The Nickajack Cave

What once was a massive cave system full of corridors, spectacular mineral formations, and historical artifacts has now been reduced to a small fraction of its accessible area;

but what was stolen from Nickajack Cave through the rising waters of the Nickajack Dam has been preserved through legends and stories of its fascinating past.

Get ready for an intense evening of fluttering bat wings and tales of near-death SCUBA experiences!

The Times They Are A-Changin

For hundreds of years, Nickajack Cave has played a part in human history; American Indians, settlers, the confederate army, and countless adventurers have taken advantage of the shelter and mineral resources of the cave. What was considered to be the world’s largest stalagmite stood majestically in the deep recesses of Nickajack, and for a time, the cave was publicized as a tourist attraction.

It is claimed that, during a low point in his life, Johnny Cash wandered into the cave in the 1960s with the intent to get lost and die; but in the process, he experienced a spiritual awakening and found God. This moment changed the course of his life, and as he felt a divine guidance leading him back to the mouth of the cave, he emerged a new man.

In 1967, everything changed, and Nickajack Cave would never be the same.

Rising Water

The Tennessee River (on which Nickajack Cave is located) was so difficult to navigate by boat that it was decided a dam needed to be built to regulate the water flow. The Hales Bar Dam was the first attempt, completed in 1913. It was located further up the river where the cave was not affected by its reservoir. The Hales Bar had some faults however, and continual leaks prompted the construction of a new dam.

The Nickajack Dam was constructed 6.4 miles downstream from the Hales Bar Dam, and it was completed by the end of 1967. As the water gates were officially shut, the new dam’s reservoir began to fill, and the Nickajack Cave flooded almost completely, burying everything (except a few hundred feet at the entrance) in water.

The Nickajack Today

Today if you visit Nickajack Cave, you will find the entrance rising out of the water only by about 15 feet, and blocked by fencing. But you can still take a thrilling boat ride to the entrance’s cove and see thousands of bats emerge from the cave on warm summer evenings; it is quite the experience to sit in the middle of the shadowy flutters as the bats search for insects near the surface of the water (Don’t worry, they don’t fly into you). Just be sure to take plenty of lights; it will be dark as you head back to the boat launch.

Entrance into the cave is strictly prohibited, and violation can cause serious risk, as was found out by David Gant in 1992. No doubt, you will hear all about the foolhardy SCUBA diver and his friend as you interact with the locals, as well as how the entire Nickajack Reservoir had to be lowered in order to save his life!

No visit to Marion County, Tennessee is complete without a trip to Nickajack Cave. 

Are you ready?