The Lost Sea Adventure was a fond memory from a childhood spent in east Tennessee. Caves are plentiful in this limestone- filled area but The Lost Sea Adventure has the largest underground lake in the U.S., making it a standout attraction. Where else can you take a boat out in a huge cavern to look at stalactites? Or see Civil War graffiti on cave walls? Or some of the most rare cave crystalline formations in the world?
I had not returned to the Lost Sea as an adult (until last week) and was curious to see if it was still the adventure I remembered as a child. I am happy to say it’s still a pretty cool family outing that the kids loved and we would do again. Next time I think we will sign up for one of their Wild Cave tours, where you get to crawl through crevices to the less developed part of the cave and spend the night in total darkness. Talk about taking camping to a new level!
The Lost Sea is part of the larger Craighead Caverns that extend from Sweetwater, north to Madisonville. The many caves in east and middle Tennessee (over 10,000 found so far) are due to the abundance of limestone in the area. 250 million years ago, this area was covered by a shallow inland sea leading to the limestone formation. 90 million years ago, the sea dried out as the land was uplifted and surface water began to trickle through the limestone bedrock, dissolving it and forming these caves, large and small.
The caves have been known and used by humans for thousands of years. The Cherokee used the “Council Room,” a large cave near the entrance, as a meeting place. Large numbers of artifacts have been collected there, such as pottery and jewelry. Later, white settlers in the area used the caves as food storage, handy since the caves maintain a steady 58 degrees year-round.
Confederate soldiers mined saltpeter in these caves and also left behind graffiti for us to admire. The names and dates in black on the cave walls were made using ash from the soldiers’ torches which carbon dating has corroborated. (Only the names in black are historic, the names in white were scratched into the rock in modern times. It's interesting to see that the “I was here” sentiment hasn’t changed much over the years. )
*** Random Trivia Alert- Saltpeter is the old-fashioned name for potassium nitrate, an integral component of gunpowder. The saltpeter mined in caves primarily comes from bat guano (that’s the technical term for bat poop). The Confederate Army was so interested in the huge amounts of saltpeter in the caves of The Lost Sea, that they advanced $2,000 ($50,000 today) to expand the operation, which continued mining until the Union Army arrived in Sweetwater in 1863. At that point, the Confederate soldiers blew up the mining operation so the Union soldiers couldn’t get their hands on it. Basically, the Civil War was fought with a lot of bat poop.
The first credited discovery of the underground lake goes to a 13 year old boy, Ben Sands, in 1905. He crawled through a tunnel the size of a bike tire to reach the lake but by the time he brought his Dad back to show him, the water levels had changed. They were unable to find the tunnel again. The lake lay hidden for the majority of people until 1965, when the tiny passageway was blasted out to allow tourists down to the lake.
Previous entrepreneurs have tried a variety of enterprises in the caves. There was an underground bar with a dance floor, the Cavern Tavern, in the 1940’s. (Which is an absolutely awesome name by the way.) There were several moonshine operations (an old still is still around by one of the walkways) and even a mushroom growing operation. The government designated the caves as a fallout shelter during the Cold War, storing thousands of pounds of food down here some of which can still be seen.
One of the coolest discoveries in the cave was in 1939 when the bones of a Pleistocene (think around the time of the last Ice Ages) jaguar were found, along with its footprints, in one of the deeper cave rooms. The thought is that the animal fell down into the cave and was unable to escape. The skull and some of the bones are on display at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC but replicas and plaster casts of the footprints can be seen in a display case by the entrance tunnel.
What To Expect
The Regular Tour
When you turn off Highway 68 to the entrance of The Lost Sea, the entrance drive takes you by several parking areas and a collection of buildings to your left and one building to your right. Park as close as you can to the building on the right which is the ticket office and entrance to the caves. You can buy your tickets online ahead of time but you must still check- in at the ticket desk and be assigned to the next available tour.
The Regular Tour lasts about an hour and 15 min and you need to be fairly mobile to participate. The tour covers 3/4 of a mile and you descend 140 ft down to the lake (and more importantly, 140 ft back up to the surface). The walkway is wide and steeply sloped in sections but there are decent handrails to use.
The cave rooms are very large so claustrophobia shouldn’t be much of an issue on the regular tour unless you can’t stand the idea of being underground at all.
Along the way to and from the lake you will see stalactites, stalagmites, anthodites (rare crystalline formations), an old moonshine still, Civil War graffiti, and a waterfall. You will also experience total darkness for about a minute when they turn off the lights, which is a highlight for everyone.
The boat ride lasts about 15 min and each large, flat- bottomed boat holds 15-20 people easily. You wont’t have any problem with motion sickness as the water is completely calm, leaving you feeling more like you are gliding rather than motoring across the water.
The large, white trout were added to the lake in the 60’s and 70’s in the hopes that they would find their way out, be caught, and the tags would be reported back so they would know where the outlets might be. Turns out, though, that trout don’t like to swim in the dark so they would not leave the lit sections of the lake and we still don’t know where the water goes exactly. The trout, however, are fat and happy. They are frequently fed and fishing isn’t allowed so they will come right up to the boat. You can watch them swim underneath the boat as well, through the glass panels in the bottom.
Check out the website for more information and pictures about the Regular Tour.
The Wild Cave Tour
This extended tour of the caves can be done as a daytime trip or an overnight camping excursion. In addition to the regular tour, you will get to explore additional, harder-to-access cave rooms, such as where the jaguar bones were found. Plus you get to crawl through crevices and holes, so it is much more of an authentic spelunking experience.
You will get muddy and a little banged up on this tour, but reviews are very positive if you have a high tolerance for dirt, port-a potties, and tight spaces. Many of the kids I grew up with, including my siblings, did the overnight tour with the Scouts or a church group and all of them still refer to it as an awesome experience years later. Certainly, it is a one-of-kind campsite.
Call for more details or peruse the website to see pictures from the Wild Tour.
Open everyday except Christmas and Thanksgiving
Winter (Nov-Feb): 9am -5 pm
Spring (Mar & April) and Fall (Sept & Oct): 9am- 6pm
Summer (May-Aug): 9am- 7pm (8pm in July)
Regular Tour: Adults $20.95/ Kids 4-12 $11.95/ Under 3 are free
Wild Cave Tour: Daytime $31/ Overnight $38 (same price for all ages)
Tips are encouraged for the guides, so you might want to bring along a few extra bucks.
The Lost Sea Adventure is in Sweetwater, Tennessee, about an hour southwest of Knoxville or 1 hr 15 min northeast of Chattanooga. It is just 7.3 miles from Interstate 75, directly off of Highway 68.
Take exit 60 from I 75, following the sign for Highway 68/ Sweetwater. Go east on Highway 68, through a collection of strip malls and fast food outlets. Once you cross Highway 11, though, you get to more picturesque farmland and rolling hills.
Look for the sign for The Lost Sea Adventure on your left about 5 miles after you cross Highway 11. It will take you about 10 min total from Interstate 75 to get to The Lost Sea.
Tips For the Tour
Wear sturdy shoes with good traction. The pathways are packed dirt and due to the high humidity in the cave, they are always slightly slick. We did not have anyone slip and fall but it could have easily happened several times. Use the handrails if needed.
It is a constant 58 degrees in the caves, so I would wear long pants or bring a light jacket. The high humidity keeps it a warm 58 though.
Use the bathrooms right next to the ticket desk before your tour. It will be your last chance until the tour is over.
Be sure to check out the Pleistocene jaguar skull and footprints as well as the largest trout ever caught in the lake. Both are preserved in cases near the ticket desk.
What Else To Do At The Lost Sea
Besides the tours, you will also find a gift shop, sweet shop with ice cream, a glass blowing place, a cafe, a general store, gem mining, and a nature trail. Everything except the gift shop is located in the little collection of buildings, the Lost Sea Village, across the street from the main building where the ticket desk and cave entrance are located. The gift shop is adjacent to the ticket desk in the main building.
The cafe serves sandwiches and pit BBQ and has a covered picnic area attached. We brought our own picnic lunches and enjoyed them at these picnic tables. The glassblower has lots and lots of pretty little ornaments that all looked incredibly breakable so we did not venture in with the kids. The Nature Trail is just a 1/3 mile long and I wouldn’t get overly excited about it but it is good for a quick stretch of the legs.
A few things were closed because we were there early on a weekday in November. The General Store and Sweet Shop looked nice, and I can see them being popular places to visit in the summer. The gem mining was also nifty looking and looked to be a fun activity to keep the kids occupied while the parents sit the nearby picnic tables.
Things To Do Nearby
10 min from The Lost Sea Adventure
Sweetwater is working hard to redevelop its Main Street and has several picturesque blocks that are fun to stroll around. You’ll find several antique shops, a gift store, clothing boutiques, and an old train car from the “Pelican Line” that ran through town, taking travelers from NYC to New Orleans. If you are hungry, try Vittorino’s Cucina, Hunter’s Bakery and Cafe, Sweet Station Bake Shop, or Cup Runneth Over Coffeehouse.
Downtown Sweetwater is just 10 min from The Lost Sea Adventure. Turn right on Highway 68, go back to Highway 11 and turn right again. From here it is just a mile until you come to downtown Sweetwater. (See the map above showing the location of the Lost Sea.) You will see the gazebo and train car on your right as you come into downtown on Highway 11/ Main Street. There is plenty of public parking there.
If you need a playground break, the Sweetwater Recreation Park is just a half mile away from Main Street. You can drive there or you can take the greenway along Sweetwater Creek. There are 2 playgrounds: a big new blue one next to the soccer fields and a second one with a climbing net and swings next to the walking track.
30 min from The Lost Sea Adventure
A national scenic byway, the 40+ miles of the Cherohala Skyway takes you from Tellico Plains, TN to Robbinsville, NC and to some million dollar views along the way. Simply turn left from the Lost Sea onto Highway 68 and follow it for 17 miles until you turn left onto Highway 165, following the signs for Tellico Plains, Cherohala Skyway, and Indian Boundary.
Start in Tellico Plains with some goodies from the ever excellent Tellico Grains Bakery (the sandwiches, the coffee, the loaves of bread—it’s all amazing).
Detour out to the gorgeous Bald River Falls first for some Instagram-worthy shots before getting on the the Skyway. Be sure to stop at Huckleberry Knob, a 1.25 mile hike to a gorgeous bald with 360 views of the Smokies.
The official website for the Skyway has more information and maps.
Sweetwater Valley Farm
20 min from The Lost Sea Adventure
If you love delicious cheese and lots of it, then this will be your happy place. Sweetwater Valley Farm is a huge dairy farm that makes a stunning variety of cheeses on site so you can tour the farm, learn about cheese, and sample to your heart’s content. Then buy a bunch to take home with you. You could spend 30 min or 2 hours here, depending on your devotion to all things cheese. The gouda and fiesta cheddar are personal favorites but I would eat any of them.
To get to Sweetwater Valley Farms, turn right on highway 6 from The Lost Sea. Then turn right on highway 11, heading towards downtown Sweetwater. Stay on highway 11 for 8 miles until you see the big white, brick entrance to the farm.
*** Unfortunately, there are no farm tours until 2019 as they are currently building a large robotic milking barn. But I look forward to touring it once it is completed. The shop is still open in the meantime though; M-F 830am- 6pm, Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 1pm- 5pm.