him holding your left foot in place while you lower yourself down until the other foot touches and one climb up that is missing that final hand hold for the best leverage-so you use his ankle and haul yourself over the edge.
The walk back to the parking area is harder than the walk in. We speculated about that over dinner and though it is a long climb uphill, we think it's because the buildup to the cave is so exciting-you just want to get there and GO!-and then the cave itself is physically demanding to an extent, my arms are sore!-that when you pop out, you feel done. THEN you get to walk the 2+ miles back. And it starts with an decent climb to the trail junction and then meanders back over a series of rolling hilltops from there. Though it's the same trail in and out, it feels completely different, the area is (surprise!) heavily karst (my favorite!) and the cedar/limestone/sinkhole combos offer plenty to see so that even without the cave, it's a great hike. Luckily the last bit before the parking area is flat across the top of the ridge for a long stretch, then slopes down, so your brain replaces the panting climb with a leisurely stroll. By the time you step off the trail, your breath is calm, the sweat is no longer rolling and your feet and legs are back to normal after both being on the verge of calling for a break.
It's an awesome experience, one I fully recommend! You can find out when the next event is-cave or otherwise, they have MANY things going on each month-by following the South Cumberland State Park facebook page or joining the Friends of the South Cumberland e-mail list.
I suggest water and snack to have for the hike, a good headlamp and backup flashlight, shoes with good tread, sturdy pants and if you have delicate knees, some knee pads. You can get a pair for $5 at Lowes. There's a good bit of crawling and using your knees as leverage points. Don't pass up the hard hat, bring your own if you have one! Some people were lamenting not having gloves, but your hands get filthy. It's easy to rinse them off in the many creek access points, I would not like to have on wet, dirty gloves the whole time myself. I carried a long wooden staff, even in the cave. It was worth the minor hassle to me to have an extra balance point, I felt MUCH more stable on the trail and traversing the sticky/slicky cave floor.
Our drive is just over 2 hours to South Cumberland and this time it was all done in the rain!
The climb down is so steep, you don't (somehow) realize how far DOWN it is! The cliff height takes me by surprise every time and from the sound of the other folks seeing it, I am not the only one.
The first time I did this hike was in 2005! We did not go in the cave, but I walked back there with the kids during a camping trip with another homeschooling family.
The entrance is always so dramatic with the mist and the creek
First stream crossing
Second cave entrance
Map reading, cave style.
Stopping to talk about minerals and various things that form the cave roof
Skirting the pond!
Inde did the whole thing in a skirt!
In the disco room, Park demos the slide. A slick clay slope with a groove wide enough for one foot, so the other foot goes up in front of you-to soften the crash at the end.
We used to call that stance 'shooting the duck' in roller skating.
Chan shoots a duck!
I spot a cave painting of an unfinished elephant. Following LNT teachings, I leave it where it is, but the thought of the cave dweller who walked away from this painting before adding the trunk has haunted me since. I feel the pull to finish more projects.
Another long climb up
A final in-cave chat about the native people who used the cave systems in the area, then Park left us to figure out how to get out of the cave on our own.
After wandering around long enough for that one guy's 500 lumen headlamp to finally go out, someone was able to spot the sunlight coming in some gaps, the group made a run for it, knowing there were snacks at the end of the trail.
One final after shot and they took off!
We did our own group shot and started the hike back.
Ever grateful to rangers. volunteers and trail crews for trail work!
AH, it levels back out. Look at all that mud! It had rained the whole drive in, so everything was just wet enough to be mucky.