Ruby Falls

Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, USA

About Ruby Falls


Hiking Distance: < 1 mile (walking)
Suggested Time: 30 minutes (walking); 75 minutes tour

Date first visited: 2012-10-26
Date last visited: 2012-10-26

Waterfall Latitude: 35.01905
Waterfall Longitude: -85.33968

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Ruby Falls was perhaps the most anticipated waterfall of our 2012 Appalachians trip.

As with most things in life, when you anticipate something, it generally means you’re imposing some lofty expectations.

Ruby_Falls_080_20121026 - Ruby Falls
Ruby Falls

And with lofty expectations, you usually set yourself up for disappointment.

However, after having seen this waterfall, Julie and I have to agree that it definitely met those lofty expectations.

In fact, we liked it so much that we had once put it amongst our Top 10 List of the Best Waterfalls in the USA, but it did place well in our Top 10 Best Waterfalls of the South List.

So that’s definitely saying something about Ruby Falls!

Ruby_Falls_062_20121026 - Ruby Falls under different lighting
Ruby Falls under different lighting

A big reason why we anticipated visiting this waterfall was because it was 145ft tall and completely within a cave system (i.e. it was underground).

Although this wasn’t the first subterranean waterfall we visited (we saw the Crown Cave Waterfall in Guilin, China in 2008), this definitely promised to be much more scenic.

Experiencing Ruby Falls

In order to see this waterfall, we paid the admission price for a guided tour (click here for the latest on hours and prices), then followed the guide for about 100 minutes.

It began with an elevator ride taking us some 1120ft below the surface of Lookout Mountain, then traversed a maze of corridors with formations that the guide gladly pointed out along the way.

Ruby_Falls_018_20121026 - The group trying to duck under some of the low-lying walls and stalactites inside the Ruby Falls Cave
The group trying to duck under some of the low-lying walls and stalactites inside the Ruby Falls Cave

The falls was towards the end of the tour.

Perhaps a key factor in making our visit so pleasurable was that we were in a very small tour group (8 people), which allowed for what our guide called the “VIP” tour.

Small tour groups are only possible when there are few tourists around.

We showed up in time for a 9am tour, but the tour that came immediately after us had to have had at least 30+ people, and the groups after that had even more people!

Ruby_Falls_033_20121026 - A beautiful reflecting pond augmented by bright blue lighting inside the Ruby Falls Cave
A beautiful reflecting pond augmented by bright blue lighting inside the Ruby Falls Cave

Indeed, I’ve read TripAdvisor reviews lamenting about being rushed at the Ruby Falls, and that was a key factor in why we rearranged our itinerary to ensure we showed up as early as possible.

Anyways, once we were finally at Ruby Falls, I believe we were given a set amount of time where the guide turned on the lights (and the accompanying music) before the lights eventually turned off.

Once the lights were off again, it was nearly pitch black and you’d no longer be able to photograph or capture the Ruby Falls experience visually.

Fortunately with a small group, we didn’t feel rushed.

Ruby_Falls_058_20121026 - Ruby Falls with the lights turned off so you can hardly see the waterfall
Ruby Falls with the lights turned off so you can hardly see the waterfall

In fact, there was plenty of time to try to compose Ruby Falls as best we could though with hindsight being 20/20, there’s always things I wished we could’ve done or tried out.

It looked like they used to let past visitors walk around the base of the falls, but we weren’t able to do that on our visit.

I’m not sure if it was for safety reasons or if it was easier to control the tour groups without the complication of worrying about people in that narrow circular loop.

History of Ruby Falls and the Cave System

As for the history of Ruby Falls and the cave, it was said to be accidentally discovered by Leo Lambert.

He looked for an alternate entrance to the Lookout Mountain Cave to reopen it as a tourist attraction.

Ruby_Falls_126_20121026 - Outside the entrance to the Ruby Falls Cave complex
Outside the entrance to the Ruby Falls Cave complex

The original natural entrance of Lookout Mountain Cave was sealed off due to construction of a railway.

The plan for the alternate entrance involved drilling a shaft down from the top.

And it turned out that Leo stumbled upon a different “upper” cave system that was totally different than the Lookout Mountain Cave system he looked for.

After some more spelunking amidst 2ft high crawl spaces, Leo would eventually uncover the waterfall that would eventually become Ruby Falls.

Ruby_Falls_125_20121026 - Inside the gathering and reception area for the Ruby Falls Cave
Inside the gathering and reception area for the Ruby Falls Cave

On a second spelunking visit to this waterfall, he brought his wife.

She managed to do the 6-hour claustrophobic scramble, and for her trouble, Leo named the falls after his wife, Ruby.

The rest, as they say, was history.

Ruby Falls Exposing the Paradox of Natural Cave Waterfalls

One thing that visiting Ruby Falls made me aware of was the meaning of visiting a natural waterfall.

The reason why this waterfall brought about that question was because there was quite a bit of work (most of it done with explosives) to widen the crawl spaces into walkable passageways suitable for almost anyone including elders and kids.

Ruby_Falls_008_20121026 - A corridor in the Ruby Falls Cave that has clearly been expanded to facilitate public access
A corridor in the Ruby Falls Cave that has clearly been expanded to facilitate public access

We’d like to think visiting waterfalls in their natural, untouched state is really the way you’re supposed to do it.

However, had this access work not been done, special spelunking gear and a claustrophic 6-hour scramble in the dark would be required to even get to the Ruby Falls.

Indeed, a subterranean waterfall like this required some bit of human intervention to make it as publicly accessible as it is today.

There will always be that subjective question of how much intervention is tolerable before the natural attraction stops being natural.

Ruby_Falls_107_20121026 - Artificial moody neon blue lighting making this part of the Ruby Falls Cave Tour very atmospheric
Artificial moody neon blue lighting making this part of the Ruby Falls Cave Tour very atmospheric

For example, you could make the argument that the experience at Dan-yr-Ogof Showcaves Waterfalls in South Wales, UK took liberties with the man-made changes to another level.

That said, you could also argue the flip side where hardly anyone would be able to see this waterfall had it not been for the infrastructure put in place (i.e. the elevator, the wide passages, the railings and stairs, and even the artificial lighting!).

Ultimately, since this cave is privately owned, that judgment call was made by the owners, who decided to commercialize and monetize it.

So regardless of wilderness ethics versus accessibility tradeoffs, Julie and I were certainly glad we got to see Ruby Falls.

Ruby_Falls_087_20121026 - Signs and artificial lighting made the Ruby Falls Cave experience less about spelunking and more about entertainment as well as education
Signs and artificial lighting made the Ruby Falls Cave experience less about spelunking and more about entertainment as well as education

However, we could also see why some people may be put off by the commercialism and the crowds.

Authorities

Ruby Falls resides in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee near Chattanooga, Tennessee. It is administered by Ruby Falls. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.

Ruby_Falls_011_20121026 - After descending the elevator and going through a widened corridor, the Ruby Falls Cave Tour promptly commenced
Ruby_Falls_014_20121026 - Our Ruby Falls Cave tour guide explaining some things about the composition this stalagmite
Ruby_Falls_020_20121026 - Our Looking up at some spiky stalactites and rounded stalagmites seemingly reaching towards each other inside the Ruby Falls Cave
Ruby_Falls_029_20121026 - Looking across a very attractive reflective pond augmented by bright blue lighting inside the Ruby Falls Cave
Ruby_Falls_034_20121026 - Another look at the context of the attractive reflective pond with blue lighting inside the Ruby Falls Cave
Ruby_Falls_041_20121026 - Looking up at some more interesting formations within the Ruby Falls Cave
Ruby_Falls_044_20121026 - Magenta-colored lighting highlighting some frozen-cascade-like formation inside the Ruby Falls Cave
Ruby_Falls_054_20121026 - The so-called Frozen Niagara formation inside the Ruby Falls Cave
Ruby_Falls_060_20121026 - Looking up at the top of the Ruby Falls from right at its brink
Ruby_Falls_064_20121026 - Looking up at the top of the Ruby Falls from right at its brink but with different lighting
Ruby_Falls_065_20121026 - Yet another lighting configuration looking up to the top of Ruby Falls' brink from its base
Ruby_Falls_070_20121026 - Looking down towards the circular railings and walkway around the base of Ruby Falls
Ruby_Falls_082_20121026 - You're most likely going to see Ruby Falls photos in this color because the light stays this color for most of the time
Ruby_Falls_085_20121026 - After the Ruby Falls part of the cave tour, the guide continues to show us other aspects of the Ruby Falls Cave
Ruby_Falls_088_20121026 - Squeezing by a much larger tour group than ours when we were about to conclude our Ruby Falls Cave Tour
Ruby_Falls_095_20121026 - As you can see, Ruby Falls Cave Tour definitely featured much more than the waterfall
Ruby_Falls_101_20121026 - Going back around the attractive reflective pond inside the Ruby Falls Cave
Ruby_Falls_112_20121026 - Walking back through a familiar corridor as we were about to conclude our Ruby Falls Cave Tour

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Ruby Falls is on the Tennessee side of Lookout Mountain near the city of Chattanooga (almost next to the Northern Georgia border and just a few miles east of the Northern Alabama border).

There are many ways of getting to Ruby Falls, so we’ll just tell you how we did it.

From the I-24 approaching Chattanooga from the west, we followed the freeway signs for Ruby Falls and exited a ramp that took us onto W 25th St.

Turning right onto W 25th St, we then turned left onto Broad St.

Ruby_Falls_124_20121026 - Looking down at the context of the parking lot for the Ruby Falls complex
Looking down at the context of the parking lot for the Ruby Falls complex

At about a mile, we veered left to go onto the Cummings Highway, and after a mile on the Cummings Highway, we then turned left onto Scenic Highway.

Climbing for about 0.7 miles on Scenic Highway, the parking lot for the Ruby Falls complex was on the right.

To give you an idea of drive times, it took us about 90 minutes to go from McMinnville (where we had stayed the previous night) to Chattanooga (though we had to switch from Central Time to Eastern Time so we actually lost another hour).

By the way, if you’re anywhere near the Chattanooga area, you’ll undoubtedly see plenty of “See Ruby Falls” billboards.

Ruby_Falls_122_20121026 - Looking out towards Chattanooga from the Ruby Falls complex on the Tennessee side of Lookout Mountain
Looking out towards Chattanooga from the Ruby Falls complex on the Tennessee side of Lookout Mountain

They’re everywhere!

I’m willing to be that there are so many signs for the cave and falls that you probably don’t even need to follow our directions.

Just follow them signs!

For additional context, Chattanooga, TN was 112 miles (under 2 hours drive) southwest from Knoxville, TN, 135 miles (about 2 hours drive) southeast from Nashville, TN, and 118 miles (2 hours drive) north from Atlanta.

How Ruby Falls looks without the lights on


The falls just when the lights came on then panning up and down multiple times as I approached closer


Slow top down sweep of the falls


Slow bottom up sweep of the falls

Tagged with: chattanooga, lookout mountain, tennessee, georgia, waterfall, underground, cave, cavern, leo lambert



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