Caves along the Watauga River

Several caves can be found along the banks of the Watauga River.

When snow comes to the High Country, many eyes are fixed on looking up. People look up at the peaks and the slopes that descend from the heavens to the valleys.

However, the wonders of winter can also be found below the valleys in the High Country’s caves, where bats, stalagmites and stalactites can provide a winter wonderland that can seem like a hidden secret.

“There’s less traffic, so generally, there’s fewer people in the caves,” said Mark Ruff, manager at High Mountain Expeditions about caving in the winter.

One fascinating fact is that even if the temperature is below freezing or above scolding, caves have a natural insulation from the outside elements.

“You’re going into a very climate-controlled area,” Ruff explained. “It generally runs about 55 degrees.”

A select number of Boone companies offer tours of caves along the North Carolina and Tennessee borders, most notably Worley’s Cave in Bluff City, Tenn.

With more than 4,000 feet to walk, Worley’s Cave is one of the premiere spelunking experiences in the Appalachian Mountains. More than just a walk-in experience, guided tours involves traversing narrow passages, dark areas and some picture-esqe scenes.

“Worley’s Cave is a great introductory cave as a lot of it can be upright and more people can enjoy it,” Ruff explained. “Some spaces are small, but some space you can fit a church.”

For first-timers, caving can offer a new world of wonders as every rock formation is different.

“Most people hardly ever go into a cave, so it’s really exploring a whole new world,” Ruff explained. “You have various animals, fish, bats and particularly toward the entrance, sometimes raccoons or bears.”

Caving can be for anyone, with exceptions for those with claustrophobia or limited mobility, with the more challenging passages requiring a degree of physical fitness.

With the caves being insulated at around 55 degrees and some with streams running through, minimizing exposed body parts is highly recommended.

“Wear closed-toed sturdy shoes, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt,” Ruff noted. “Avoid wearing cotton. One of the caves we do is in a river, so getting wet is a good part of it. Wear wood or clothes that can retain heat.”

Ruff also highly recommends wearing gloves to avoid cross-contamination as the oils that humans secrete can react badly with the natural formations, as well as additional clothing post-trip.

“You should also bring a change of clothes, depending on the weather outside,” Ruff said.

Due to the sensitive nature of the areas caves such as possible cross-contamination with bat populations, littering and even trying to take some of the natural beauties home, it’s highly recommended to take a guided tour if possible. Most area guides are passionate about the caves they explore and minimize their footprints, sometimes literally.

“Pack it in, pack it out, whatever you bring in, bring out,” Ruff said in regards to keeping the caves clean. “Respect the cave, animals, features and respect the entrance to the properties and access areas.”

Guided trips can help beginners learn how to navigate certain caves safely and securely. For the experiences spelunkers who want to explore without a guide, Ruff says to never go spelunking alone and always let others know where you are.

“Always have gloves, a helmet and gloves,” Ruff explained.

In the end, even though caves can appear scary, the small spaces are full of character, history and imagination.

“I say just get out and do it,” Ruff said.

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