Travel Log – Fall in Love with Ruby Falls

(Chattanooga, Tennessee; August 8, 2022) – The mystique of waterfalls captured the human imagination so thoroughly that these roaring cataracts have flowed into the depths of human mythology.

Iceland’s Haifoss (‘high waterfall’) near the volcano Hekla was said to be the home of an ogress.  This great being, offended when a boy absently threw a stone into the water, sought to drag him to the depths that night.  His friends, awakened by the struggle, intervened, pulling him to safety in the end.  Afqa Falls in Lebanon is believed to be the place where the goddess Aphrodite fell in love with the handsome youth Adonis…or else is the site where she and he met for the final time.

Ruby Falls is not the site of some great myth, but it is the centerpiece of a true-life American romance that itself would seem mythical if it weren’t as real as the falls hidden deep inside Lookout Mountain.

Ruby Falls is the tallest underground waterfall open to the public in the United States. Falling more than 145 feet inside the limestone interior of Lookout Mountain, the falls are 1,120 feet below the surface of the mountain. Discovered in 1928 by Leo Lambert and named for his wife, Ruby, the falls are reached by descending a 260-foot shaft in a glass-fronted elevator before walking through half a mile of caverns. Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Nathanael Miller, 02 August 2022)

Chattanooga’s Lookout Mountain is a piece of ancient seabed uplifted and exposed by erosion.  Formed nearly 700,000 years ago, Lookout Mountain is most famous in American history as the site of one of the November 1863 Battles of Chattanooga.  During these engagements, Union General U.S. Grant broke the Confederate siege of Chattanooga, opening a major gateway to the heart of the Confederacy.

Lookout Mountain was known for a cave, but the needs of the railroads prevented this opening from being developed.  Enter Leo Lambert in 1928, explorer, dreamer, and hopeless romantic.

Lambert moved to the Chattanooga area to follow his sweetheart, Ruby.  The two were finally married in 1916.  Lambert, a chemist and avid cave enthusiast, was convinced the caves and formations deep inside Lookout Mountain could be opened to the public.  He scraped together the necessary backing, forming the Lookout Mountain Cave Company and buying the land over Lookout Cave.  Intending to dig a shaft for an elevator (yep, he was thinking of an elevator!), the team began digging in 1928.

Two hundred feet down they stumbled on a small, natural shaft (‘small’ as in barely 18 inches high).  Lambert and his crew began exploring this shaft.  Many, many dusty, cramped, and dark hours later they discovered a hidden waterfall that Lambert immediately named in honor of his beloved wife, Ruby.

Lambert’s vision wasn’t just of opening the cave to the public, but doing so in a way that protected the treasures within—and all done in style.  The 15th-century-looking castle that welcomes visitors was built with limestone quarried from the work enlarging the underground passages.  The elevator allowed visitors easy access to the original Lookout Mountain Cave and the passages to the falls while also enabling Lambert to prevent the caverns from being overrun.  The site opened to the public in 1929, but, sadly, Lambert’s company was bankrupted by the Great Depression.  The site was sold to new owners who took to heart Lambert’s dream of welcoming visitors to this natural wonder while also preserving it for future generations.

Cactus and Candle formations. Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Nathanael Miller, 02 August 2022)

Ruby Falls is one of the tallest (perhaps the tallest) underground waterfalls open to the public in the United States.  The water cascades 145 feet down into a pool inside a massive limestone cavern.  The place is cathedral-like in its size and shape.  The falls are 1,120 feet beneath the mountain’s surface.  Lookout Mountain itself rises 1,532 feet above the surrounding landscape, meaning the falls themselves are actually 412 feet above the base of the mountain!

The caverns were opened by tectonic stresses, which also allowed the flow of water to begin within Lookout Mountain.  Water, so soft and gentle and clear when we gaze upon it in a quiet stream, is one of the most powerful forces on earth.  Even gentle, burbling books will cut through rock when given time, and the grand caverns and caves in Lookout Mountain are largely the result of the subterranean river that feeds Ruby Falls.  The water fueling this wonder eventually flows into the Tennessee River.

Ruby Falls offers several different experiences, from zip-lines above ground to the magnificent falls themselves.  Tour groups underground are usually around 25 people, enabling one guide to easily explain the history of the falls and talk about the formations visitors will see.  Caution must be practiced, however.  This is a cave.  The floor is often uneven, some passages are narrow and can only accommodate one person at a time, and the roof is often low.  If you’re over about 5’6” in height, you’ll need to watch your head much of the time.

The basic tour is about a mile round-trip from the elevator to the falls and back.  Along the way, you’ll see large formations like the Cactus and Candle, and the Leaning Tower.  You’ll also be amused by smaller formations like the Steak and Potatoes…which look very much like their name suggests!  However, these are living caves, meaning the flow and drip of water is still very much at work.  The caves are growing, changing, and evolving.  Today’s small Steak and Potatoes might well become towering crystalline columns dozens of feet high in a few million years (give or take a thousand years or so).

The Steak and Potatoes. Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Nathanael Miller, 02 August 2022)

There are several places where it is safe to put a hand or lean to rest, but please refrain from touching the formations themselves.  The temptation to get ‘just a quick feel’ can be strong, but human interaction erodes these formations far quicker than one might think.  Ruby Falls sees around 400,000 visitors every year.  The skin oils and abrasive effects of all those people touching the formations (even for ‘just a quick feel’) will destroy them in short order.

Parking is free, but it is located across the street from the facility.  Remain alert because there is a lot of traffic in the area during the summer tourist season (to be expected since Lookout Mountain hosts numerous other attractions besides Ruby Falls and the Civil War sites).  Still, guests are not left to brave the crosswalk alone.  Ruby Falls proactively maintains crossing guards to stop traffic when guests are heading to and from the parking lot, so visitor safety is clearly a priority.

The view north from Ruby Falls’ castle tower. Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Nathanael Miller, 02 August 2022)

While the view from Point Park on the mountain’s summit (site of one of the Civil War battles in 1863) is truly unparalleled (you can see seven states on a good day), the view from atop Ruby Falls’ castle is not to be missed either.  Your admission price for touring the falls also gains you access to the castle’s tower, so head up for a wonderful panorama east over Tennessee and Georgia.  The shortest of the walking tours will require about an hour-and-a-half of time, so Ruby Falls can easily be only one part of a full day without feeling rushed whatsoever.

Leo Lambert died in 1950, and Ruby passed away in 1951.  They’d been married 34 years; the centerpiece of an American romance now etched into the very fabric of Lookout Mountain.  Their legacy is one of the great natural wonders of North America, a gorgeous natural geologic treasure hidden under humanity’s feet for eons.  Take the time to stop by; a visit to this magnificent site is almost guaranteed to make you fall in love with Ruby Falls!

Check out my video on this subject at: https://youtu.be/9LqKOfDCw2w

-Visit Ruby Falls’ website at: https://www.rubyfalls.com/

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

Instagram:      @sparks1524

Flickr:             https://www.flickr.com/photos/sparks_photography/

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