Slot canyons: Not just for Utah

Photo: Jesse Weber
Photo: Chuck Sutherland

The top photo on this page was taken by Jesse Weber. The bottom photo was taken by Chuck Sutherland. Each of them feature a magnificent slot canyon, and they look pretty similar. So where in the world are they? 

Would you believe they’re located nearly 2,000 miles apart? The top one is in southern Utah — which is exactly where you’d expect to find a magnificent slot canyon, if you know anything about the geology of North America. The bottom one, though, is located right here in our own back yard: in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.

The photo that Sutherland captured with a great use of lighting and slow-shutter tactics is of Devils Cave, located just a short distance from BSF headquarters west of Oneida. It has the distinction of being the largest slot canyon in Tennessee.

You don’t normally think of slot canyons when you think of Tennessee. Devils Cave isn’t the only one, nor is it the only one in the Big South Fork NRRA. One of the Volunteer State’s best-known slot canyons is Bailey Falls outside of Greeneville.

But Devils Cave is definitely the most impressive in Tennessee. It might pale in comparison to the slot canyons of the American West, at least when it comes to its size, but it is beyond compare in this part of the country. And, so, if the picture taken by Sutherland looks like a picture of something you’d find “out West,” well, there’s a reason that the Big South Fork region has been referred to as “Utah with trees.” Its geology often resembles the West more than it does the Appalachians.

A slot canyon is technically any gorge that is deeper than it is wide. There is a larger density of them in southern Utah — think Zion National Park — than anywhere else in the world.

We commonly think of Devils Cave as — just as its name suggests — a “cave,” but it’s actually not. A cave is an underground chamber. Technically, it is any underground chamber that is deeper than it is wide. But if you enter Devils Cave and look up, you’ll notice several natural skylights along its “roof” — that is, holes that lead to the outside world. Devils Cave isn’t fully enclosed from above because it isn’t actually underground so much as the passage of time and the eroding power of water formed an incredibly narrow passageway through the rock layers along the rim of the Big South Fork River gorge.

Some of that, of course, is needlessly technical. If you’re visiting Devils Cave, you probably don’t care that it isn’t actually a cave, and you probably don’t even care that it’s technically a slot canyon — even if it is Tennessee’s biggest. But that’s a pretty cool distinction, nevertheless. 

Often, when we think of slot canyons, we think of flash flooding. Most of the world’s slot canyons were formed by streams, and the conditions inside can quickly change. It can be sunny and calm where you’re at, but a thunderstorm several miles away can send a rushing torrent of water that catches you completely off-guard. In 1997, 11 hikers drowned in Lower Antelope Canyon in Arizona.

Because of its size — which pales in comparison to the slot canyons of the West — there is no concern of flash flooding inside Devils Cave. But, like the slot canyons of the West, Devils Cave was formed by moving water, and the small stream that flows through it can become quite a bit stronger after a heavy rain.

Like most of the world’s slot canyons, Devils Cave is always wet. Water seeps from the walls, its drips creating an echo throughout the passageway. Frogs, salamanders, spiders and even snakes live in the “cave” throughout the year. 

Devils Cave is technically off-trail. There’s a fairly well-worn foot path that leads from the parking lot at East Rim Overlook to its front door, but the trail isn’t signed, isn’t official, and the National Park Service will not give out its location if you call them up and ask. Their reasoning is well-intended. Visitors can unknowingly disturb fragile traces of geological and historical significance in these sensitive places. As a case in point: a few old-timers who lived around Oneida during the Prohibition era used to make moonshine in the back of Devils Cave. Its carefully-hidden location and omnipresent flow of water made it a perfect place for cooking up a batch of illicit whiskey. Until just a few years ago, the rock firebox from the still site could still be found inside Devils Cave, but it was destroyed by hikers.

Ben Garrett
Ben Garretthttp://gocumberlands.com
Ben Garrett is publisher of Go Cumberlands. He lives in Oneida, Tennessee with his wife, three kids and dog, Boone.

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