8 Secret Places in Crossville and Cumberland County

For the purpose of this blog post, secret is somewhat subjective. All the below places have been visited and documented well before my time. For one reason or another, they all remain less than well known. In the near future, I suspect that this may change. My publication of photos here is not an invitation to trespass either. Get permission before you go onto private property. In the meantime, here are some places that perhaps you didn't know about...

Black Mountain

Black Mountain is a state natural area managed by TDEC. It is a classic "rock town" formed of Rockcastle conglomerate, a sandstone with quartzite pebbles of up to 1cm in size locally. The overlooks are south to south-east facing and are a great place to catch a sunrise in the Winter. If you're lucky, fog will be sitting in the coves below like milk in a bowl. Little Cove is immediately south, and Grassy Cove is south-west. Both are sinkholes, and there is more about Grassy Cove below.

Google Map

South overlook, Black Mountain, Cumberland Trail, Cumberland County, Tennessee
Fog on Dug Hill Ridge, Black Mountain, Cumberland County, Tennessee

Roosevelt Overlook

Located at the end of Mt Roosevelt State Forest Road, this small wildlife management area sports a largely decayed fire tower, and a nice overlook facing the town of Kingston.

Google Map

Kingston as seen from Mount Roosevelt, Cumberland County, Tennessee
Firetower, Mt. Roosevelt WMA, Roane County, Tennessee 2

Grassy Cove

The largest sinkhole in North America volumetrically, this feature is largely privately owned. It makes for a nice drive pretty much any time of the year. Stop in at the Kemmer store and buy a cold drink. Tell them I sent you.

Overlook, Grassy Cove, Cumberland County, Tennessee 1
Grassy Cove Community Center, Cumberland County, Tennessee


"Here's a pretty place, let's cover it in trash and spraypaint" - Half of the people that go there.

Clifty is at the head of Scotts Gulf. It is a region that lies just around the Clifty bridge, and it is presumably named for the nearby Clifty Creek, which I suspect is named for its sandstone cliffs. If you visit, please don't make a mess of it for everyone. Also, avoid going at night, rumors say there is rampant drug use and crime there.

Pilot Falls, Caney Fork River, Cumberland County, Tennessee 2
Pilot Falls, Caney Fork River, Cumberland County, Tennessee 6

Waldensia Coke Ovens

In Waldensia there are dozens of coke ovens in various stages of decay. These ovens were used from 1901 to 1929 closing at the onset of the Great Depression. There are remnants of other nearby buildings and structures. This is an interesting place to put your hands on the history of the Cumberland Plateau and see what urban decay looks like after 100 years.

Coke oven, Waldensia Coal and Coke Company, Cumberland County, Tennessee 1

Devilstep Hollow

Devilstep Hollow is public land, but is only open one day a month for public visitation. The cave has some of the most spectacular glyphs and pictographs in the southeast, but the cave is gated to protect those and other cultural resources there.

The cave also represents the resurgence of waters from the nearby sinkhole Grassy Cove. Stories say that the old farmers in the area knew this to be the case by corn husks floating out of the cave when they knew folks in Grassy Cove were harvesting. Modern science used dye tracing to show the connection. From where it sinks in Grassy Cove to Devilstep Hollow is a strait line distance of 6.18 miles.

The cave entrance can be visited, and the milky blue waters coming from the earth rise and sink there only to resurface a short distance later at the head of the Sequatchie River.

Devilstep Hollow Cave, Head of Sequatchie Unit, Cumberland Trail State Park, Cumberland County, Tennessee 2
Sequatchie River, Devilstep Hollow, Cumberland County, Tennessee

Upper Obed Falls

Hiding in plain sight east of Holiday road below the spillway of Lake Holiday there is a 20' cascade. There is little to no soil in the area and a steep gradient, so be careful if you want to get a closer look.

Upper Obed Falls, Obed River, Cumberland County, Tennessee

The Minister's Tree House

The Minister's Tree House is the ultimate place that you can't go. I hate to throw it out there, but you can look at it longingly from behind a fence. It's eleven stories of monstrosity, majesty, and maze. In 2012 the Tennessee state fire marshals shut it down citing 17 violations of building code. Was it safe? Almost certainly not. Was it right to be shut down? I don't know. The owner, Horace Burgess has been working to bring it to code ever since.

*Update 12/28/2021: In October of 2019 the Minister's Tree House burned. Source: News Channel 5 - Minister's Treehouse, once dubbed world’s largest treehouse, destroyed in fire

Minister's Tree House, Crossville, Cumberland County, Tennessee 1
Minister's Tree House, Cumberland County, Tennessee 19


The Role of Grottos in the Outside Community

My previous blog post discussed the role of grottos in the caving community. It focused on the internal aspects of grottos as way of making better cavers. This post will focus on the external aspects of a grotto and ways they can make your city, county, or region a better place to live, work, and play.


Sherrill Wilson, Merrybranch Cave, White County, Tennessee 2 There are some cavers who want to keep the sport a secret. I won't tell you what you need to keep secret, and what you need to share. There are many different philosophies on this, each with its merits and drawbacks. What I think we can all agree on is that if people are better educated about caves, then they will be better stewards of caves and the land.

Education may simply be informing people of the leave no trace ethic that we practice. It may be discussing safety and proper caving gear. It may be helping people understand the connection between sinkholes and the well water they drink.

We get to see the Earth from the inside out, and that makes our relationship with it different than most people's. Where I live many rivers run underground. Some of these rivers are horribly polluted with chemicals and trash. If they looked like that on the surface people would get angry and do something about it. Because it is out of sight to most people, we must bring it to their mind.

Cleanup, Pilot Knob Cave, Jackson County, Tennessee


In my previous post I talked about ways to volunteer within the caving community. We can also be volunteering or partnering outside the caving community and working with organizations to help make the world a better place.

The Upper Cumberland Grotto has partnered to do clean ups with groups like the Boy Scouts of America, Putnam County Clean Commission, The Nature Conservancy of Tennessee, and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to name a few. For a smaller grotto, hosting one major cleanup a year is a good goal.

Other volunteer opportunities may be talking with local schools about cave related issues, or leading a field trip of college students. I try not to miss an opportunity to educate.

Daphne Soares,  Dante Fenolio, Anderson Spring Cave, Putnam Co, TN


Sometimes people need help with caves and sometimes those people don't know they need help from a caver. Land developers usually don't think twice about building adjacent to caves. But if we have a map of the cave and permission to share it, we may be able to help protect the cave and the financial interests of the developer. That's a win-win situation!

There are several biologists who work in caves, and the Tennessee Cave Survey has along history of working with them to collect specimens and data within the cave. Many of us have become adept at finding and identifying cave critters.

Garrett Gay, total station, Natural Trap Cave, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Big Horn County, Wyoming Other scientists may need a caver liaison as well. At Natural Trap Cave in Wyoming in the Summer of 2016 cavers equipped and trained a large team of paleontologists on single rope technique so they could examine and dig in this pristine and one of a kind cave.

Archaeologists, historians, microbiologists, geologists, and other scientists use information provided to them from observant cavers to make discoveries.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways your grotto can be helping your community. Feel free to share you community involvement stories with me in the comments. :)

The Role of Grottos in the Caving Community

Grottos (caving clubs) are internal organizations of the National Speleological Society (NSS). When I first discovered caving, it was through the Upper Cumberland Grotto (UCG). Since then, I have been involved in caving and our community. I have seen the UCG's membership wax and wane a few times, and at low points I have at times struggled with what the role of a grotto is in the digital era. Below are my thoughts.

The first and most important role a grotto plays is intercepting would-be cavers early in their caving career. We aren't born knowing which gear to wear, nor are we born with a conservation ethic appropriate to the sensitive nature of caves. Those two reasons, safety and conservation, should be the grottos primary goal. Like a good church, the grotto should be welcoming of all people, especially those who aren't practicing good safety or conservation ethics for it is within them that we have the greatest opportunity to affect positive change. It's also important to be inclusive as people from all walks of life, and at different points on their journey come to caving. Take a soft handed approach to dealing with new people, it is easy to give the wrong impression about caving by being heavy handed.

The second goal of a grotto should be in helping people network within our community. This means making them aware of meetings of your organization, and sister organizations. Introduce the new cavers to the old cavers. Help new cavers find caving trips to attend and projects to be involved with that fit their interests and expertise.

This leads to the third and final goal of grottos. We should be encouraging members to contribute to the caving community. They can do this through:

Writing - Most caving communities have print publications. The Tennessee Cave Survey (TCS), and the NSS have monthly publications. You may want to write a trip report about a particularly fun (or gruesome) caving trip you went on. Or maybe you want to write a blog post about caving.

Photography - Writing isn't the only way to document something. Below is an example of a recently documented saltpeter operation, date unknown.
Nicole Blanton, mattock marks & pine torch holes, Brewington Cave, Jackson County, Tennessee

- Caves need maps. Be one of the people who helps that happen. Surveying is team work, and it takes a long time to produce a good map, especially if the cave is large. If you know AutoCad, ArcMap, or Illustrator, then you're off to a good start in working with maps and map data.

Ridge-walking- Take a GPS into the field and find some new caves! Be sure to document what you're doing, otherwise you're just screwing around.

Volunteering - Volunteering takes many forms. It may be that you are taking the time to clean up a trashed cave. Or it may be that you took some time to talk to a 1st grade class about caving.

Leading - It's not just the grotto chair that leads. Most cave trips have a leader. If you want to lead a trip, learn a cave and invite the grotto on a trip. Leading isn't always about being inside the cave. Leading may be fostering a spirit of inclusiveness in the grotto. Leading may be taking the time to talk to each of the members at a grotto meeting. Leading may be calling the folks who didn't go to the meeting and checking in on them.

Administration - Administration is arguably the least glamorous of things one can do in caving, but it's necessary. We all enjoy having our treasury balanced, our minutes kept, our meetings led, and events planned.

The third stage cavers are the ones that end up sticking with community the longest, and those are the folks I want to join the TCS. The TCS offers great incentive to become a community based caver. Vetted cavers have access to cave locations, narratives, maps, and a whole slew of other information about the caves in Tennessee.