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My Third Most Favorite Cave, Tumbling Rock
Of all the caves I’ve explored, Tumbling Rock Cave in Alabama is number 3 on my list of favorite caves. I have made many visits to this famous and most visited cave in Alabama. Tumbling Rock Cave is over 6 miles long and is mostly a walking trail. At one time it was called Blowing Cave. A stream runs almost the entire length of the cave and forms a spring just below the entrance. This is the only cave I know of that contains oil, the asphalt ooze is found in Allen’s Alley at the back of the cave and hides dust on the floor. It drips from the ceiling and flows down a long slope to the floor of the cave. I keep a sample of it in a bottle labeled Alabama Crude!
After meeting the owners and paying our parking fee, we climb the side of the mountain a short distance, open the gate and crawl through the three-foot-tall entrance. The first room, the Ante Room, is a large walkway that leads across the stream. Care must be taken from the start, if your eyes are not adjusted to the darkness, you may end up in the crevasses crossing the path. It’s a three foot wide drop that you step on. You then follow the flow of the saltpeter works. These are large civil war wats that have long since rotted away and all that remains are square piles of dirt.
My first visit to the Dogwood City Grotto was in July of 1971, and it was on this trip that I met John Wallace, a longtime friend and grotto partner. John shared that when he was dating his wife, Yulanda, he spread tablecloths near the saltpeter works and set up a candlelit dinner he took to the cave.
A short distance from the Saltpeter Works we climb up through the stream and into two large chambers called Elephants’ Feet. If you climb to the top of one of the legs, you can access a small crawl near the ceiling that goes above the ceiling and onto a stream passage that is now called the Vujade’ extension.
Continuing upstream we climb the Wildcat Rockpile and pass the Little Hall of Mysteries. To the left is the Formation Grotto and we explored the sewers up to a 15 foot drop. We then returned to the stream and went through the wind tunnel to the totem grotto, Craters of the Moon. Chuck’s Music Box is on the left in the side passage and is worth a visit to see the tall columns. At this point you need to be with someone familiar with the cave to find the hidden door, if you miss the hidden door on your way back through the cave it ends up in a dead stream path.
Beyond the hidden door and before entering the Great Hall of Mystery, is the King’s Shower. When the topless dome’s upper passage and lower passage were mapped, it was found that the two were only inches apart. So a sledge hammer was used to make a short cut to the topless dome. The stream from the dome now flows down and through the hole creating the King’s Shower. Pulling up through this hole a short distance to the right brings you to the base of Topless Dome.
The dome is 396 feet tall and was climbed by Don Davison and Cheryl Jones over a two-year period around 1979. The climb is 555 feet long, making it the longest underground technical route in the United States. Read about the Topless Dome revisited in the October 1982 NSS News.
For a long time the Great Hall of Mysteries was the end of the cave. Now there are two passages to the back of the cave. Both are challenging, I’ll describe the Blue Crawl first as it was discovered first. Straight across the room, to the left of the Christmas Tree formation and down the muddy slope, is Johnston’s Junction, a small squeeze into the Emperor’s Room. Climb across the Emperor’s Room and climb a 75-foot-long round crawl, which must decide which arm goes first at the start. Because you can’t change positions again until you come out on the far side of the blue crawl. Coming out of Blue Crawl it is a narrow cliff and you have to pull yourself out of the cliff to get your body out of the hole. I’ve crawled once, but never again. However, I think everyone should try it once.
Exit the Blue Crawl into the Inter Sanctum Breakdown Room and down the far side and into Allen’s Alley under Surprise Falls.
Another way that was discovered or should I say is the suicide passage. Go back to the emperors room and go to the stream level to the right of the Christmas tree. Follow the sandy crawl along the left side of the stream until you climb over a rock pile. After several tight bends and climbs, Allens Gully is entered. This is a shorter route and is generally preferred to Blue Crawl.
Allen’s Alley is a nice long canyon passage with a stream flowing down. About half way up one has to climb up to the roof and crawl over a two foot rope. It then opens again into a large long room. Note the asphalt ooze on the right, which crosses the path.
The prize at the end is the Pillar of Fire, and the climb up Mount Olympus is worth it. This large bright red structure sits atop a mud mountain called Mount Olympus. It stops after four hours of travel and another four hours to exit most of the caves. If one wants to see the bitter end, Terry’s Tiger Teeth, before climbing Mount Olympus, go to the right side of Allen’s Alley and look for the DT Passage. It’s a tight break down crawl for about 300 feet. After walking back into Grant’s Tomb and returning to the passage, the stream is down and to the right, called Grant’s Pool. Terry’s tiger tooth is further left.
The cave continues, although no passage has been discovered, for more than the length of the known cave to a small cave called Timber Cave on the far side of the mountain. Dye tracings of water entering Timber Cave were discovered in Tumbling Rock Cave. If you’re looking for a good eight-hour wild cave trip, I’d recommend Tumbling Rock Cave.
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