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.

Landowner Relations

I am frequently contacted by landowners, land developers, and land managers who wish to better understand caves, sinkholes, or karst on their property. Curious landowners will seek out experts and that may lead them to you, your local grotto, or people that you know. By being a known person in the community, you yourself can be the resource that people seek out. This is a wonderful opportunity to introduce them to the caving community and put our best foot foward.

Some strategies I use to help myself and the caving community with landowners, land developers, and land managers includes:
  • Keeping accurate and up-to-date contact information for landowers. This includes phone, physical address, and mailing address, and preferred method of contact.
  • Clarifying and making notes regarding access to a cave or feature of interest. This is stuff like where to park, when we can and can't be there.
  • I try to mail all the local cave landowners a Christmas Card each year, just to let them know that we appreciate them, and the access that they've granted us.
  • Track access to features on public land including time accessible, parking, and links to where to acquire permits if necessary.


As a general rule, I think most people will agree that knowing about caves and karst landscapes makes people better stuards of their land. Public knowledge of cave locations is generally viewed as bad. With that in mind, it's like walking a tight rope when dealing with the outside world.

Anytime you're viewed as a caver, all public interactions become an opportunity to inform people about their relationship with caves and karst. Having practiced "elevator pitches" regarding the importance of this delicate environment is a strategy that I employ. I suggest that you memorize the Leave no Trace ethic as a first step. Having easily available resources to support and illustrate your position are helpful as well.

Other elevator pitches could 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.


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.


There are several biologists who work in caves, and the Tennessee Cave Survey has a long 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.

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.

The Role of Grottos in the Caving Community

Ryan Gardner, Newman Cave, White County, Tennessee 2 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.

Historically, a grotto was a place where cavers could meet other like-minded individuals. We are now well into the age of the Internet and few people have trouble identifying who other cavers are (it's easy, they are wearing a muddy helmet in all their social media avatars). The need to have aformalized group is not as important as it once was. This has created a crisis of identity for caving clubs across the United States. Aged leadership, full of institutional and historic knowledge, and perhaps not savy with social media is disconnected from the youth. The strong-willed youth defy their elders and disregard their decades of experience so that they can do things their own way. Is there any way to reconcile the views of both groups?

"The need to have a formalized group is not as important as it once was. This has created a crisis of identity for caving clubs across the United States."

What follows is a conceptualized "pipeline" to becoming a caver.

1 - Safety and Conservation

The first and most important role a grotto plays is intercepting would-be cavers early in their caving career. We aren't born knowing what gear works best, nor are we born with a conservation ethic appropriate to the sensitive and alien nature of caves. Those two things, safety and conservation, should be the grotto's primary goal. This is where our elders strength is. Though gear is always changing, the insights of the older generation will save the youth the time, pain, and money burden of poorly selected gear. The ethic of ethic of conservation and exploration are sometimes at odds. How do we manage this? Again, a lifetime of exeperience advises.

If you'll forgive the metaphor from someone raised in a southern household, grottos should be like good churches. They should be welcoming to all people, especially those who aren't practicing good safety or conservation ethics. It is within them that we have the greatest opportunity to affect positive change. I think that it's important to create an inclusive environment open to people of all backgrounds, and at all points on their journey through live. I like to take a soft approach to dealing with new people, it is easy to give the wrong impression about caving by being heavy handed.

2 - Networking and Community

The second goal of a grotto should be in helping people network within our community. Here are some basic tips:
  • Make new cavers aware of meetings and events within the community.
  • Introduce 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.
  • Take a new caver under your wing and teach them the ropes (literally and figuratively).

  • This is where I find most people fall out of grottos. They show up, learn a little about safety and conservation, go on a few grotto led cave trips, and drop out. For whatever reason they failed to make a connection with anyone in the grotto. There are plenty of reasons this happens, and not all of them are the grottos fault. However, an awareness of this issue could help prevent someone from leaving who may have made a good caver.

    3 - Help People Become Cavers

    This leads to the third and final goal of grottos. We should be encouraging members to contribute to the caving community. This is where young cavers can shine with their energy and enthusiam. They can do this through:

    • Writing, design, layout, art
    • Most caving communities have print publications. The Tennessee Cave Survey (TCS) has an annual publication, and the National Speleological Society (NSS) has 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.

      You can make cool stickers to share with your caving friends, or help design a grotto's logo or t-shirt.

    • 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

    • Surveying
    • Caves need maps. Be one of the people who makes 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.

      Illegal dump cleanup, Nashville Grotto, Savage Cove, Grundy County, Tennessee

    • 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.

    It's this conceptual "third stage" caver that ends up sticking with community the longest. These 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.

    I hope you found this useful. Consider reading the next entry in this series, The Role of Grottos in the Outside Community.