My sister: “Do you want to go spelunking this weekend?”
Commence googling of “spelunking” and "The Rocky Topper Spelunking Adventure at Cumberland Caverns".
Cumberland Caverns, McMinnville, TN
When a website says things like “extreme-adventure”, I generally think that it is hype. Yeah, yeah. “Strenuous”. I mean, that’s just a nice way of saying, “Don’t come if you can’t handle basic everyday tasks”, right?
We signed our waiver and were issued helmets with head lamps. Helmets? I guess these are just for liability reasons for the company. I mean, this is basically like a nature trail through a cave, right?
Then we had to belly crawl through a tiny crate – about 12 inches tall and 24 inches wide – to prove that we could go on the tour. I mean, this is just to intimidate the weak tourists, right?
Nope. I’d say strenuous is accurate. It was the most challenging outdoor activity I’ve ever done. And that helmets are necessary – I hit my head about 19 million times. And that the box was actually generous. Many spaces in the cave were tighter than that little box.
This wasn’t like any other caves I’ve been in (i.e. Mammoth Cave) with large, expansive spaces. This was a crawling, climbing, scooting, squeezing, squishing tour through tiny, winding corridors. For 3 hours!
And of course, I loved it. I would do it every day, but my, my, my, I am exhausted. I have sore muscles in places that I didn’t even know existed. For example, the muscle on the outside of my right hand keeps cramping. I guess from all of the gripping? And 17. That’s the number of bruises I have spotted so far.
The tour started with belly crawls through tight spaces – sometimes as small at 11 inches – for lengths that seemed to be about 100 yards at a time. Followed by ladder climbs over taller rocks and winding through tiny, narrow corridors. Most of the time I could only see the person directly in front of me. Occasionally we would get to a space wide enough to see about three people ahead, but most of the time we were in spaces too narrow or tight to do anything other than follow the person directly in front of us. We went through one spot called The Lemon Squeezer. The vertical spaces were so tight that we basically just had to find a spot that our helmet could fit through, breathe in really deep, and squeeze our way through – for several hundred yards. The Devil’s Backbone? A formation in the cave that is like a balance beam on a three foot drop off that we had to walk across while holding onto the rocks above our head. Bubble Gum Alley? A long trail of the stickiest mud that I have ever encountered. We were instructed to tie our shoes extra tight before venturing through, but even then some people still slipped right out of their shoes. It took strength to even just pick up my feet, all while still maneuvering through the winding corridors.
Three hours and three miles later when we came out of the cave, exhausted and covered from head to toe with mud, we passed a group tour going in for “the walking tour” – basically they were actually doing the regular “nature trail through the cave” kind of tour that I had imagined. They saw us and panicked, each with wide eyes and comments like “I’ve got on my good pants!” or “You said I wouldn’t get dirty!” or “No way am I getting down on my knees and crawling!” We didn’t correct their assumptions. We just smiled and said, “Have fun!”. Those poor people looked so scared!
We only have pictures outside of the cave. Because of the tight spaces, you can’t really take anything with you inside of the cave. An iphone definitely would have gotten cracked at some point. So you’ll have to settle for some vague descriptions and the website pictures.
Exhausted and Excited
Spelunking is not for the faint of heart. Or the claustrophobic. Thankfully I am neither. My sister and I both proclaimed later that we feel like we should have trained for that. But we didn’t. And it was so incredible. It felt like a big accomplishment once we were finished. I really, really loved it!
If you like adventure, you have to go check this out. We did the Rocky Top Adventure at Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville, Tennessee. When I saw on their website that there are more difficult adventures, I was shocked! I’d definitely start with this one and then decide if you want to go tougher! And a major plus, the weather doesn't affect the cave tours! The cave temperature is always in the upper 50s no matter what the temperature is outside and rain does not affect the underground tours at all. It was pouring when we went! What a great rainy day activity! They also have overnight trips in the cave (which I am dying to do) and a monthly concert in the underground amphitheater called Bluegrass Underground (aired on PBS). Check it out – and when you do, let me know. I’ll probably join you!