Ruby Falls Secrets Revealed – Hidden History and Why You Should See Ruby Falls

Ruby Falls

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Ruby Falls Cave, one of the Southeast’s must-see attractions, lay hidden 1120’ under Lookout Mountain until Leo Lambert discovered it in 1928. He knew he found something special and immediately began to turn it into a tourist attraction. Today, it’s part tourist trap, part Chattanooga icon, and part testament to the spirit of discovery and childhood dreams.

We have been on caving expeditions deep in the Belizean rainforest and photographed attractions worldwide. We came to Ruby Fall with expectations like the lyrics of a Bond Song – “All we wanted was a sweet distraction for an hour or two.” However, we found a beautiful centerpiece attraction wrapped in many layers of fascinating stories and secrets.

The view of Chattanooga from Ruby Falls

Lookout Mountain Caverns

Ruby Falls Cave is geologically part of Lookout Mountain Cave, which is one of the longest show caves in America with 2.481 miles of mapped passage. The natural entrance to the cave sits near the Tennessee River and is, or was, a straightforward horizontal cave entrance that has been known and visited since the ice age, as evidenced by the Pliocene bones found in the cave. It was mined for saltpeter to make gunpowder and used as a makeshift hospital during the Civil War. Even POTUS Andrew Jackson visited and was so impressed that he signed the walls.

Perhaps the most significant visitor to Lookout Mountain Caverns was Leo Lambert. Leo, like many Chattanoogans of the time, loved to explore Lookout Mountain Cave. In 1905, his childhood playground was closed when the Southern Railroad Company was forced to build a tunnel through Lookout Mountain, which sealed the natural cave entrance.

Leo never gave up his dream of returning to Lookout Mountain Cave. In 1928, he found investors and started drilling an elevator shaft 420’ down to the main passage. Although this might sound like a pipe dream, the project was underway. Every day, the laborers dug deeper and deeper. They inched along digging 5’ a day until, at the 260’ mark, something remarkable happened. The jackhammers plunged into a void that led to the magnificent Ruby Falls.

See Ruby Falls

When Leo heard about the breakthrough, he immediately set out to explore it. He and his partner dropped down the dark shaft and disappeared into the unknown. The passage was only 18” high, and 5’ wide, but they were undaunted. Slowly, they crawled through the cold, wet passages. After three hours, they were able to stand up for the first time. After ten hours, they were the first living creatures to see Ruby Falls. Finally, seventeen hours later, they re-emerged from the depths excited to share their discovery of the beautiful underground world.

Who was the first person they took to the falls? Leo’s wife, Ruby Lambert, and I can only imagine how that conversation went….

“I haven’t seen you for seventeen hours. Where have you been?”

“Crawling through a 56 degree, underwater stream in 18” high passage. It was great. You need to see the waterfall at the end.”

“Sounds like fun, when can we go?”

“How about tomorrow”

Actually, I can’t imagine that conversation ever taking place, yet Ruby went down three days later to see the falls for herself. What an amazing woman. When I think of women from the twenties, I imagine flapper dresses, but this gal was hardcore. A fitting namesake for a beautiful place.

Cave formations inside of Ruby Falls

How Lookout Mountain Cave Became Ruby Falls

Leo kept digging down the remaining 160’ down to Lookout Mountain Cave and opened up a tour route there  in 1930, but the tours only lasted for five years. In 1935, the last commercial cave tours to Lookout Mountain Cave stopped. In part, because Ruby Falls is so beautiful and unique, but there was a darker reason – soot.

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Lookout Mountain Cave continued to be visited from time to time. In 1961, Thomas Barr Jr led a scientific expedition to the Lookout Mountain cave system. His team found and mapped previously undiscovered passages. They also found nearly every up facing surface fouled with soot.

The railroad tunnel pumped pollution right into Lookout Mountain Cave. Passages exist that humans can’t possibly crawl through. These micro-cracks from the railroad tunnel to Lookout Mountain Cave allowed engine smoke to enter the cavern. Barr said of the experience “exploring of the cave is unpleasant because of the necessity of wading, crawling, climbing, and becoming covered with soot.”

Delicate cave ecology and geology can’t recover from pollution and abuse because of minimal air and water circulation and precise chemistry at work. Even the touch of human hands can stop flowstone, stalactites and stalagmites from ever growing again. There was no way this cave was more powerful than a locomotive, so its legacy was fouled by coal and soot.

In 2005, Tennessee Elevator Inspectors sealed or resealed the cave’s fate. They ordered the lower elevator shaft to be permanently closed. The Ruby Falls operators complied and sealed the passage. Since that day, nobody has entered Lookout Mountain Cave again.

flowstone formations deep inside Ruby Falls
The Onyx Jungle formation in Ruby Falls Cave
Ruby Fall's Fish Rock formation

Building Ruby Falls as a Tourist Destination

Malcolm Gladwell defines the tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point” In his book by the same name, he says “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” Specifically, a social epidemic like creating the tourist destination of Ruby Falls involves three types of people: mavens, salesmen, and connectors. Mavens are information specialists who connect us with new information like the lost cave of Lookout Mountain. Salesmen are persuaders who can get a project going. Finally are the connectors who can bring groups of people together.

Leo Lambert was the maven who envisioned building the elevator shaft and the salesman who formed Lookout Mountain Cave Company to dig the shaft. However, the Great Depression was too much for the company, and they went bankrupt.

The new ownership was the connectors. They began the ‘See Ruby Falls’ campaign that permeated, not only billboards for hundreds of miles away but also popular culture. When Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison write a song about you, you know you have been heard.

Ruby Falls Cave has been developed as well. They were one of the first commercial caves with electric lighting that has since been transformed into solar-powered LED lights. The 18” high ceiling passage was dug out into a cobblestone walking passage. The rock removed from the elevator shaft was used to build a replica 15th-century castle called Lookout Mountain Castle. There was a 20 million dollar expansion project completed in 2020 as well.

Lighted pools on the Ruby Falls tour
145' waterfall deep inside of Ruby Falls
More of the famous light show in the Falls Room at Ruby Falls

Is Ruby Falls Fake?

I put this section in with a little trepidation. Ruby Falls obviously uses artificial lighting, widened the passages, and installed a walkway. These modifications were necessary to create a safe and accessible show cave experience. The question remains, is Ruby Falls a real waterfall.

I am a member of the National Speleological Society, which is the United States’ premier organization for the protection and exploration of caves. I searched their archives for a clue and came across this entry from an NSS member whose NSS number was in the 6,000 range. This means he was one of the first 7,000 people ever to join this organization. For reference, my member number is in the 50,000 range.

Quite a few years ago, Ruby Falls Cave hired Roy Davis of Cumberland Caverns fame to “supplement” their waterfall.

As is true of most karst streams, the waterfall in Ruby Falls was quite spectacular during most of the winter and spring, our wet season, but dried up to barely a trickle in the summer and fall. Unfortunately, the summer is their big tourist season.

Roy Davis used scaffolding and installed a pump, so now there is a “nice” waterfall for the tourists to see year-round.

The last time I was in Ruby Falls, and it was many years ago, the Falls was in the dark when we arrived there on the tour. The tour guide punched a button, a pre-recorded spiel about the waterfall was heard, and, in the background, I heard the pump kick on and the volume of the waterfall increase significantly. As soon as the waterfall was up to “commercial flow”, the lights came on and the tourists went: “Ooooh….Ahhhh !!!!”.

So is Ruby Falls fake or real? I believe the falls are absolutely real, and the flow you see on the commercial tour represents a reasonable, high season volume. There is evidence, like this NSS entry, the reported pump sounds, and the fact that the flow varies little season by season, that suggests the falls might have been augmented for the tour. One might even argue the enhancement is reasonable for a commercial cave tour.

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The Ruby Falls waterfall and light show.

Other Ruby Falls Tours and Trips

An adult ticket for the basic Cave Walk costs $25.95 (updated 2023). If you are feeling adventurous and want to explore Ruby Falls in a more natural way, the Lantern Tour lets you experience Ruby Falls in a new light! This after-hours specialty tour is lights-free, except for the hand-held lanterns held by participants. They also offer the Ruby Falls Dread Hollow Halloween experience, where they create a cast of characters that haunt your evening with extreme haunt attractions and escape rooms. The legend of Dread Hollow is said to have spawned from Ruby Falls Dread Hollow and is scary enough to come with a parental advisory. If that doesn’t get your adrenaline pumping, you can try the Ruby Falls Zipline.

Where to Stay near Ruby Falls

Ruby Falls FAQs

How long is the cave walk to Ruby Falls?

The guided tours are a mile long round trip and will take 1-2 hours to complete.

What’s the difference between Ruby Falls and Anna Ruby Falls?

Ruby Falls is a 145′ waterfall in an underground cave. Anna Ruby Falls is a 154’ waterfall in the north Georgia mountains.

Can you do Ruby Falls and Rock City in one day?

Yes, absolutely. You can even do the “Triple-Play” and take the Incline Railway up to Point Park for a breathtaking view of downtown Chattanooga.

How much does it cost to see Ruby Falls?

Ruby Falls costs $22.95 for adults and $12.95 for children (ages 3-12). Kids aged 2 and under are free.

Wrapping Up Our Experience at Ruby Falls

Today’s Ruby Falls tour takes just a little over an hour and takes you deep into the cave on a guided tour. You descend the elevation and your guide leads you on about a ½ hour walking-tour through the underground cavern. They will point out pools and cave formations (stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, etc.) that are passably ok. The passage is not quite wide enough for a wheelchair or strollers, but you can walk around with ease. Your guide describes the cave history and points out particularly interesting rock formations. However, the reason everybody visits is the Falls Room inside of Ruby Falls.

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The Falls Room has natural crowd control. Each tour group enters when the light show starts and exits when the lights go down. The lights illuminating the falls change from blue to red to white. Groups shuffle closer and further from the base of the falls to avoid the cool mists and to change their perspective. You have enough time to see the falls and take your pictures but don’t wait too long to get a clear frame.

After the falls, you are now a survivor.  Your group shuffles back to the entrance and returns to the surface. It’s a fun tour, and the falls are a unique cave experience.

Ruby Falls has a fantastic history and backstory. The elevator makes the tour accessible to many people who could not otherwise venture that deep into a cave. Even if there is a little extra lighting and storytelling, you can’t help but marvel at the natural beauty of a 145′ waterfall flowing deep inside Lookout Mountain.

If you want to learn more about Chattanooga activities, check out our  Chilling in Chattanooga the Guide to Good Times. Nearby Cloudland Canyon has some wild cave tours if you are looking for more spelunking adventures and Rock City gardens is a limestone lover’s paradise high atop a bluff. If you’re heading to Lookout Mountain on the first or last weekend of the month, you could snag a permit and hike the Lula Lake Trails.

Ready to Book Your Trip? These Links Will Make It Easy:

Lodging:

  • We loved staying and the beautiful all-inclusive Sandals Royal Curacao and we think you will too! Book your Sandals getaway now!

Our Packing Favs:

  • Travel in style with a suitcase, carry-on, backpack, or handbag from Knack Bags
  • Packing cubes make organized packing a breeze! We love these from Eagle Creek

Attractions/Activities:

  • Save on tickets to attractions, sightseeing tours, and more with Tiqets
  • Get Your Guide and Viator for guided tours/excursions, day trips, and activities
  • Want to learn a city from the ground up? Take a small group walking tour with Walks – 5-star rated with a Tripadvisor Certificate of Excellence
  • Want to book an epic adventure experience with top-notch companies like Intrepid Travel, G-Adventures, or Backroads? Check out Travelstride
  • Find information on local trails with the All Trails App.
  • Need something else to plan your perfect trip? Visit our Resources Page for more trusted partners

Disclaimer: Although our experience was complimentary, the views and opinions expressed are entirely our own.

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Ruby Falls Tennessee

Ruby Falls Tennessee

Ruby Falls Tennessee

 

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