As the crow flies, the small cave isn’t far from the nearest hiking trail. In fact, the John Muir Trail — the long-distance trail named for America’s most famous explorer — is literally a stone’s throw away.
As cave openings go, the mouth of this one isn’t very impressive, either. In fact, that is perhaps why so many adventurers wander right by it without venturing inside. To the passerby who doesn’t pause for a closer examination, it looks like merely a small hole in the exposed sandstone rock face — and those are a dime a dozen in the craggy terrain of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.
But for those who dare to put aside their claustrophobia, and get down on all fours to venture beyond the tiny opening, an impressive sight awaits. Beyond the tiny doorway, a much larger cavern opens up — one shared only by the cave crickets and spiders that are escaping the cruel winter temperatures inside.
It would be foolish to think that you’re the only white man to ever stumble into this natural cavity beneath the surface of the earth. And, yet, it is for all official purposes undiscovered. There is no National Park Service inventory tag tacked to the rock face outside. It doesn’t appear on the impressive census of BSF landforms maintained by former University of Tennessee adjunct associate professor Tom Dunigan.
But here it is. And here I am. Because of its location — it’s tucked away in the unlikeliest of places on the edge of the gorge that encases the Big South Fork River and its major tributaries — and its unassuming appearance, I can’t help but feel that if I were a moonshiner on the run from G-men, or a bandit on the run from the local sheriff’s posse, this small cave would be the perfect hideaway … a place where I would go undiscovered, even as searchers strolled by mere feet away, until the bloodhounds tracked me in here. Getting here requires bushwhacking through some of the most unforgiving mountain laurel thickets known to man, or climbing up from the creek that flows through the valley far below, and neither is an easy task. So even though the nearest beaten path is within shouting distance, this small hidey-hole might as well be a thousand miles from anywhere.
As caves go, it’s far from the most spectacular in the Big South Fork. It’s not even close … and the BSF is hardly renowned for its caves to start with. Devils Cave, located a short distance from East Rim Overlook, has the distinction of being the largest slot cave in the State of Tennessee, and is indeed impressive, but it isn’t a cave as most of us think of caves. Neither are most of the others found within the Big South Fork. You won’t find many underground passages filled with stalagmites, stalactites, flowstones or subsurface streams within the Big South Fork. But you’ll actually find dozens — hundreds, perhaps — of small caves just like this one.
By definition, a cave is “a large underground chamber, typically of natural origin, in a hillside or cliff.” If you want to get only slightly more technical, a cave is usually defined as such — rather than a rockhouse, which are even more plentiful in the BSF — if it is deeper than it is wide.
Almost all of the BSF’s caves are located off the beaten path, aren’t marked on trail maps, and are relatively undiscovered by the unassuming explorer who could do more harm than good if he isn’t careful to avoid disturbing sensitive (and, in many cases, rare or endangered) plant life or the archaeological evidence that exists within.
So what makes this one unique? Nothing, perhaps, except how unassuming it is in appearance — which causes it to go virtually unnoticed. Nearby, literally only a few dozen feet away, is a stone passageway of sorts, created by eons of erosion and falling rocks that have tumbled onto one another. It bears the inventory tag of National Park Service surveyors, and evidence of human use from decades past. This small cave contains neither, despite being so close by, which is further evidence that most people who go by it never bother to explore it more carefully.
My brother had told me for years that he had stumbled onto a cave while hunting in the area, discovering a larger cavern than it appeared from the outside only because he decided to venture inside the small opening. On a recent trip off the trail, I discovered that he had indeed stumbled upon a cave that few people ever explore for themselves. As far as its dimensions are concerned, the cave isn’t large enough to stand upright in, but it’s plenty deep enough to provide a noticeable temperature difference — which explains all the cave crickets and spiders that seek refuge inside. The winter winds that howl outside the door can’t penetrate this far back, nor can the sunlight that dances about the opening as the treetops twist in the breeze overhead.
The cave’s ceiling and walls are also coated in places with a thin layer of actinobacteria — the colorful mats of microbes that give off such a hue that you’d be convinced you’d stumbled upon a seam of gold if you didn’t know better.
Perhaps surprisingly, there is no evidence of animal life inside the small cave. Black bears are plentiful in this part of the Big South Fork, and it is their time of year to hole up in dens and lay low, even if they don’t truly hibernate. But the BSF’s caves rarely seem to be used by bears as dens; they tend to prefer dens that they can excavate in windfalls or inside the bases of large trees.
Popular hiking trails in the Big South Fork — like the Angel Falls Trail, the Grand Gap Loop, and the John Muir Trail — don’t tend to lead adventurers directly to the small caves that invite exploring. But nearby, often much closer than the unassuming hiker might realize, these caves often await. They’re out there — right in “our back yard.” Those of us who are serious about fully realizing the geological wonders of the BSF region owe it to ourselves to discover them — and then to leave them just as we found them.