Mar 2, 2021

Scenes from Ruby Falls, Chattanooga, Tenn.

If someone ever decides to research the types of tourist attractions most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, I’d have to believe the classic cave tour would be near the top of the list.  By their very nature, they’re crowded and cramped.  But I’ve loved them since I was a kid.  Punky?  Not so much. But she good naturedly agreed to one as part of our last family summer road trip.  The stopover was in Chattanooga, Tenn.  The tour was Ruby Falls.  The falls – inside the cave – were worth the trip.  

Ruby Falls is often advertised as part of a collection of sites on Lookout Mountain (the peak and the town both straddle the Tennessee-Georgia state line), just minutes outside of Chattanooga.  There’s the mile-long Incline Railway that’s billed as the world’s steepest passenger railroad.  There’s Rock City atop the mountain on the Georgia side where you can famously see seven states.  And there’s Ruby Falls, advertised as the tallest and deepest underground waterfall accessible to the public in the United States.  At any random point along Interstate 24 or 75 you’re likely to encounter billboards promoting one – if not all three – of these attractions. 

With all the billboard promotion throughout the area, Ruby Falls isn’t that hard to find.  You can use either Exit 174 or 175 on Interstate 24 and just follow the signs from there.  One thing’s for certain, at some point you’ll be navigating the twisting and turning – and appropriately named – Scenic Highway up the mountain.  You know you’re there when you approach a rock castle otherwise out of place in southern Appalachia. 

The castle is a by-product on ingenuity by the falls’ “discoverer,” Leo Lambert. After discovering the cavern that led to the falls in the 1920s, he needed to tunnel a viable way to reach the falls in order to turn it into the tourist attraction it eventually became.  The limestone removed to create the elevator shaft that takes tours down to the cavern was used to build Ruby Falls Cavern Castle and the adjoining Lookout Mountain Tower.  As another aside, Lambert is also credited for naming the falls … after his wife Ruby. 

Unless you’ve purchased your ticket in advance, you’ll probably have time to explore both buildings as part of the Ruby Falls Village Plaza.  There’s a maze of outdoor walkways along the top of the castle that provides plenty of breathtaking vantage points, especially of Chattanooga and the Tennessee River snaking alongside it.  

Who knows?  You may even get an up-close look at an approaching rainstorm …

… and the eventual rainbow with it. 

The cave tour itself begins with a 26-foot descent from an elevator inside the tourist center to the path leading to the falls.  For the most part, the path you take is one way in and the same way out.  In other words, expect to pass other tour groups coming and going.  

And expect to see many of your standard limestone cave formations along the way.  By the time you reach the falls, you’ll have gone 1,120 feet fellow the surface, albeit the surface is high on a mountaintop. 

And just before you get there, expect a brief pause and set-up by the tour guide, then the cave lights come on and voila!  Ruby Falls splashing down into a pool encircled by a guardrail and a walkway. 

Each tour is allowed approximately 15 minutes at the falls for the customary gawking and photo opportunities.  Punky and I were no exception. 

It should be noted that some have questioned the authenticity of Ruby Falls considering the level of water falling down never seems to change from season to season.  And you may hear a humming sound around the falls.  So, maybe water is pumped through or helped along the falls during drier months.  So what?  The formation itself and the drop from the top is as authentic as Mother Nature can be.  If you like cave tours, Ruby Falls shows you something few others can hope to match.   

I’m also happy to see that Ruby Falls seems to be surviving and adapting its tours in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  You can check out the precautions being taken on the Ruby Falls website.  So, if you’re ever travelling through, believe the billboards and check it out if you have the time and aren’t afraid of enclosed places.  It’s a fun slice of tourist-trap Americana.

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