Caving Camp's Gulf Cave

Camp's Gulf Cave Camp's Gulf Cave Hot

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Camp's Gulf Cave

Cave Details

Type of Cave
Horizontal Cave
Accessed Depth
Accessed Length
3 miles
Safety Notes
Very Arduous, Heavy Breakdown through entire cave.
Via Logging road at base of mountain, off of Cane Creek Road, from Spencer, TN



Geographic Location


This is the chronicle of the cave spelunking adventure that I had the delight of participating in the weekend of 11-10-07.  My friend Shane Lewis, who is notorious for getting me into all manner of spatial dilemmas, invited me to go caving with him and some guys in Spencer, TN.  I had been badly in need of some adventure in my life, having been heavily sedated with too much routine and relative comfort in my life.  Yes, my senses had become dulled by the monotony of daily life here in the land of the living.  I had longed for some time for something to open me up and refresh my outlook on life.  It’s funny how the prospect of death can have that effect, is it not?

So, with that as bait, I will try to articulate the good, the bad, and the ugly of the trip to Camps Gulf Cave.  Camps Gulf Cave is the third largest known cave in the world, in terms of total volume.  That means that it’s freaking huge inside.  There are 4 main chambers, one alone which is over 4 acres.  It’s large enough to fit several 747’s on top of each other.  The ceiling is around 200’ high.  Shane had told me all about these big rooms, so I delightedly and hurriedly made my preparations to depart.
Over the years, through constant use, I’ve learned to sense the signs of when God is behind a particular endeavor, and when He’s not.  On this instance, He was clearly not, to which we all agreed wholeheartedly when we scampered out of Camps Gulf mouth.  I get the impression that the cave coughed us out in the same way that big fish coughed out Jonah.  First of all, several of the guys bailed on the trip at the last minute.  My wife had given me the thumbs up prior, but as the end of the week drew near, there was a lot of stress going on and she suggested maybe it wasn’t the right time.  Nevertheless, I was determined to go, if not to find refuge from my own marred reflection which seems to show so clearly in Holy Matrimony.  Well, I had determined to fly a small Cessna to Tennessee.  It’s 5.5 hours driving, but only 2 flying.  I’ve been fortunate to get to fly a fair amount of late because of my job, so this was going to be a perfect little getaway for me. Trouble was, I “had to be there” by 8am on Saturday morning, because Rudy (Shane’s cousin) absolutely, positively had to be at church at 6am on Sunday morning because he was asked to lead worship at his rather large (4000 member) church.  No pressure, eh?  What better place to prepare your heart for worship than a dank smelly cave!
So, as the story goes, I of course popped awake at 3:30am on Saturday out of sheer adrenaline for this trip.  I was packed, pumped, and ready to do something manly.  Now the thing is, I had never flown the plane at night by myself.  I had only 8 hrs. of night flying time.  I was honestly somewhat apprehensive, but I knew this plane and the weather was perfect.  The dew point and temperature were a safe distance, so there was no threat of fog.  I decided to roll with it.  So I got to the airport, but then I realized I didn’t have the code to get into the gate out on to the parking apron.  So, well, I had to jump the fence.  After I threw all my gear over, I went over to the plane.  Good, the linesman had filled the plane with fuel as I had requested when I stopped by on Friday night on the way home from work.  I put on my head flashlight and prepped the plane for flight.   I was all excited about getting to use the Nav lights at night, only problem was they didn’t work.  Changed the fuse, they still didn’t work.  Oooh, not supposed to fly at night without those.  Well, honestly they’re for other planes to see you, and at 5:30am in this area, there probably wouldn’t be any other planes.  So, I bent the rule and started the engine.
The climb out was uneventful. The visibility was very good; however, I couldn’t get tri-cities approach on the radio.  I wondered if my radios were working now, because I couldn’t hear a soul up there.  But finally I got Atlanta Center and got flight following from them, which made me feel much better about this flight.  After a little over an hour of night flying, I got to see the sunrise while flying for the first time in my life.  The flight was westbound, so it rose behind me.  Satisfied, I switched off all my cabin lights and enjoyed the remainder of the smooth flight.  Shane and Josh pulled up at the airport 15 minutes early, literally “as my wheels touched the ground” they said.  So, we arrived at the cave where Rudy stayed behind to pack up the camp where the three of them had slept Friday night.  Trouble is, he put on one of those things you wear over your eyes to sleep at night, and slept in the whole time they were picking me up (and by the way, he sleeps with a leopard skin pillow).  So, we broke camp and then hiked the half mile to the cave entrance.  It was me, Rudy, Josh, and our leader Shane.  Shane was the only one who knew the cave, so he was assured that there would be no mutiny.  Josh and I were the two “cave virgins” as they called us; but it was noted that we had the best gear.  The mouth of the cave was large and impressive, as advertised.  With a quick tutorial and some gear tweaking, we were inside this enormous outer cave.  We were giddy with excitement.  I couldn’t wait to see some of those stalactites like I saw in Luray Caverns when I was a kid!  So then we came up to this wall and stopped.  I was like, “cool wall, now which way do we turn”.  Shane said “oh, this is it”.  “What’s it?” I said.  He pointed at some little crack in the wall, and said “we have to go up this shaft”.  “Shaft?” I said.  I peeked up this slit in the rocks and said, “are you kidding me?”.  The look on Shane’s face always says it all.  So 4 grown men start going up this 75 ft. chimney that supposedly leads in to this “huge room”.  After about 20 ft, and in the pitch black I evidently mouthed something that stopped the group in it’s tracks.  “Craig are you ok?” Shane said.  Now I don’t have a fear of much, in terms of outdoor activities.  But I have to admit that scurrying upon what seemed to be loose boulders that had at some point evidently fallen down this blessed shaft with literally no room to turn around spooked me.  I told Shane that I had “gigantic chambers” in my mind, and hadn’t really prepared mentally for this.  So, it was at this point that I realized that I had mild claustrophobia.  I started asking what happened if some rocks shifted, or if somebody got hurt, or of there was enough air, or what happened if Shane got eaten by a giant bat and we were all left for dead.  After 5 minutes of some serious deliberation on my part, the men convinced me that it was ok; and I made the decision to press on.  I was seriously contemplating going back and setting that tent up again though, I must say.
The entrance to the first room made it all worth while (sort of).  It lacked the beauty I had imagined.  It was more like being on the moon or something.  It was chaotic, just massive piles of rubble inside of this immense room.  Your light couldn’t even illuminate the other side of the room. It was breathtaking, to say the least.  As it turns out, we had to scurry over these shards of rock and boulder (called breakdown) strewn across the cavern in order to get to the next shaft that lead in to chamber two.  It was a real workout.  Kind of like rock climbing, but underground.  Shane excitedly tried to explain how to find your way back to the crack that leads outside, but I asked why we shouldn’t just leave a glow stick.  I found out that in spelunking, “leaving a glow stick” is kind of like a wussy thing to do.  Never wanting to be a wus, I complied.
As we hiked, I thought to myself “what is this place here for?”  It’s totally inhospitable; kind of like how you would imagine hell, minus the heat.  Then it came to me clearly:  This was simply one of the “fountains of the deep” mentioned in Genesis Chapter 6.  This was one of the chambers that held all of the water that was released in Noah’s flood.  That cataclysm inside this cave evidenced this devastating event.  It was truly awe inspiring.  With some searching, Shane (who was last in this cave 10 years ago), finally found the passageway to room two.  I can’t remember if it was room one or two, but one of them had a cool underground river in it.  Ever wonder where the headwaters of a river come from?  It was eerie hearing the only noise you will ever hear in a cave:  trickling water (or giant shards of rock falling and crashing to the floor as had obviously happened quite a lot in this cave).
Finding room three was commendable.  It took considerable team work.  Lot’s of sliding down clay embankments which held no hope of getting back up (I was also told not to worry about this detail).  We were impressively coated with mud, and Josh and I were no longer cave virgins at this point.  In a cave, batteries are your life.  When you kill all the lights, it’s totally dark.  Of course I’ve got to say the most over used expression in caving: “you can’t even see your hands in front of your face”.  Without light you might as well just sit down and pray because you ain’t going nowhere.  We all had 3-4 flashlights, glow sticks, and tons of batteries.  It’s all about batteries.  It’s always 56° in the cave, which when you’re moving is quite warm, and we were all sweating and steaming.  Steaming is cool, but it actually rises up and somewhat obscures your head lantern, as does the vapor from your breathe.  That’s really annoying by the way, but I found that as long as you shut up, it wasn’t as much of a factor.  Lunch was great.  I set up a little candle lantern (an old backpacking relic) and we enjoyed a not-so- romantic light lunch.
After room 3, we hit this mile long tunnel called “the subway”.  It was a nice leisurely stroll, without any boulders, to the objective; the objective being a quite large underwater lake at the end of the cave.  I enjoyed the subway a lot, except for the skirting around this crater of death that we had to do.  We had to press up against the side of the clay cliff, using little thumb holes for stability; and scamper over a 3 inch slippery trail around some pit that leads down into some type of hole Shane said had very deep, very cold water.  It looked like the pit of hell to be honest.  I was praying in the Spirit during that whole time.  When we reached the lake, we had gone 6.5 miles and almost 900 feet vertical into the belly of the earth.   Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.  Amazingly, there were two one man inflatable rafts someone had left with paddles.  So, Josh and Rudy decided to paddle out onto the lake which was a finger like lake, very narrow, but very long.  I sat down and ate an apple.  The short of it is that Rudy’s boat started sinking, and Josh somehow fell out of his boat and got soaked from the waist down.  I never did figure out why he refused to change his socks, but he made it all the way back like a trooper (albeit with cold feet).
The final phase of our trip entailed 4 exhausted men high tailing it out of the bowels of the earth.  No matter what aspects of your life you are not happy with, when you are 6.5 miles into the belly of the earth, and under over a 900 ft. vertical of rock slab, just the light of day is a strong motivational force to return to.  Getting back out becomes the obsession, and I found a new burst of energy and motivation on the return trek.  I now knew what to expect, and I knew what spots lay ahead that I deemed to be difficult and this produced confidence in me.  We made it all the way back through the “subway”, traversing the pit of death.  We traversed the 4th room into the third and largest room, which is where things got difficult.  We navigated flawlessly to the back of the cave, but you probably never get lost on the way in to a cave, only on the way out.  In the third room, we somehow missed a turn.  We ended up on a 3 hour fiasco in which someone finally made the observation that we were going in circles.  Now the thing I found about caving is that as long as you are on the straight and narrow, everything is fine, but as soon as you introduce even the notion that you are lost, everything changes.  Every rock teases you, trying to confuse you:  didn’t I just see that formation?  You start to second guess yourself.  You seen things you recognize, but you don’t remember if it was from on the way in, or 15 minutes ago.  Footprints become all the more confusing.  Then, when you all start disagreeing, things get really interesting.  Shane in this situation was actually at a disadvantage.  He had 5 trips to this cave, but his logical knowledge of the cave layout  actually conspired against him to try and overrule his gut feeling.  It was Josh, with pure gut instinct and a fresh visual image, who ended up insisting that a previously passed over passage way was actually the way out.  We very tentatively ended up taking that passage, and from there on out, I left numerous glow sticks to show us what way not to go, so that we didn’t get turned around and head backwards.  We had to sit down and take a serious accounting of our resources, and weigh the possibility of having to spend the night in the cave.  By the way, if you ever go caving, take a watch.  Not knowing the time would freak you out.  You wouldn’t know if it were day or night.  Rudy was a voice of calm and really spoke encouragement over the group and basically forbid any of us from panicking.  We had to do some splitting up, which was at our lowest point.  Josh and I were commanded to stay put to anchor our position while Rudy and Shane scouted ahead to make a directional judgment.  You do a lot of soul searching in moments like that, and I wondered if I would ever do something like this again.  I surmised that it really depended on the outcome of this before I could answer that question.
In the final outcome, we all emerged from that cave 11 hours later having learned a great deal.  I realized that under the pressure of a totally unfamiliar environment, I did suffer from fear and doubt.  Some of that was fed by the knowledge that whenever Shane and I hang out and do something like this, something crazy and random always happens, so I was almost expecting it.  I learned a lot about myself with how I dealt with that.  I actually felt more confidence during the time of being lost for some reason.  Something just kicks in and commands you to be sober minded.  It was during the hike in and the unknowns entailed with that, that I faced the worst battles with myself.  However, during all this we all learned to respect the cave and take our time with thorough planning.  When we finally emerged it was 9pm, and the mountain air was crisp and cold, unlike the stagnant cave air.  All of them had to be back in Atlanta that night, and I decided to have them drop me off at a hotel because was too tired to fly and I couldn’t buy fuel because the airport was closed.  I ended up catching a ride to the airport the next morning from a local, and the flight home was smooth and uneventful.  With the wheels on the ground, I ended one of the most intense 24 hr. periods of my whole life I think.  I had been awake for 19 hrs. straight.  It was hard, trying, but definitely rewarding.  The fellowshipping with and persevering with 3 great brothers was definitely what made it all worth while.  You certainly wouldn’t catch me back in that cave without them!  I came home and found a renewed love for my wife and daughter.  Something moved in my heart, as if I was reminded of the fleetingness and fragility of this life.  It was all, in retrospect, a every positive experience.  I told the guys while we were hiking that I would probably have much more enjoyable and positive memories of this when it was over, than while I was in the middle of it.  It was more of a trial form me than anything else, but I’m glad I did it, and I’m glad that we were all able to conquer fear and emerge from that cave into the land of the living.

For You have delivered my soul from death.
Have You not kept my feet from falling,
That I may walk before God
In the light of the living?

Psalm 56:13

Craig Patton

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Camp's Gulf Cave
Camp's Gulf Cave
Camp's Gulf Cave
Camp's Gulf Cave
Camp's Gulf Cave
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Editor reviews

Camp's Gulf Cave 2011-11-16 15:46:47 Craig Patton
Overall rating 
Safety Rating 
Fun Factor 
Big Nuts Tilt 
Reviewed by Craig Patton    November 16, 2011
Last updated: February 18, 2012
Top 10 Reviewer  -   View all my reviews

Not for the faint of heart, very large cave system, do not go without someone who has been there before, the sheer size of it will disorient you.


Good Points
On of the largest cave systems in the world with massive interior caverns
Bad Points
Very Arduous, rough on the feet as it is continuous breakdown. Chambers are so big it's hard to see much interesting other than black.
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0 #1 Guest 2014-02-25 20:43
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