The site of the 280th largest cave complex in the world, Dunbar Cave extends 8.067 miles inward. A large concrete structure with three distinct arches stands in front of the entrance. Located in an area of karst topography which includes springs, sinkholes, and limestone bedrock, the cave was closed to tours and visitors in 2010 after a bat infected with White Nose Syndrome was found inside. It reopened in 2015.

Rare wildlife

Exiting the cave is a stream that forms a small lake inhabited by fish, turtles, and other wildlife. The cave itself is the habitat of several rare animals including the threatened gray bat (Myotis grisescens), a blind cave crayfish (Orconectes pellucidus) and the southern cavefish (Typhlichthys subterraneus). Cave salamanders, crickets and other animals as well as fungi and bacteria live near the front of the cave in the area known as the twilight zone.

cave entrance

Cave significance

Dunbar is one of the most prominent caves in an area where caves and sinkholes are abundant and has historical, natural, archaeological, and geological significance. The cave formed as the Red River cut through the Mississippian Age limestone two or three million years ago and lowered the water table. This allowed water to seep through small cracks and joints from the sinkhole plain above it to the Red River watershed. Over millions of years, the slightly acidic water dissolved the limestone along its route creating the cave.

Although the most visited parts of the cave are well known, unknown passages are occasionally discovered as spelunkers push into the more remote sections of the cave.

illustration on how caves form

Prehistoric cave art

With the constant stream flow and natural air-conditioning, humans have been attracted to Dunbar Cave for thousands of years. Recent excavations near the entrance revealed it to be an important archeological site. One projectile point found there dates back as much as 10,000 years to the Paleo-Indian culture. In more recent times, the cave was used as an important community center and even as a country music band shell owned by Roy Acuff, the first living inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Dunbar Cave is a remarkable prehistoric site for the entire Eastern Woodlands. Having been used for thousands of years, it contains significant prehistoric Native American Mississippian cave art dating to the 14th century.

A sacred place for indigenous peoples

For the Mississippian people who lived along the Red River in the 14th century, Dunbar Cave was a sacred place. The Mississippians believed it to be an actual portal into the underworld, the level of the universe that existed below the level where humans live. The Mississippians left many drawings on the walls of the cave, some in charcoal, some carved into the limestone itself. While the exact meanings of the drawings are unknown, even now the symbols remain sacred to modern indigenous peoples of the southeastern United States. Later dates inscribed on the cave walls include several from the Civil War era.

modern era cave drawing

person looking atoperson looking at a cave marking dated 1843

History

The entrance to Dunbar Cave was inhabited by local prehistoric peoples for thousands of years before settlers arrived. In the late 1970's, a team of archaeologists found artifacts dating back to the Paleo Indian time (10000–8000 B.C.). The bulk of artifacts found were dated to the Archaic period (8000–1000 B.C.). The area, while still inhabited during the Woodland period (1000 B.C–800 A.D.), was not as heavily populated since Native Americans at that time had started to rely heavily on growing crops, and the land around the Red River and Cumberland River was more conducive to agriculture than the rocky terrain around Dunbar Cave.

By 1784, the cave had been claimed by Thomas Dunbar, who paid for the land but never got the deed. Sometime around 1790, a land surveyor named Robert Nelsen realized this and claimed the land for himself. A legal battle ensued, and in 1792, the U.S. Government awarded the land to Nelsen. The Dunbar family was removed from the land, although the cave retained Dunbar's name.

On January 15, 2005, park specialist, Amy Wallace, geologist and author, Larry E. Matthews, local historian, Billy Frank Morrison, and history professor, Joe Douglas, discovered Native American pictographs and petroglyphs inside Dunbar Cave. By analyzing torches and other artifacts found nearby, the more than 30 drawings and etchings found in the cave were dated to the Mississippian era. Some of the pictographs are religious symbols. One depicts a Mississippian supernatural warrior.

Flora and fauna

The small lake attracts various migrating waterfowl during winter. Throughout the year, woodland birds can be found in the hardwood forest. Along the trails, barred owls may be spotted or heard most days. In spring and fall, migrating warblers are often abundant. Dunbar Cave also hosts an annual Hummingbird and Butterfly Festival in conjunction with the Warioto Chapter of the National Audubon Society.

person on a wooden walkway in a forest

trilliums blooming in a forest

yellow flowers blooming in a forest

White Nose Syndrome closure

In March 2010, a bat with White Nose Syndrome was discovered by researchers from Austin Peay State University doing assessments of species diversity and roosting patterns. Based on that finding, the State of Tennessee announced that Dunbar Cave was closed to all visitors and tours were discontinued. Since 2006 when the disease was first discovered in New York, it has spread to Ontario, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Tennessee, causing the death of over a million bats. The US Fish & Wildlife Service called for a moratorium on caving activities in the affected areas and strongly recommended that any clothing or equipment used in such areas be decontaminated after each use. The cave reopened in 2015.

Trail of Tears

Just 15 miles east of Clarksville is Port Royal State Park, a last recorded stop before the Cherokee left the State along the northern route. Observant hikers can often spot centuries-old roadbeds throughout the park. The oldest and most worn of these was used during the forced relocation of the Cherokee people.

trail marker for Trail of Tears

old roadway near a river