Ruby Falls is one of a number of cave tours you can go on in Tennessee near Chattanooga. As indicated by the name, “Ruby Falls” is the highlight of the tour and not the cave. As far as sights in the cave go, Ruby Falls rates pretty low as a cave tour. The features in the cave rank above Wind Cave and Jewel Cave, both in the national park system out in South Dakota but don’t hold a candle to the cave tours along Skyline Drive near Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. The sole highlight of the Ruby Falls tour is Ruby Falls.
When you drive up to Ruby Falls there is a large parking lot that can hold hundreds of cars. In the summer, this is a HUGE attraction and tour groups (according to the guides) can have as many as FOURTY FIVE people going through the cave on ONE tour. That is a ridiculous number of people to have on one cave tour in almost any cave, particularly like the one at Ruby Falls. A ticket for the Ruby Falls cost $16.95 plus tax. (If you buy it online there is no tax charged). You can also get an annual pass for $30.95. If you think you will go on the Ruby Falls tour more than once then the annual pass is the way to go!
When a tour group is ready to depart an announcement will be made (they typically depart every 20 minutes of so) and you will need to walk over by the elevator that will drop you down 220 feet into the cave through what is mostly solid limestone. If the group is 12 people or less, chances are everyone will fit on one elevator. If the group is larger it may be necessary for the group to be split into two elevator rides down. Once you get down to the bottom of the elevator you will walk a little way into the cave and get the usual cave speech about not touching the cave features and watch a video about the history of the cave on two big-screen TVs.
Once the video is finished you will proceed into the cave. The first cave feature you will come to is a stalagmite almost in the path along which you will be walking. It is here that you get the “don’t touch the cave features” speech as the guide explains that the oil from your hands will “kill” live formations in the cave. This feature you can touch because it is already dead but it is the last one you are supposed to touch in the cave. You can tell it has been well handled over the years because of the waxy appearance it has.
The next sight or set of sights along the tour includes the “Crystal Chandelier” and the “Totem Pole”. The Totem Pole is a small to medium sized stalagmite and has a few other stalagmites around it. They are isolated in a group but nowhere near as impressive as what you will find in the caverns throughout Virginia. Hanging down from the ceiling is the Crystal Chandelier. A number of years ago someone broke off a lot of the Crystal Chandelier so the Crystal Chandelier used to be a lot more impressive than it is today.
Another feature along the path is the “Donkey”. It is nestled among a number of cave features and takes a little creative imagination to see it as a donkey. Like the “Totem Pole” it is a relatively small formation compared to those found in the caverns in Virginia along Skyline Drive. As you continue on you will come to the “Leaning Tower”, a column (when stalagmites and stalactites come together). It’s a cool looking formation and impressive if you haven’t been on many cave tours but it doesn’t compare to what you will see in the caverns of Virginia.
Other formations you will encounter include “Angel’s Wing”, a drapery formation. Such formations look like draperies. Like the other formations in this cave, “Angel’s Wing” is relatively small and not that impressive if you have been through many other caves in Virginia or elsewhere. The “Tobacco Leaves” are another drapery formation that look a little bit like tobacco leaves. They are also small drapery formations.
You will see formations that look like and are labeled “fish”. Another one along the way is the “Elephants Foot”. A combination of a few different colored lights and some small stalactite formations combine to create a “Western Sunset”. Like most other caves in the southern US there is a mirror lake of sorts. It seems every cave creates a mirror lake type display where a lake or small stream reflects features above in the water. Colored lights enhance the view. This one is not very impressive in person and it is even harder to make it look impressive when taking a photo.
After you’ve walked about half a mile you’ll come to the cavern where Ruby Falls is located. When you get close to the falls you’ll be able to hear the falls in the darkness ahead of you. You’ll take a few steps toward the falls and then turn around. When you turn around the cavern behind you will be lit up. That will be your first really good photo opportunity aside from the cave formations along the way. A wide-angle lens will come in handy but a 35mm lens will work ok too.
Soon, instead of just hearing the falls the lights will come on and you will be able to see the falls all lit up in front of you. Whether you liked the cave tour or not, the views of Ruby Falls will be worth the price of admission! The falls is HUGE for an underground waterfall and you’ve probably never seen anything like it in your life before! The falls by itself with just white light in the area would be an impressive sight but the combination of rainbow colored lights that shine up into the waterfalls makes for absolutely stunning photos and views. A wide-angle lens will come in handy here as well.
Once you’ve seen the falls (and the tour group only gets 7 minutes to see the falls), you will more or less retrace your steps and head back to the elevator. The entire tour will take about an hour or so but the highlight will definitely be the views of Ruby Falls at the end of the tour. After you walk back to the elevator you will take it up to the top where the gift shop is located. There is an outside patio where you can grab a bite to eat and take in some nice views.
In order to leave you will have to walk through the gift shop and endure getting solicited for a picture the staff takes of you in the cave (not even in front of the falls) for which they want something like $25.00. The gift shop has the usual assortment of hats, t-shirts and related items as well as rocks and crystals for purchase. When you work your way through that and go back down to the main entrance there is another gift shop and a snack bar where you can spend more money if you want.
Overall, the views of Ruby Falls make the tour well worth it. If you’ve never been in a cave before then the cave tour part of the excursion will be of interest. If you’ve been in caves in Virginia or elsewhere with impressive formations then you’ll just have to endure an hour or so in the cave in order to see and photograph the falls. One nice thing about the features in the cave is that they are labeled. When you look back at your photos, it will be much easier to remember what the features are you took photos of!