Beat the Heat Underground at The Lost Sea


There are plenty of places in East Tennessee to take boat rides. The river and lake system around the Knoxville area has several marinas. Paddle boards and kayaks abound on Tellico Lake. There’s even white water rafting on several of the rivers if you like a more thrilling type of “boating.” But underground boat rides? What’s up with that?

Tourists and caving enthusiasts have the opportunity to do that very thing at the Lost Sea. Better known to geologists as Craighead Caverns, the extensive cave system is located between Sweetwater and Madisonville.

The caves have probably been in use for centuries. Artifacts found about a mile deep into the cave indicate it was most likely used by the Cherokees as a council chamber. (The caves are also named after a Cherokee, Chief Craighead, who owned them during the 1820s.) Early settlers used the cavern’s 58 degree temperature to their advantage by storing vegetables there. During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers used saltpeter mined from the cave to make gunpowder. Other would-be entrepreneurs and rabble-rousers employed the cave for brewing moonshine, hosting cockfights and farming mushrooms.

A trip through the Lost Sea starts with a guided tour. Visitors will walk the underground passageways while a tour guide recounts the cave’s history and its geological development. Especially impressive are the anthocites, better known as cave flowers. These clusters of radiating aragonite crystals are rare; about half of the world’s known specimens are found here in the cave.

You’ll encounter the Lost Sea itself at the bottom of the cave. The largest underground lake in the country, the 800 foot long by 220 foot wide by 60 foot deep body of water is located 140 feet below the ground. The lake was discovered in 1905 by a teenager named Ben Sands, who crawled through a mud corridor to find a room half-filled with water. Glass-bottom boats now take tourists out onto the lake, which is filled with rainbow trout of tremendous size.

In addition to the regular tour, several other excursions through the cave are offered. An educational tour, designed for school groups, focuses on the historical and geologic highlights of the cave.

An extended flashlight tour is available, which consists of the regular tour, as well as a trek through an undeveloped section of the cave.

The more adventurous will want to take advantage of the wild tour. This outing (available both during the day and overnight) also consists of the regular tour. But wild tour patrons will also crawl and squeeze into undeveloped cave rooms where moonshiners, Confederate soldiers and a wild jaguar once roamed. Dinner and breakfast are included as part of the overnight wild tour

.Advance reservations are required for all three of the specialized tours.

The Lost Sea is located about an hour’s drive southwest of Knoxville, near the town of Sweetwater. Finding the cave is as easy as taking the Spring City/Sweetwater exit of Interstate 75, then driving about seven miles southeast on New Highway 68.

The cave is open 364 days a year, closed only on Christmas Day. The Lost Sea’s hours vary depending on the month of the year; it opens at 9 a.m. every day, closing as early as 5 p.m. during the winter months and as late as 8 p.m. in July. Admission prices also vary depending on the tour you plan to take, your age and whether you’re part of a group (discounts are available for groups of 20 or more). Visit The Lost Sea website or call 423-337-6616 for more information.


Posted: June 23, 2014