Ruby Falls: The Colorful Heart of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee
Closing out July with less hope than we had going into it, we decided another day trip was in order. Kristen told me that she had never been to Tennessee, and wanted to see Ruby Falls, an underground water fall just outside of Chattanooga. The pictures were truly stunning and I knew it would make her happy and take her mind off things, so just like that, it was settled. We got up early one morning and set off on a new adventure.
Soon after crossing the Tennessee state line, we could see Chattanooga’s guardian, Lookout Mountain, looming in the distance. This prominent ridge is also the city’s namesake; “Chattanooga” comes from Chat-a-nu-ga, what the local Chicakmauga people called the mountain.
I turned the car to pay our respects to the mountain before we explored the city: after all, it was within her embrace that we would find Ruby Falls.
We began to ascend Lookout Mountain on a series of winding roads. The languid pace needed to safely traverse these roads meant we could appreciate beautiful views of the city, river, and valley off to the side. At the top we found Lookout Castle, where we donned our masks before going inside.
Today’s group numbered about 20 people, and while everyone donned a mask, I was interested to see how they’d enforce distancing, especially in an elevator or underground. I soon realized, as they put six of us in each small elevator with the conductor, that they simply wouldn’t. Oh well.
Without further ado, the elevator doors closed, and we began to drop the 260 feet down into the heart of the mountain. The car’s doors are glass, and you can see the earth itself scroll past as you descend.
A New Path
The year was 1928, and life was good for Leo Lambert. He had just relocated to Chattanooga with his wife, and now he even had a business opportunity. A chemist by trade but a spelunker by passion, he had learned about Lookout Cave, a series of caverns up on top of Lookout Mountain. The cave had been very popular with tourists in the past, but had been closed for almost a quarter-century on account of a railway tunnel project.
Gazing up at the verdant behemoth, Lambert had an epiphany: he would make another entrance to Lookout Cave. Contracting the help of local drillers and miners, he moved farther up the mountainside, and drilled downwards.
Expecting to bore away at hard rock for some time, he was surprised when, not halfway down, a gust of air blew back his hair.
Finding an opening never before seen by human eyes, Leo and his men climbed down into the opening, just large enough to crawl through. They crawled for hours through darkness barely illuminated by their lamps until they came across a section where they were finally able to stand. After walking through this truly unexplored world, the sound of falling water caught their attention. Passing through a narrow canyon, they beheld an incredible sight: a subterranean waterfall splashing down from the darkness above into a pool below.
Leo Lambert decided the falls were so beautiful, he’d name them after his wife.
Her name? Ruby.
Thus went the curiously well-made video presentation we were shown at the entrance to the cave.
Bolstered by a dedication to adventure that even I myself find fanatical, Leo & Co. crawled through an 18-inch gap in the rock like a flock of Smeagols for eight hours. I get that they were in uncharted territory and had adrenaline coursing their veins, but damn.
Exploring Ruby Falls Cave
260 feet down doesn’t seem like much, but upon exiting the elevator car I could feel the slightest bit of pressure in my ears. It was wonderfully cool down here, and I felt perfect in shorts and a polo.
Walking these underground passages can let your inner child take hold. You could be an ancient Egyptian treasure hunter or a revolutionary hiding out in the mountains.
It can also be disconcerting, if you really think about it; you’ve got half a mountain on top of you.
“Does Tennessee get any seismic activity?” Kristen asked, reading my mind.
“I sure as hell hope not,” I said.
The rock formations (called speleothems) are smooth and and interesting, in and of themselves. There’s all manner of stalactites and stalagmites and flowstone to awe people of all ages. But it’s the lighting that really makes them come alive. The stewards of the cave positioned countless LED projectors all along the length of the cavern, illuminating the path with at once unnatural and yet inspiring hues. Reds, oranges, and yellows ignite rock formations here. Blues, greens, and purples flood narrow crawlspaces there.
At long last, we arrived at the narrow canyon leading to the Ruby Falls themselves. I felt as though some Titan had reached up through the earth’s crust and pulled the canyon from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade back down with him.
Crossing this subterranean canyon, we could hear the water rushing well before we saw the falls themselves. Without much ado, they came into view: Ruby Falls.
From 145 feet up, the torrent of water splashed down in a cacophony of color. Digital lilacs, moss, and marigolds coated the rockface. It was an incredible sight, to say the least, and the sound and fury of the waterfall made it it an immersive experience.
I had read that the water in the pool at the bottom was safe to drink, but because of its high levels of magnesium, it is a natural laxative.
The tour guide, piping up after a bit of silence, told us that they simply did not know the provenance of the waterfall. My first reaction was to doubt this claim, in this age of ground-penetrating radar and lidar mapping. But, if it’s true, then it added a bit of mystique to the hidden falls.
I tried to imagine the waterfall without all the fancy lighting, just it as it was when Leo Lambert first laid eyes on it back in 1928. No lights, just the waterfall in and of itself in the heart of the mountain. I think it would still have been cool, but the multicolored lights were an inspired decision. It’s the difference between an interesting find and a major tourist attraction.
Sitting down to eat at Champy’s Chicken, I mulled something over in between bites of fried bird.
“What did the tour guide teach us that we didn’t learn from that video?”
Kristen thought about this for a few seconds: “Not much.”
“Yeah, I don’t understand how the virus keeps you from educating your visitors. It’s not like they were even trying to keep six feet between people.” I took a derisive swig from my Angry Orchard bottle.
“I do think I expected more for it being 20 dollars,” said Kristen. She thought about it some more while she munched on fries, then shrugged in a manner that was more content than resigned. “I had a good time anyway. Those caverns were beautiful.”
“I’m glad,” I said. I was happy that she was happy. And she was right: in and of itself, it had been an incredible experience.
I hope you enjoyed this short adventure. Even though many of us are still confined due to the ongoing pandemic, I hope you are able to find ways to explore safely, even if it’s close to home! If you want to add a comment, please feel free to do so below. As you all know, a Like, Tweet, Pin, or Share is always appreciated!