Explore one of Alabama's most beautiful horizontal caves and witness some beautiful stalactite and stalagmite formations, as well as a 400-foot tall shaft with a waterfall, known as Topless Dome. A permit is REQUIRED before accessing the cave.

As Tumbling Rock Cave is a private property owned and controlled by SCCI, a permit is required to access the cave.  Permits can only be applied for online here, and once granted, SCCI will provide the exact location of the cave.  Caving is not only an inherently dangerous activity due to difficult navigation, lack of light, and hypothermic conditions, but caves are also extremely sensitive environments.  These unique requirements demand a strict code of caving practice to keep caves and cavers safe.  These rules are best followed under the guidance of an experienced caver for your first several trips underground.  An effective way to find experienced cavers to help you have a great time is to contact local grottoes such as Dogwood City Grotto (Atlanta), Huntsville Grotto, Birmingham Grotto, and Chattanooga Grotto. 

Jackson County in Alabama boasts one of the most cave-dense areas in the world.  Limestone deposits have eroded over hundreds of thousands of years, forming caves of all types in the TAG (Tennessee-Alabama-Georgia) region.  In the heart of TAG is Tumbling Rock Cave, a beautiful horizontal cave with 6.1 miles of surveyed passage.  Whether it is the peak of summer heat, or a frigid winter day, come check out this cave to enjoy a constant 58-degree subterranean adventure year-round.

Before we get into the good stuff, as a disclaimer I am by no means an "expert" with regards to this cave.  There are many chambers and passages that I have not explored yet, but I can provide some valuable information to help you explore this cave safely and have a great time doing it.  

Once you are granted a permit, you will want to print a map of the cave, which can be found here.  Caves can be very difficult to navigate, and that is still the case even with a fairly approachable cave such as Tumbling Rock, so bringing a map or two is imperative.  The last thing to do before heading to the preserve is a preliminary gear check.  Since this is not a very technical cave, you will not need a ton of gear, but I will highlight all of the essentials in the gear list section of this article.  

Once you get to Tumbling Rock Cave Preserve, you will need to get the gate code from Nathan, which locks the entrance to the cave.  The entrance to the cave is about chest-height so will duck down into the main passage, which quickly opens so you can walk comfortably.  Navigating here is pretty straight-forward, and you will take this all the way to Sugarloaf Mountain, a 15-foot tall half dome shaped formation with a unique texture.  You will stay to your left here, and follow the large corridor another 500 feet, until you get to the Elephants Feet room, featuring two impressive 15-20 foot columns that seem like they are holding the entire room from collapsing.  

After the Elephants Feet, the cave expands a bit with several forks in the road.  If I try to explain where to go at this point, I fear it will be more confusing than beneficial.  This is where the map will come in very handy.  If your goal is to get to Topless Dome or the Mount Olympus, then your best bet is when in doubt, stick to the right.  

Topless Dome is about a full mile into the cave, and you will know you are close when you have been crawling in a wide, but low passage for about 100 feet and you can start to hear the water falling from a hole in the roof.  A pile of rocks has been laid here, making the access to Topless Dome both obvious and easier to get in and out safely.  This bit requires a bit of strength and fitness to pull yourself up through the 3-foot wide hole, which you will share with a gentle waterfall.  If you weren't wet by this point, you surely will be now.  Once up the hole, a couple steps will find you at the bottom of the aptly named room, Topless Dome.  At 396-feet, the roof of the shaft is only visible with the brightest headlamps or a spotlight.  Looking up, you can try to spot the source of the waterfall, near the very top of the dome.  This is by far the most impressive feature in the cave in my opinion, as the magnitude of the pit is so hard to fathom, even when you can see it with your own eyes.

From Topless Dome, you can continue another 10 minutes to get to the Christmas Tree room, which features a stalagmite perfectly shaped as a Christmas tree.  In fact, during Christmas time it is even decorated with battery powered Christmas lights.  After the Christmas Tree room, navigation gets more difficult, more closely resembling rock scrambling than hiking.  Near end of the cave is another impressive feature known as Mount Olympus, a 200-foot mountain inside the cave which can only be climbed with extreme care, as it is fairly steep and slick with mud.  

As with all caves, Topless Dome is a different cave on the way back than it is on the way out.  There may have been passages behind you that you did not notice on the way out that would present unfamiliar forks in the road on the way back.  It is always good to stop periodically and check behind you to make sure you can recognize the room you are in on your return.  

Most importantly, caves are extremely sensitive living ecosystems so anything you can do to minimize your footprint should be taken into consideration.  As with all adventures, this means pack-in, pack-out, and that applies to your personal business as well.  Stay within the ribbons where they are present and DO NOT vandalize the cave with graffiti or even chalk. 

Due to a lack of online resources on this cave, I know this is not a comprehensive explanation of Tumbling Rock Cave and all its passages. However, I hope this can be useful to help you know what kind of epic adventure you and your friends are getting yourselves into so you can have a great time caving! 

Pack List

  • Helmet
  • Compass
  • Headlamp
  • Two additional light sources (extra headlamp, flashlight, spotlight, lantern)
  • Extra batteries
  • Water
  • Non-cotton clothes that can get really dirty (moisture-wicking fabrics work best)
  • Boots (waterproof helps)
  • Map
  • Pee Bottle (just in case)
  • Day Pack
  • A change of clothes for after the cave
  • Gloves (optional)
  • Knee Pads (optional)
  • Popsicle Stick Reflective Trail Markers (optional)
Show More
RT Distance 2.4 Miles
Elevation Gain 200 Feet
Activities Photography, Hiking
Skill Level Intermediate
Season Year Round
Trail Type Out-and-Back
Features
Bathrooms
Easy Parking
Groups
Scenic
Waterfall

Reviews

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Overall rating: 

Best wild caving in AL

Tumbling Rock is an incredible wild caving experience. There's so much to see and explore, and you could easily spend 6+ hours in this cave, just seeing the highlights on the way to and from Mt Olympus. I used to lead trips with UAB's outdoor program, and we'd run a couple trips to this cave every year, and it was always a favorite for trip participants. I'd definitely recommend going with a group that includes someone who's been before. This cave is massive, there are plenty of places to get turned around, and as Christian points out, it looks completely different on the way out, so always be mindful of your surroundings and make mental notes along the way as you consult a map. The Christmas Tree makes a good halfway point, where those who prefer to mostly hike or scramble and not squeeze through very tight spaces can opt to turn around. To continue beyond the Christmas Tree, you'll have to crawl through several tight spaces (one section is even called the Birth Canal). After several tight sections, with extended crawls, the passage will open up to massive chambers, where the cave ceiling is over 100 ft high in places. The scale is truly amazing. More scrambling will eventually get you to the base of Mt Olympus, and a very steep and muddy climb will get you to the top of what many consider to be the final turn around point (although technically you can veer right before Mt Olympus and get to a section called Tigers Teeth, but I've never done this and I've heard it's tough to find). At the top of Mt Olympus, be sure to sign the 'summit' notebook. And be very careful on your way down. One really awesome chamber to try and find is called the Inner Sanctum. Branching off the main passage somewhere between the Christmas Tree and Mt Olympus (near the opening where the final tight section opens up to a large main passage), reaching the Inner Sanctum requires a tight steep climb that will open up into a massive room. If there's a lot of water in the cave, there's even a small waterfall at one end of this room. You can continue climbing up several levels of the Inner Sanctum to enjoy the scale of this room. The waterfall in the Topless Dome is also referred to as King's Shower. You may want to wait to climb up the entrance to this giant shaft until you're on your way out of the cave, because you can easily get soaked here depending on the water levels. But it's well worth it. Definitely wear a helmet, and definitely bring a minimum of 3 light sources with extra batteries. Let someone know when you plan to enter and exit the cave. Keep in mind that although it's only about 2 miles into the back of the cave, any serious injury would require a very involved rescue that could take a full day or possibly more. This is a really incredible place to explore, and it feels like such a hidden gem. Be prepared and have a great time!


Please respect the places you find on The Outbound Collective.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

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