Ruby Falls at Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, TN, is about an hour and a half drive from the Ocoee River in Ducktown, Tennessee. It’s an amazing side-attraction to add to your vacation plans after a trip down the Ocoee River with Carolina Ocoee white water rafting. The best time to see Ruby Falls is in late winter or spring when East Tennessee gets more rain and runoff to feed the water flow. Summers tend to be hot and dry in the area. Or, you could go on a rainy day! What better activity than to explore a cave that leads to an underground waterfall on a rainy day?
Ruby Falls Discovery
It’s been said that some people don’t believe that Ruby Falls is a real place or they believe it was manmade. Documented history says otherwise. In 1928 Leo Lambert, looking for another way into the Lookout Mountain Caverns in Chattanooga, Tennessee, discovered an underground waterfall. He was gone for 17 hours. When he emerged from the cave covered in mud, his wife, Ruby, reportedly whacked him with a broom and told him to never do that again.
Mr. Lambert crawled through an 18” high crevice in the cave and fell into a small pond fed by a tall waterfall 1,120 feet below Lookout Mountain. Three days later, his wife followed him into the cave to see the underground waterfall known today as Ruby Falls. A tourist attraction was born when Mr. Lambert opened the falls to the public in 1929. Today hundreds of thousands of people journey to Chattanooga to visit Ruby Falls–the deepest underground waterfall in the United States.
The History of Ruby Falls
Around 200 to 240 million years ago a shallow sea in Tennessee formed limestone caverns when North American and African plates collided. The collision lasted for thousands of years and could be felt all the way to what is now known as Chattanooga, Tennessee. Due to the plates colliding, the area was hit by earthquakes which formed mountains and crevices and the beginning of the Lookout Mountain Caverns. Ruby Falls is one of those limestone caves. This vertical cave is fed by natural springs and rainwater that spill into the cavern as a 145 foot waterfall. This water drops into a pool then continues to flow into the cave system and makes its way out to the Little Tennessee River. Acidic groundwater and chemical weathering create interesting formations throughout the cave such as: stalactites, stalagmites, and drapery. The Ruby Falls caverns are above the Lookout Mountain caverns but don’t connect to each other since the elevator shaft going down into the lower caves was sealed off in 1935. Jaguar bones, along with a variety of animal skeletons, have been discovered in the Lookout Mountain Caverns that date back to the last ice age.
On November 24, 1863 the Battle Above the Clouds was fought between Confederate and Union Soldiers on Lookout Mountain. Union soldiers drove the Confederates back to Georgia, and this battle ultimately set the groundwork for the fall of the South.
Lookout Mountain became a haven from the yellow fever epidemic that hit Chattanooga in 1878. By the 1900s tourists flocked to Lookout Mountain for the panoramic views, the mountain’s history, and Rock City (a collection of beautiful rock formations, and the birthplace of miniature golf known as “Tom Thumb” back then, all created by Garnet & Freda Carter). Later, tours to Ruby Falls opened up another attraction for people eager to experience something awe-inspiring.
Rumor has it that you can view 7 states from the summit of Lookout Mountain: Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. However, there has been no scientific proof or investigation into this claim.
In 1905 railway construction through Lookout Mountain caused the natural entrance to the cave system to be closed. Later, in the 1920s, Leo Lambert, who loved exploring the caverns, purchased the land above Lookout Mountain and drilled another way in, hoping to open a tourist attraction. Drilling down 260 Feet, the jackhammer hit open space with a great gush of air. After an exploration, Mr. Lambert found the 145 foot waterfall which he named in honor of his wife Ruby Eugenia Losey.
American Indians used the Lookout Mountain caves as a campsite. Outlaws and Moonshiners also used the caves as a hideout. In addition, it was once used as a Civil War hospital and rumors indicate that Andrew Jackson graffitied his signature onto a wall of the cave, although there is no proof of this.
Ruby Falls Tour
There are several ways to explore Ruby Falls and the Lantern Tour will give you the most authentic experience exploring a cave within a safer environment–no lights or light shows. The one mile round trip is lit only by the lanterns you carry (the tour guide has backup lighting such as a headlamp and flashlights). At one point, you’ll get to experience total darkness when the tour guide tells you to shut off your lantern for a count of 5. It’s an eerie feeling to stand in total blackness. If you want a pretty light show, go during the day. The lantern tour is after 9:00 p.m. and the tour takes anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half. The Lantern tours are made up of smaller groups than the day tours, making the experience even better. So, if you’re not big on crowds, the Lantern Tour is perfect for you.
You’ll board an elevator and go down 260 feet into the cave. You can see the cave walls through the glass doors as you descend. The trek to the waterfalls is a pretty easy hike with slippery spots and stairs in some places. Along the way, the tour guide points out cave formations such as Elephant’s Foot, Dragon’s Foot, Bacon & Potato Chips, and more. He points out where the water flows throughout the cave and that sometimes the caves flood. He tells us not to touch the stalagmites because the oils from our fingers will stop their growth–also not to drink the mineral rich water from the reflecting pool unless we want to spend the rest of the night in the bathroom.
The tour guide tells interesting stories about the area throughout the walk. One such story didn’t really have much to do with Ruby Falls other than baseball great Babe Ruth made it a point to visit Lookout Mountain. The tour guide tells of a baseball game where 17-year-old Jackie Mitchell struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig (two of the best hitters in baseball history) during a New York Yankees game on April 2, 1931. What’s so special about Jackie Mitchell? She was a woman and she lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Now that you’ve learned a little history about Lookout Mountain and Ruby Falls, book a tour with them, but hurry, tickets sell out quickly. Go on a white water adventure with Carolina Ocoee (Book Now) in the morning, and then head to Chattanooga to do the Ruby Falls Lantern Tour. Sounds like an awesome day of fun to us!
An interesting article about Lookout Mountain by Jerry Summers: Lookout Mountain’s Other Well-Known Cave.
Carolina Ocoee wants you to have a safe experience. Never explore a cave unless you have a professional caver with you. Always take three sources of light (headlamp, lantern, and flashlight; maybe even a lighter). Research and be prepared. Trust us, you don’t want to be lost in a cave when your batteries die and the lights go out.