I can barely remember visiting Ruby Falls as a child, and after being asked by a visitor if a trip down the cave was worth their while, I was a little ashamed to admit that, despite a lifetime in Chattanooga, I could provide no honest advice. So I signed up for the lantern tour, a more intimate version of the typical tour that begins an hour after the official 8 p.m. closing time.
I'm now proud to say I can confidently recommend at least this particular experience at Ruby Falls, the nation's tallest and deepest underground waterfall open to to public, located more than 1,000 feet below the surface of Lookout Mountain.
Without the artificial lighting that normally illuminates the cave's unique formations along the less than half-mile route to the falls, the lantern tour feels a bit closer to the experience Leo Lambert must have had when exploring the cave for the first time, before it became the well-known tourist attraction visited by thousands each year. Though, I was grateful for the spacious corridor now carved through the cave, which allowed our group to reach the falls in 45 minutes, rather than the seven hours or so it took Lambert crawling through a tiny crevice in the rock.
There were about a dozen of us on the tour, and pairs shared a single lantern. Similar to flashlights that you slide open, the light that emanated from their midsection provided a soft illumination rather than a directed stream of light. Our guide, Sunny, had a real lantern, and the one child in our group was provided with a hard hat with a headlamp, which she was allowed to keep. I was a bit surprised there weren't more kids on the tour, but the tour's 9 p.m. start time was probably at least part of the reason for that, as it takes about an hour and a half to get to the falls and back, including plenty of time for photos and general ogling. Still, her look of awe and wonder — the kind only children really have — when seeing the falls for the first time was contagious.
To see the towering waterfall lit by a single lantern — which our guide hoisted all 145 feet up to the top by pulley — was a sight to behold. You also get to see the colorful light show seen by visitors on the usual tour and, truth be told, I probably would have been a little disappointed if we didn't. Slowly changing color from blue to purple to pink, the lights illuminate the full length of the falls, the pool below and the surrounding rock with such a mesmerizing glow, you can't help but stare for a minute before even thinking about taking out your phone for pictures. Along our route to and from the falls, our guide stopped at various points to share stories about the cave and its unique formations, only one of which you're permitted to touch, and it's evident in its smoothness that most of the visitors in the cave's more than 80 years as a tourist attraction have done so. Sunny advised us not to lick it. She also told us not to drink the falls' water, as it contains a large amount of magnesium — a natural laxative. Toward the end of the tour, we were told to switch off our lanterns and experience total darkness, which was eerie but very cool.
Our guide informed us that the elevator actually goes down farther than the 26 floors it took us to get to Ruby Falls Cave, down to Lookout Mountain Cave, which is no longer open to commercial tours. It was much less popular with tourists, she said, and was closed off in 1935.
History & Mystery
While Ruby Falls Cave is now an iconic tourist attraction, it was Lookout Mountain Cave that was first discovered. The natural opening to Lookout Mountain Cave was closed off in 1905 for the construction of a railway tunnel. In the 1920s, Leo Lambert had the idea to reopen the cave as a tourist attraction. He planned to create an opening farther up the mountain and take people down to the cave by elevator — and in the process of drilling the shaft, he discovered a second cave: Ruby Falls Cave. There, he found striking formations not present in the lower cave, as well as the falls, which he named after his wife Ruby.
Lookout Mountain Cave was opened to the public in 1929, followed by Ruby Falls Cave a year later. The latter was far more popular with visitors, and the lower cave was blocked off to visitors in 1935. Public exploration of Lookout Mountain Cave is still off limits.
According to the Ruby Falls website, the falls were formed when a sinkhole that developed near the head of a surface stream above Ruby Falls Cave allowed a large amount of water to enter the cave, hollowing out the dome area where the falls are located through a natural erosion process. The falls continue to be fed by natural springs and rainwater, which pass through a crack created over time by slightly acidic groundwater that slowly dissolved the limestone which composes the cave. The water collects in a pool below the falls, passing through the mountain via cracks caused by the same chemical weathering process and eventually joining the Tennessee River. However, I prefer the explanation we were given on the tour — that no one knows where the falls come from.
Lookout Mountain Cave, meanwhile, contains a true mystery, in the form of 13 square stone boxes that sit on the cave floor. They were not made by natural formations within the cave, and no one knows how they got there or what they were for. The lower cave also contains numerous signatures carved by soldiers during the Civil War, when soldiers on both sides used the cave for shelter and refuge.
The lantern tour is offered Friday nights January-November and costs $29.95 per person, adults and children alike. Since the tours often sell out, it's best to purchase tickets in advance. Learn more at rubyfalls.com.