Brandi & Candace
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
Dunbar Cave sits in Clarksville, Tennessee, about an hour from my home in Bellevue, so less than an hour’s drive from most places in Nashville. The park itself is 144 acres, and the cave is eight miles long. This cave has had several different uses in Tennessee history, including mining saltpeter in the Mexican American War, counterfeiting, concerts and performances, but most importantly, a religious site for the Native Americans. Symbols and art in the cave suggest the sacredness of the cave to the indigenous Tennesseans from 800-1550 AD. There are 53 caves in North America with prehistoric carvings, and all of them are on private property and inaccessible... except for this one, which makes it especially cool.
In 1784, Thomas Dunbar paid for the land. About six years late, surveyor Robert Nelsen realized Dunbar never registered the land and got the deed and tried to claim the land for himself. In a legal battle, the state of Tennessee ruled in Nelsen’s favor, removing the Dunbar family from the property, but the cave kept the Dunbar name. After the Civil War, J. A. Tate purchased the land and built a two-story hotel on the property. Over sixty years, the property added a bathhouse, a swimming pool, tennis courts, and other amenities. The property was purchased by Roy Acuff in 1948 for $150,000 and added a golf course and used the property as an entertainment venue, but popularity waned. In 1963, the property was purchased by McKay King, who operated the cave for tourism purposes. In 1973, the State of Tennessee purchased the land for $267,000 to become a state park and preserved natural area.
The park hosts a Spring Fling event yearly in May, the annual Cooling at the Cave concert, and an annual dance hall event called Dunbar Cave- 1865! They have cave tours in the summer, three times a day, that you can book online. There are five hiking trails- the Lake Trail (.7 miles), the Short Loop Trail (1.1 miles), the Recovery Trail (1.9 miles), the Dunbars Path Trail (.15 miles), and the Grasslands Tail (.75 mile).
We didn't explore a lot of the park ourselves, but did the cave tour by purchasing tickets through the Tennessee State Parks website. It was an hour long, and about a mile and a half. We went into the cave, with flashlights, in the pitch black darkness where we couldn't see our hands in front of our faces. We got to see the prehistoric artwork, and the park ranger was very knowledgeable. We truly enjoyed this!