By Meghan E. Gattignolo
Once upon a time, Dunbar Cave was an exciting party hub on Clarksville’s hot summer nights. Though now past its heyday for dances and concerts, the cave is still a Clarksville gem. In 2005, researchers discovered something special on the cave walls. In the same chamber where people once gathered for parties and dances, they found 800-year-old cave drawings, left behind by the Mississippians. Dunbar Cave State Park is a rare location where tourists can get relatively close to ancient cave art. The only way to get a good look at the art yourself is to join a cave tour. Follow these steps to enjoy a tour before the season ends!
Know your tour
First, you need to know which tour you want to experience. Dunbar Cave’s tours have changed a little over the years, so it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into before you go. Three different tours inside the cave are being offered right now.
Enter the Underworld is the cave tour, especially if you’re curious about the cave art. It’s also the only tour offered every day. This tour discusses the art at length and gives a broader history of the cave. The duration is roughly an hour and it takes you about a quarter of a mile inside the cave. Except for the four-foot ceiling clearance on the way to the last room on the tour, where the average adult does have to duck for about 20 feet, this tour is easy for most people. Ages five years old and up can handle this one.
Unknown Realms is double the time and price, but you get to hear amusing stories about Dunbar’s past as a tourist attraction. The guide tells you all the myths and legends Dunbar Cave became known for, as well as more recent history of the cave. This tour involves about a mile of walking on slippery steps and some crouching. Everyone eight years old and up are welcome on this tour. Unknown Realms is only available on Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm, so plan accordingly.
The newest cave adventure is Spray Hall, the chamber furthest into the cave anyone can safely reach. Because of its location, this part of the cave is one of the least traveled in more recent years, but past famous figures have made their mark on the walls along the way. Lots of tight turns and climbing in muddy conditions are involved to reach the coveted Spray Hall, so this is not the tour for the faint of heart. Ages eight and up are welcome, and it’s only available on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm.
People love spontaneous fun, but expecting to jump on a cave tour at a state park inside the city limits of Tennessee’s fifth largest and third fastest growing city on a warm summer Saturday isn’t going to work out the way you think it will. Cave tours generally sell out well before the day of, and weekend tours often sell out several days in advance. To register for a time slot, you can do so online here, or call the Dunbar Cave Visitor Center at 931-648-5526 between 8am and 4:30pm any day of the week.
Dunbar Cave has a few rules.
One rule is no photography inside the cave. The Eastern Band of Cherokee advise the staff of Dunbar Cave State Park annually and educate them on Indigenous beliefs. One thing the Cherokee have requested of the park is to not allow photography inside the cave. The presence of the Mississippian art makes the cave a sacred site for the Cherokee and other Indigenous cultures. For this reason, you’ll be asked to keep your phone in your pocket once you enter. Don’t worry, you can’t get any reception inside the cave anyway.
Make sure you and everyone in your party shows up to a cave tour with a flashlight. The cave no longer has any form of permanent artificial lighting because after years of damaging activities, Dunbar Cave is now being preserved in its natural state as much as possible – so that means it’s dark.
Finally, remember to dress functionally: closed-toe shoes are highly recommended, as are hoodies or a long-sleeved jacket. The cave is a constant 56 degrees year-round, so the moist cave air can be a bit chilly for some.
Now that you know what to expect, make sure you reserve your tour while you still can in 2023! Tours only run through September, and then the cave will be closed again until next May (though the state park itself is open year-round). Weather conditions and bat conservation prevent accessibility in the fall and winter. Also, don’t forget to check out the latest issue of Second & Commerce to learn even more about Dunbar Cave State Park.
Postcards courtesy of Billyfrank Morrison
Historic photos courtesy of Dunbar Cave State Park
Meghan E. Gattignolo is a freelance writer and longtime Clarksville, TN resident. She loves to obsess about historical subjects and annoy her family daily with unsolicited random facts. Meghan holds a History B.A. from Austin Peay State University and lives in town with her husband and two daughters.