You can take a drive on the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, spend an hour hiking a trail at Grayson Highlands State Park, learn about local history at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, but Bristol Caverns is the only place you can spend an hour viewing millions of years of geological history while enjoying beautiful rock formations and a silent underground creek. Located just a few miles from the heart of Bristol, Tennessee, taking a tour of Bristol Caverns is about the only way you could actually enjoy spending an hour underground.
Bristol Caverns is technically one of the oldest attractions in Tennessee because, after all, it has been forming for millions of years. First opening for business to tours in 1944, the caverns have changed hands a few times but always remained a locally-owned business. Today, you can visit the gift shop, take an hour-long tour of the caverns, enjoy a picnic near the cave entrance, or take a school field trip to learn about history and geology.
THE CAVES HAVE AN INTERESTING HISTORY that dates as far back as early settlement times (although it is very probable the history dates further back than this, but we just don’t know it). When early settlers came into the area, a group of Native Americans began raiding their farms and killing their livestock. The settlers banded together to form parties to hunt them down, tracking them to the entrance to what is now called Bristol Caverns: a small opening in ground that leads through the ceiling of the cave, just wide enough for people to move in and out. However, this is not the only entrance, which would serve to fool the early settlers. A second entrance along with the creek allowed the Native Americans to sneak out and attack the settlers’ homesteads while the settlers were trying to smoke them out of the cave.
A more interesting piece of history comes from an early name to the caverns, Bishop’s Cave. According to the local legend, Betty Bishop was a local woman of extraordinary beauty. She made many women jealous, but one in particular decided to hire a hitman to kill her. The hit succeeded, and the assassin dumped her body into the small entrance once used by Native Americans. When her body was discovered days later, the name “Bishop’s Cave” came to be associated with the caverns.
In 1863 Samuel Sesler rediscovered the caverns while digging for a cellar. After exploring the caverns he decided to turn them into a business venture: he began renting space for storage and growing produce. The year-round constant temperature in the upper 60’s and high humidity meant fruits and vegetables could be grown even during harsh winters.
In 1944, local Mr. Kitt opened the caves for the first time as a tourist attraction. Renaming them Bristol Caverns (because who wants to admit their business is named after a murdered woman), the tours explored the deepest parts of the cave. While building concrete staircases, smooth paths, and metal handrails for the tourists, special attention was paid to the appearance of the caves. As the concrete was mixed, dirt from the floor of the cave was mixed added to give the usually gray concrete a color that perfectly matched the cave walls. The same technique was applied to the handrails, creating a seamless blend of pathways, staircases, and natural beauty not found in many commercial caves.
TODAY BRISTOL CAVERNS IS LOCALLY-OWNED by brothers Gary, Tom, and Charles Barnett (not related, as far as I know). The three brothers followed a business model that still holds today: while in high school, they worked at the Caverns as tour guides. Growing up in the area meant not only did they get a chance to work at the Caverns as guides, but they also had a chance to explore every nook and cranny of the 200 – 400 million year old cave. Years later, the three brothers expressed an interest in the Caverns, telling the current owner if they ever decided to sell, the brothers would buy.
In 1981 they did that exactly. Since that time, the three brothers have co-owned the Caverns and continued the tours they once gave themselves. Gary Barnett in particular worked for three different owners of the Caverns before he became one of the owners himself. After buying the Caverns, Gary decided to embark on business exploration of close to 80 other caverns, looking for interesting lighting patterns, business models, and commercial cave design. How many of us get to say we bought the business we had so much fun working at when we were in high school?
TOURS OF THE CAVERNS are filled with stories of history, converting the caves into a tourism attraction, and geology, usually by high school or college student tour guides. It begins at the gift shop where you park your vehicle (plenty of parking available just off Bristol Highway). The tour takes you up a small hill to the historical entrance of the Caverns, the same place once used by Native Americans. Today, this entrance is blocked by a metal grate to prevent anyone from falling in, and ultimately falling to an untimely death nearly 200′ below.
The tour continues down a gentle slope to the main entrance to the Caverns: a simple pair of wooden doors that opens into a beautiful, cathedral-like entrance hall. The entire tour inside the Caverns moves along smooth concrete pathways with solid handrails. It is an easy path to follow, but unfortunately not for people with difficulty walking or wheelchairs. The first parts of the tour take you up a tall staircase (pictured at top of post) and around a short loop before beginning a long descent down several staircases. People with difficulty walking may be able to complete this first segment, but I would not recommend attempting the entire tour. The Caverns are also family-friendly and safe for children of any age, although I would not recommend taking a stroller with you.
Once you begin a descent into the Caverns, you are greeted with the view pictured above. It is breathtaking when you realize this enormous space is entirely underground. It is almost like walking through a massive museum, constructed by millions of years of natural Earth development, 200′ below the surface. The lights are perfectly blended into the cave walls, hiding most of them from direct sight, but bathing the area in light so you can appreciate the scenery.
The tour continues down to the “bottom” of the Caverns, or the deepest part accessible. A silent creek moves through the Caverns, the same that created it over millions of years. The tour continues along this creek for awhile before beginning the first of two long ascents back to the top. In all, the tour lasts about an hour at the most, mostly depending on the size of the group and eagerness of questions. The tour guides are knowledgeable about the local history of the Caverns and geological formations.
Bristol Caverns is also a popular place for school field trips. The first time I visited the Caverns was on a school field trip many years ago. Today, schools from Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, and even once from Huntsville, Alabama, visit the Caverns. In addition to school field trips, Boy Scouts will camp near the entrance overnight and explore the cave during the day. Group rates are also provided, so if you want to visit with a large group of friends, a church group, or a business trip (hey, why can’t you take a business trip to a cave?) visit the website listed above for more information.