Ruby Falls, Tennessee

If you’ve ever been within a hundred miles of Chattanooga, Tenn., chances are you’ve seen billboards for Ruby Falls. The signs are big and obvious and might lead you to think it’s a tourist trap, but you’d be wrong. Although it is definitely a commercial operation, Ruby Falls is well worth a visit. It is a tightly-run facility that makes good on its claims of spectacular rock formations and a breathtaking waterfall.

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Until the early 1900s, local children played in a cave beneath Lookout Mountain. Eventually it was sealed off during construction of a railroad tunnel. A man named Leo Lambert set out to dig an elevator shaft and reopen it to the public, but in the process he stumbled upon a previously unknown cave, which ended up stealing the show. These limestone passageways contain countless beautiful rock formations. The owners have installed solar-powered electricity and colored lights that highlight the artistry of nature. And all that is before you reach Ruby Falls itself—a 145-foot cascade of water emerging from a crevasse at the top of a cylindrical cavern, a thousand feet below the surface of the mountain. It’s hard to describe the place itself except to say this: it’s worth the wait.

Wait Times at Ruby Falls:

Ruby Falls lives up to its hype, but this means there’s always a crowd. Our tour guide told us that most days, lines form by 8:15 a.m. At any given time there will be multiple tour groups navigating the relatively narrow passageways. The staff does a good job of keeping thing moving, but the sheer number of people trying to coexist in an enclosed space means that inbound tour groups have to hug the wall and wait for outbound groups to pass.

One piece of advice: Because the tour groups are large and get spread out, it’s natural to feel pressured to hurry through the cave. Don’t. There is a lot to see between one tour stop and the next. Give yourself permission to go slow, take pictures, and appreciate the natural beauty of the rock formations. Yes, you are going to hold up the line. But you’re likely to end up waiting anyway. Don’t cheat yourself of the experience.

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Location/Accessibility:

Ruby Falls is accessible by car from TN 148, very close to I-24 in Chattanooga, TN. Parking lots, both paved and gravel, stretch around the mountain. The day we visited, three people were coordinating traffic via walkie talkie.

Access to the cave is by elevator, but the cave is not wheelchair/stroller accessible. Although the path is paved, it’s not wide enough, and just before the waterfall there are a handful of low steps to navigate.

Most of the cave is dry, but with a running stream inside it, the floor does sometimes get wet. Passages are high enough to walk in, but tall individuals will occasionally have to duck down, and there is not a lot of ventilation, so it can feel stuffy in the passageways. The waterfall room, however, is cool, breezy and expansive.

Food/Shopping:

Ruby Falls has a sandwich/snack counter inside the building. The day we visited was cold, and they were doing a steady business in candied nuts, which were delicious. Visitors can also bring their own food and drink. There are two gift shops on site as well.

ruby-falls

Admission/Hours:

The cave tour generally takes a little over an hour, but plan to spend three hours at Ruby Falls; the line moves fairly quickly, but it’s a long line. According to our tour guide, the best way to avoid the crowds is to come between January and March. Otherwise, there will be wait times both before entry and in the cave to allow outbound tours to pass.

After your tour, you’ll also want to give yourself time to climb the lookout tower and let the kids explore the playground outside the upper gift shop. In the summertime, you can pan for jewels here, too. There’s also a zipline adventure course on-site, and package deals are available to combine a cave tour with the zipline and/or the nearby Incline Railway and Rock City attractions.

Ruby Falls is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily except for Christmas Day, or when heavy rains cause flooding in the cave. Admission costs $18.95 for adults and $10.95 for children ages 3-12.

As I disclose whenever applicable, our visit to Ruby Falls was complimentary, for the purpose of review. All opinions remain my own.

About the author

Kathleen Basi Freelance writer Kathleen Basi has lived her entire life in "flyover country," but she's an old pro at road trips, having taken the first of many extended driving vacations at the tender age of five. She's a huge proponent of letting kids see and experience the space between "here" and "there." Find her at http://kathleenbasi.com/blog/.

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