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Ruby Falls.
Bathed in the glow of subterranean LEDs, tourists digitally capture some Ruby Falls magic.

Ruby Falls

Field review by the editors.

Chattanooga, Tennessee

Ruby Falls is one of America's most visited show caves -- so confident of its brand awareness that it doesn't even use the word "cave" in its name.

145 feet high, 1,120 feet beneath the surface.
Ruby Falls: 145 feet high, 1,120 feet beneath the surface. "The deepest commercial waterfall in the United States."

In its early years the attraction advertised itself on painted barn roofs ("See Ruby Falls") along every well-traveled highway in the South. Today, Ruby Falls has invested its millions of tourist dollars in technology: the cave has illuminated formation signs ("Dragon's Foot," "Crystal Chandelier"), an entire unnatural rainbow of brilliant LEDs -- making snapshots easy -- flat screen cave video, and a sound system with subwoofers. It even activated "Smart Cave" Hot Spots so that visitors can share their breathless observations with the above-ground world in real time.

The odds of that actually happening, however, are slim. There's only one, single-file passage to the Falls, dynamited through solid rock, so every tour group has to move at a precise pace to avoid being overtaken by the group behind or running into the one ahead. The guides have their timing down, and it's brisk. There's no pause even for the traditional tourist cave "moment of total darkness" in Ruby Falls, and it would probably be difficult anyway to totally darken a cave lit with hundred of lights.

Despite having been an attraction for what seems like forever, Ruby Falls is one of America's youngest show caves. It was discovered accidentally on December 28, 1928, by Leo Lambert, who was blasting an elevator shaft to get to another cave that he hoped to open as an attraction. After crawling into the unexpected hole in the side of the elevator shaft, Leo emerged with tales of impressive formations and a 145-foot-high waterfall -- which he named for his wife -- completely sealed from the outside world (The only creatures who've ever been inside the Ruby Falls cave are modern humans). Leo, immortalized on the attraction's bronze entry plaque, states that, "Discovering Ruby Falls was like discovering God."

The underground trail to the waterfall was blasted through solid rock.
The underground trail to the waterfall was blasted through solid rock.

Helpful signs enhance nature's handiwork.
Helpful signs enhance nature's handiwork.

It was a wrathful god at first. Ruby Falls opened on June 6, 1930, with the country in the grip of the Great Depression. The company that funded its development, including the elevator ("longest elevator ride south of the Mason-Dixon line") and the Caverns Castle ("most beautiful cave entrance in the world") went bankrupt in 1932. Many of the natural limestone formations first seen by Leo were broken off and sold by the attraction's own tour guides, desperate for cash.

But the dark past has no place in today's Technicolor-hued Ruby Falls, as efficient and slick an operation as it's possible to have in a subterranean earth crack. To get to the Caverns Castle entrance you have to switchback your way halfway up Lookout Mountain, but the allure of seeing "the deepest commercial waterfall in the United States" is such that our tour group included people from Alberta, New York City, and South Korea.

What Niagara Falls would look like if they were frozen in front of a cavern of lava.
What Niagara Falls would look like if they were frozen in front of a cavern of lava.

Once down the elevator and inside the cave, you're on your way. Our tour guide, Martin, had the voice and no-nonsense approach of a boot camp drill sergeant ("Single file, now. Single file!"), and despite Ruby Falls' embrace of modern tech, its tour is still peppered with old-fashioned terrible show cave jokes. Martin told our group not to smoke the Tobacco Leaves cave drapery "because if you do, you'll get stoned!" The Steak and Potatoes formation "came from the Hard Rock Cafe;" the little cave Turtle stalagmite was "a whole lot worser than scared; she's petrified!"

Lookin' tasty!
Lookin' tasty!

Martin pointed his flashlight at a rock jutting down from the low ceiling ahead. "We call that The Rock of Many Names," he said. "Make sure you watch your head and watch your mouth."

All of this, of course, was just a warm-up act for the main attraction at the end of the underground trail: the 145-foot-high waterfall. Martin said we were standing 1,120 feet beneath the earth's surface, "as far underground right now as the Empire State Building is tall," and that Ruby Falls spills between 300 and 400 gallons of water into the cave every minute, and that in nearly 100 years it has never run dry. "Don't drink the water," Martin cautioned. "It's full of magnesium, the number one active ingredient in laxatives." One wonders if Leo Lambert and other early Ruby Falls visitors learned that the hard way.

The Caverns Castle was built with the rocks excavated from the tunnel to Ruby Falls.
The Caverns Castle was built with the rocks excavated from the elevator shaft to Ruby Falls.

Martin barked, "Prepare to be amazed!" and fired up the Ruby Falls sound and light show. For the next six minutes a battery of high-intensity LEDs bathed the falls and its surrounding cavern in otherworldly reds, purples, pinks, greens, yellows, teal, and fuchsia, sequencing the color shifts to dramatic synth sound-washes, tympani drums, and cymbals. You can barely hear the sound of the splashing water under the music. Nature by itself is cool -- don't get us wrong -- but Ruby Falls is nature engineered for maximum audio-visual spectacle. It's what Leo Lambert probably had in his head when he first saw the waterfall.

Leo and Ruby never got to experience any of this -- they both died relatively young -- and while 21st century showmanship may not bring Ruby Falls any closer to God, you have to think that the Lamberts would have appreciated the effort.

Ruby Falls

Ruby Falls

1720 S. Scenic Hwy, Chattanooga, TN
I-24 exit 175. Drive south on Browns Ferry Rd. At the first stoplight turn left onto US-64/41. Drive about one mile. Turn right at the green highway Ruby Falls sign onto Alford Hill Drive. At the stop sign turn left onto Old Wauhachie Pike. At the next stop sign turn right onto Scenic Hwy. Ruby Falls will be up the hill, on the right.
Daily 8-8. To avoid crowds, visit early or off-season. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $23.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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