Details: Tennesee’s Falls Creek Falls State Park
Given the breathtaking plunges of Fall Creek Falls State Park, it’s no wonder that the 1994 version of “The Jungle Book” was filmed here. Come evening, inky skies and zen-zone temperatures lure stargazers. A short roller-coaster drive beyond the park, past wildflowers and graves covered with tented slabs of stone, takes you to a cave with its own waterfalls.
Locals keep mum about these geological gems, but some friends spilled the secrets. Stuart Carroll, a naturalist, and Chuck Sutherland, chairman of the National Speleological Society’s Upper Cumberland Grotto, are crusaders for endangered native species, chiefly hemlocks being felled by a tiny bug and bats ravaged by a fungal disease called white-nose syndrome. They also know literally cool places to play.
For centuries, people showered in the falls and conducted purification rituals in the caves. Dressing to navigate Lost Creek Cave near Sparta, I yank Chuck’s elbow pads over my pant legs to protect my knees. We snap on helmets with headlamps and grab flashlights, because Lost Creek is cloaked in total darkness.
We’re hiking land once owned by Chuck’s ancestors. Caves have traditionally hosted religious ceremonies, moonshine distilling, mayhem and the occasional murder. These days, bad cave behavior involves graffiti, littering and ignoring proper spelunking protocol — showing respect for the fragile ecology and decontaminating post-caving to avoid spreading any fungus. That means strip and change, bag your clothing for laundering and use disinfectant wipes on your hands, face, helmet and boots.
Tramping into the sinkhole, we enter a misty microclimate. The sound of rain leads to a lush cove facing a 60-foot waterfall; think “Avatar” without super-saturated hues. Refreshed by the spray, we enter the cave’s gaping maw and snap on our lights.
I scramble while Chuck billy-goats down long expanses of rocks, many wobbling. Overheating’s no threat in this constant 56-degree climate, but the rough limestone can meat-grind the skin. So tough stretches require maintaining at least three points of contact (any combination of hands and feet). Going down some boulders, I choose five, “smearing” down on my rump. We look for petroglyphs, but any ancient drawings are obscured by crude contemporary markings — school names, lovers’ initials. The urge to deface confounds Chuck: “Do people think this improves upon nature?” Equally baffling: Why fools don’t take out their bottles, cans and tobacco tins. We pick up litter on the way out.