A little piece of advice: You really shouldn’t watch the horror movie “The Cave” before going into an actual cave. Especially when the film involves underwater cave diving and strange creatures and the actual cave involves lots of water and strange … rainbow trout. While the trout weren’t nearly as terrifying as make-believe cave monsters, they do give you pause, especially when the guide tells you they like to bite and draw blood.
Now that we have that out of the way, here’s the story of my trip to the Lost Sea.
The Lost Sea is located in Sweetwater, Tenn. Both the town and the cave tour were fun and made for an entertaining year-end road trip.
A ride on the Lost Sea starts with a ¾-mile walking tour of Craighead Caverns, where the lake is located.
The website lostsea.com says: “Listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as America’s largest underground lake, the Lost Sea is part of an extensive and historic cave system called Craighead Caverns.”
The caverns were well known for centuries. They were used as council chambers for a group of Cherokee natives, for gathering saltpeter to make gunpowder during the Civil War (graffiti with the date 1863 has been carbon-dated to that time), a tavern and moonshine stills in the 1940s, and a fallout shelter in the 1950s.
But the lake itself, which covers 4.5 acres, was undiscovered for many years. It was first discovered in 1905 by 13-year-old Ben Sands, who found an opening during a drought when water levels were low. According to our guide, no one believed the boy at the time and it would be another six decades before a group of explorers found the opening again and began to study the unusual underground lake.
The Lost Sea opened to the public in 1965. These days, the water level is carefully maintained and any extra water is used to run the gift shop and small village of shops aboveground. The shops, a general store, ice cream parlor and glass blower, are closed from October to mid-March but the cave is open year-round. Admission is $25 for adults and $15 for kids and reservations are best made online because spots sell out quickly.
So is it worth the price? Yes. Admittedly, once you’ve toured a cave, you’ve pretty much seen them all. BUT this cave has rare “cave flowers” called anthrocites, and of course, the lake. After walking to it, visitors can ride in a boat on the lake. It’s a short ride but still fascinating.
The rainbow trout were introduced by researchers who hoped to tag them and follow them out of the cave to see where it flows. The fish are handfed and “spoiled,” however, and never left the clear water with a constant temperature of 56-degrees. Lights in the water keep the fish from becoming “cave-blind” and they live happy lives and grow fat, the guide said, although he warned us not to dangle our hands in the water because the trout think anything in the water is food.
Warning: The ¼-mile walk back to the entry – the route out is much shorter – is steep so be prepared to get winded.
The town of Sweetwater
After the tour, I stopped in the town of Sweetwater, population about 6,300. It had an old-fashioned bandstand surrounded by a general store, cute shops and antique malls.
Sweetwater was incorporated in 1875 and was likely named for all the nearby springs, two of which feed the lost sea.
One of the murals on the sides of downtown buildings – we saw three – features the story of Harry T. Burn (1895-1977), which I wrote about in my book “Forgotten Tales of Tennessee.” Burn, a Sweetwater attorney and state legislator, made history with his tie-breaking vote in 1919 that gave women the right to vote. Burn was swayed by a letter from his mother, who explained to him the importance of women’s suffrage. Mrs. Burn is featured on the mural. Click here to read the excerpt from my book.