Spotlight on TVA places for family fun
Cave Mountain Small Wild Area
Caving, hiking, and a bit of Civil War history are accessible year-round at the Cave Mountain Small Wild Area in Guntersville, Alabama. Along the one-mile loop trail, you’ll find a mixed hardwood forest, lots of wildflowers, a Tupelo gum swamp, and, as the name indicates, a cave.
Cave Mountain is one of 31 Small Wild Areas managed by TVA to provide habitat protection for wildlife, and wildlife viewing, for the public. It occupies about 34 acres on the south side of Guntersville Dam, which makes it small compared to most national and state parks, but it has an abundance of flora and fauna, is less crowded, and may provide more peace and quiet.
This time of year, the trail is brilliant with the autumn colors of a variety of trees — oak, hickory, sugar maple, yellow buckeye, and white basswood, for example. If you visit on a clear winter day, you can enjoy a panoramic view of the landscape from a limestone bluff at the northwestern edge of the trail. And in spring and summer you’ll find the area abloom with wildflowers that attract lots of butterflies.
Cave Mountain is one of the few places you’ll find a flooded forest of Tupelo gum trees.
“The gum swamp is my favorite part of the Cave Mountain trail because it attracts such a variety of wildlife,” says Jason Mitchell, a TVA natural area coordinator. “Depending on the season, there’s a good chance you’ll see wood ducks and other waterfowl, frogs and other amphibians, white-tailed deer, and lots of songbirds.”
It takes about an hour and a half to enjoy a leisurely hike around the trail, and the cave makes a pleasant rest stop. Because it is a constant 56°F, it provides an escape from summer heat and winter winds.
“The cave is an old water channel,” says Mitchell. “It’s now a smooth tunnel, high enough to walk through. You can go about 300 yards into the cave on an easy footpath. At that point, you have to make a vertical drop to continue, which requires climbing gear and caving experience.”
If you plan to go into the cave, Mitchell says, be sure to bring a flashlight. There is usually enough natural light to see for the first 200 feet or so, but after that it’s completely dark. If it’s raining, you can count on the footpath being muddy and slippery, so don’t try it unless you are wearing hiking shoes and don’t mind getting them dirty, Mitchell advises.
During the Civil War, before increased human visitation caused them to abandon their roosts, a large number of bats inhabited the cave and provided an essential ingredient for making gunpowder. Saltpeter, officially known as potassium nitrate, is in the bat droppings that crystallize on cave walls. The Long Hollow Nitre Works mined about a thousand pounds of saltpeter a day here during the Civil War. Miners worked night and day to keep up with the demand, often going deep into the cave, where they had to crawl around dragging heavy sacks of saltpeter behind them.
Experienced cavers who would like to explore beyond the footpath can request a cave map from the Huntsville chapter of the National Speleological Society. You’ll find the group’s web site at www.caves.org/grotto/huntsville/.