Are there caves in Scott County?
The obvious answer is yes, although the word “cave” is open to varying interpretations.
In the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, there are dozens of caves — most of them being of the crepuscular variety.
Crepuscular caves is just a fancy way of saying rock houses — which is how most people would classify most of the rock shelters in the BSF and the surrounding sandstone-lined gorges of the northern Cumberland Plateau.
Other people are quick to point out that there is a distinction to be made. Rock houses are merely rock overhangs, sheltering the area beneath them from the wind and the rain, they say. Caves, though, are the deeper depressions that are carved further into the slabs of sandstone and limestone that characterize the gorges here. The best way to think of it, those people would argue, is that not all rock houses are caves, but all caves are rock houses.
For the record, Merriam-Webster defines cave as “a natural chamber or series of chambers in the earth or in the side of a hill or cliff.”
There are more than a hundred rock shelters scattered throughout the Big South Fork NRRA alone that could meet that definition.
But some place further restrictions on that definition — defining a cave as a chamber deep enough that outside light cannot penetrate, or as a chamber that is deeper than it is wide.
Generally, though, a cave is considered to be a void in the earth large enough for a person to occupy. And there are plenty of those in the BSF — some of which are so deep that light cannot penetrate and many of which are not.
There are various geological features in and around the BSF that have been tagged as caves over the years, usually by early settlers. There is Devils Cave near East Rim Overlook, Hippy Cave in the Darrow Ridge area above Laurel Fork Creek, Hazard Cave (which is actually in Pickett State Forest), and Potter’s Cave near Hurricane Ridge in the Honey Creek area.
Devils Cave is the BSF’s best examples of what many of us typically think of when we think of a cave. Extending more than 400 ft. into the earth, it doesn’t feature the stalagmite and stalactite calcium deposits that are commonly associated with caves, but it is plenty deep enough to escape the penetrating light of the natural world and is home to a number of critters that spend most of their live beneath the ground. It was recently certified as Tennessee’s largest slot cave, although some argue that it shouldn’t be defined as a cave at all, since it’s technically a slot canyon.
While those are perhaps the best-known caves that are quickly named by those familiar with the Big South Fork, there are several other features in the area that aren’t typically thought of as caves, but that meet the definition of a cave every bit as much as any of the above. Consider Hole in the Ridge, or Needle’s Eye, in the Hurricane Ridge section of the park — a huge tunnel that extends the full width of the ridge above North White Oak Creek. Or the 120-ft. Christian Tunnel in Fentress County. Or any of the larger rock houses that dot the landscape surrounding the Big South Fork River and its major tributaries.
Most of the truest examples of shallow caves in the Big South Fork remain relatively unknown. They’re far off the beaten path and have yet to be visited by anyone in the era of GPS devices — or at least anyone willing to make their locations publicly known. They were used by American Indians, and later by longhunters, but their locations have generally been forgotten over the years. Some are home to endangered plant species, like the Cumberland stitchwort, while others are deep enough that plant life doesn’t exist but animal life — like salamanders — does.
Editor's Note: The preceding story is the December 2016 installment of "Our Back Yard," presented on the first week of each month by First National Bank of Oneida as part of the Independent Herald's Back Page Features series.