About 75 miles from Gatlinburg, in Sweetwater, Tennessee is one of this country’s true natural wonders. Hidden deep inside a magnificent cave system, left untouched and undiscovered for millenia, is America’s largest underground lake. Known as The Lost Sea, this body of water is so expansive that research divers have yet to discover its true dimension.
The caverns in which the Lost Sea was found have been known and used since the time of the Cherokee Indians. In the 1800s, the constant 58° Fahrenheit temperature of the caves made a perfect refrigeration system for early Tennessee Valley settlers. Later, during the Civil War, Confederates minded the caves for saltpeter (a component of gunpowder manufacturing), and one intrepid visitor scrawled the date 1863 upon the cave walls. However, it was not until 1905, when a young boy named Ben Sands wiggled his way through a tiny opening, 300-feet underground, that the underground lake was discovered.
Today visitors are invited to descend trough a small tunnel built into the Lost Sea Adventure gift shop to emerge within the enormous rooms of Craighead Caverns. Guided tours traverse the uneven ground daily (with the exception of Christmas Day) on a roughly 75 minute trek. Tour guides point out not only the storied history of the caverns–from the bones of the prehistoric jaguar that were unearthed here to the moonshine that was distilled in the back rooms–but some of the unique geological formations found here, too. Such as the anthodites, or “cave flowers,” which are so rare that it is estimated Craighead Caverns holds over 50% of the world’s known formations.
At the bottom of the tour visitors are afforded the opportunity to take a glass bottom boat ride on the Lost Sea itself. The visible portion of the lake is 220 feet wide by 800 feet long and is stocked with rainbow trout (leave your rod and reel at home because fishing is not permitted). Beneath the calm waters divers have found room after cavernous room filled to the brim with murky water. Despite using modern mapping equipment researchers have yet to discover the far reaches of the enormous lake.
Beyond the caves
While you are visiting the Lost Sea you won’t want to miss the Old Sweetwater Village. This quaint 18-century village features authentic log cabins housing an ice cream parlor, general store, gem mine and glassblower. Additionally, the Cavern Kitchen offers meals to satisfy hungry explorers.
The Lost Sea Adventure is just one more do-not-miss East Tennessee attraction you can add to your Gatlinburg vacation itinerary.