We were in Chattanooga sometime last year, at this exact campground, Raccoon Mountain Campground, and managed to convince ourselves not to take the cave tour. Partly because we don’t like group guided tours, but mostly because we are cheap. We spend enough money on traveling and bills, and there are so many free things to do, hiking, biking, walking around downtown Chattanooga, why would we pay for something that might be sub par? Well, as logical as that sounded at the time, it was bullshit. We returned to Chattanooga after our long Georgia and Florida stays and finally took the tour. It was probably one of the best things we spent our money on in a long while.
We requested the 4 hour Echo Room Tour on a Saturday and by Monday we were scheduled for Wednesday Morning. This didn’t give me much time to limber up or get into shape, my muscles weak from excessive time at the computer and staying indoors most the winter, but I stretched as much as I could the night before. However, the night before was not followed by a restful sleep but rather a night of no sleep, old movies and Battlestar Galactica on my iphone. We stayed up all night because our schedule would never work well with a 9:30am cave expedition. I would rather be “haven’t gone to bed” tired than “just woke up” groggy. Staying up all night also allowed us to go to breakfast at 7am at a restaurant in town that serves vegan food, but is only open till 1. I imagined the carbs and calories from a great tofu scramble and fluffy biscuit would give me more energy for the 4 hours of labor ahead, though I really had no idea what to expect of the cave.
The only shoes I had were my 80s rebocks that I was planning to throw away because of their unfixably ugly tongues. They were the grippiest shoes I had so I hoped I could depend on my years of skateboarding and gymnastics to keep me on my feet and out of crevasses. Ross had hiking boots so he was set but neither us had any disposable clothing. Our guide was a tall bearded professional “cave tour aficionado” looking guy named Jerry Wallace, who also happens to be the cave’s photographer and graphic designer. I was happy we didn’t get a cocky young guide with a napsack full of ego and only enough facts about the cave to impress an 8 year old. Jerry knew everything we asked and was loaded with tons of geological, historical and biological information to please our curious and tired brains.
The first part of the tour was the Crystal Palace, a developed part of the cave filled with stalactites, stalagmites, cones, drapes and various other crystallized formations. While the rest of the tour was wild aside from the various butt and knee polished areas along the way. During the cave tour we crawled through spaces I didn’t think my head would fit through, climbed a rope up a slippery slope, slid down a 20 foot rock slide, teetered over a canyon, talked about the move The Descent, and spent allot of time on our knees. Randomly we would enter rooms like the echo room, whirlpool room, elvis room, music room and several awesomely tall dome rooms with crawls between called things like the back scraper, the 49 cent squeeze, the birth canal and the ankle breaker. At first I was a little worried about how I would feel in the tighter squeezes but after I learned how to crawl through them, using your finger tips and pushing with your toes ( I started by trying to drag my legs haha, fool!), I enjoyed the tight fits and awkward mid tunnel turns. When we got to the Sandpaper slide, looking down at a steep rock slide with presumably, rocks at the bottom, taking the plunge felt like the last time I tried to roll gracefully into a half pipe and ended up on my back on the concrete 12 feet below, or driving my motorcycle into the back of the truck with the ramp at a 45 degree angle (15-20mph needed with 3 feet to stop – I don’t do that anymore). When I finally leaned forward and just did it, the bottom was only a 2 foot drop and you were tossed forward into some dirt. Aside from my wrists already hurting from all the lifting needed (and my time on computers) it was a completely painless trip down.
Photos by Jerry Wallace
Four and half hours later – my legs, shoulders and arms sore, scraped and weak, we finally exited the cave alive and getting along pretty well with our guide. I’m an awkward conversationalist with strangers so I made my share of morbid or strange statements and jokes, while Ross balanced us out by being the sane one with little to say. At the building where we turned in our gear we swapped flickr accounts with our guide Jerry and I gave him the address to Nerds on the Road. Hopefully our next guide, at our next cave (if even possible*), we will have a guide as good as him.
Jerry takes all the photos in the gift shop/cave entrance as well as the website for the cave and has had his awesome photos published. Check some of them out on his flickr and check out the Raccoon Mountain Wild Cave website to see some photos not found there.
* find out more about why caves around the country are being closed (link) (Federal are already closed and there are threats that private caves may be closed as well).