Experience Nickajack Cave and 300+ Years of Tennessee History

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Beware: You should never explore wild caves alone or without proper gear. Consider getting in touch with a Grotto of the National Speleological Society at www.caves.org or a qualified cave club. These groups are skilled and will train you. Without sufficient knowledge, preparation, and equipment, cave exploring can lead to serious injury or death.

Nickajack Cave in Tennessee’s Marion County is a massive, partially submerged cave. What makes this cave particularly interesting is the plethora of historical tidbits that accompany it.

After the construction of the Nickajack Dam by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1967, a portion of the area was submerged by Nickajack Lake.

In its original configuration, the width and height of the entrance were 140 and 50 feet, respectively. Because of the current water level (about 25-30 feet), the dry entry is only around 140 feet wide and 20-25 feet high. The rising water levels have threatened the vast population of gray bats who call this building home.

Nickajack, a Chickamauga Cherokee settlement situated between the cave’s entrance and the Tennessee River, inspired the name. When the Nickajack Expedition came through in 1794, they attacked and leveled the whole town.

An image of Nickajack dam and a beautiful rainbow behind it.
Nickajack Dam

Nickajack Cave Location and Directions

New Hope is roughly 25 miles from Chattanooga. To reach Haletown from the westbound I-24, get off at exit 161, and take a left onto State Route 156. About 5 miles from here, you should be able to spot the cave on your left, across the river. Shortly after you cross the bridge across the lake, you’ll see the Maple View Day Use Area on your left.

Nickajack Cave History

Territorial militias wiped down Nickajack and neighboring Running Water in 1794. Since 1872, numerous for-profit enterprises have offered boat tours inside the cave. A creek once emerged from the cave before the lake formed.

In 1981, a fence was erected at the entrance to prevent boats from entering the cave, protecting the bats from harm. TWRA established Nickajack Cave in 1992 as the state’s first non-game wildlife preserve.

After 1800, James Ore began extracting saltpeter from Nickajack Cave. The cave was located on Cherokee land then; therefore, this exploration was only possible with their blessing. During the War of 1812, mining operations remained active.

An image of the dark, massive flooded entrance to Nickajack Cave.

Civil War Mining

Before the Civil War, Robert Cravens, a successful businessman from Chattanooga, ran Nickajack Cave and his cave, Lookout Mountain Cave. The Confederate administration quickly assumed control of Nickajack Cave after hostilities began.

According to Wikipedia, Nickajack Cave served as one of the largest saltpeter caves operated by the Confederate Nitre Bureau during the Civil War. Saltpeter was the main ingredient of gunpowder, and this made Nickajack cave a significant location. Losing the site to Federal troops was a serious blow to the Confederacy.

Johnny Cash’s Change of Heart

A picture of Johnny Cash strumming a guitar, sitting on a couch while looking up at the ceiling. Johnny Cash was planning to commit suicide at Nickajack Cave.

In 1967, musician Johnny Cash planned to commit suicide in the cave, but after having a spiritual experience there, he decided to abandon his drug use instead.

Gary Allan, a country music musician, wrote a song about this event for his 2005 album Tough All Over.


Since 1872, when record-keeping began, Nickajack Cave has been used for profit. A newspaper article from July 2, 1872, mentions the steamship R. J. excursions that left Chattanooga.

Jackson would take people to the cave on tours, and once there, they would be taken inside by boat with the help of guides.

Visitors could return to Chattanooga via rail from Shellmound, conveniently positioned just outside the cave’s exit.

In 1927, Lawrence S. Ashley, had mysteriously vanished while exploring the cave.

Newspapers in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and The New York Times, wrote about his disappearance. Ashley claimed he dug his way through a new entry 8 miles away after getting “lost” from August 15 through August 22, 1927.

But there’s a twist! The whole thing was a deception to get more people to explore the cave. By the 1940s, Leo Lambert, also credited with creating the neighboring Chattanooga attraction Ruby Falls, managed the cave.

It was sometime in the late 1940s when commercial operations at the cave ceased. As recently as the 1960s, before the cave was flooded, visitors could still see the remains of the gatehouse and the concrete floors that led to the interior chambers.

The cave’s entrance is enormous. Just outside the cave’s opening was a tiny lake nourished by the water from the cave’s internal stream.

When tours weren’t available, guests had to wade through waist-deep water for roughly a quarter mile to reach the cave proper. Once upon a time, it was said that the underground network continued for miles and miles, but a cave-in at the cave’s back now prevents that from happening.

Bats of Nickajack

Nickajack Cave is one of Tennessee’s most significant ecological caverns, despite being half submerged by its eponymous lake. The thousands of gray bats that live there from late April to early October (with the highest concentrations in June and July) are primarily responsible for this.

While there are more than a dozen species of bats in Tennessee, the gray bat is the only one on the federal endangered species list.

They give birth and roost in Nickajack Cave at this time of year, and after dark every day, they emerge from the cave’s mouth in a seemingly endless stream to forage for food, a process that takes around 45 minutes and involves, on average, over 100,000 bats.

These creatures consume an estimated total of 274,000 kg of insects annually. Mayflies and stoneflies are their favorite prey, although they will also consume mosquitoes, caddis flies, beetles, moths, and other aquatic insects if necessary. Bats leave their summer roosts searching for winter hibernation caverns as temperatures rise.

Along with the bats, the cave is home to cliff swallows, which make their nests in the muck that covers the roof. Swallows, like bats, eat insects but do so during the day, while bats prefer the darkness of the night.

How to Access Nickajack Cave

Paddling a canoe, kayak, or paddleboard to within viewing distance of a cave entrance at dusk is a common approach to observing bats emerging for the night. From the boat ramp at Maple View Day Use Area in New Hope, it’s only a short paddle to the water.

Nickajack Cave is located on one side of the bay, while an additional access point is the Cole City Creek boat ramp near Macedonia Baptist Church.

A walkway of about a thousand feet will take you from the Maple View Day Use Area, along the coastline, and through the woods to an observation platform, from which you may get a good look at the cave entrance, albeit not as close as you would get by boat.

After dusk, you might not see many bats for approximately half an hour. You may see them most clearly from the lookout if you look up at the sky. They usually make a U-turn and head in the direction of the tree line that runs parallel to the coast.

Between April and October, you can visit the Maple View location between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. A few picnic tables and a pavilion sit in the sparsely maintained Maple View area.


As a wildlife refuge, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency now manages Nickajack Cave. Over one hundred thousand bats make their home in the cave.

In the spring, pregnant gray bats will go to the cave, which serves as a maternity roost for the bats. Visitors can see the bats take off at dusk to eat from a viewing platform next to the cave’s mouth.

See more Tennessee Caves here.

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