Big Bone Cave

Useful Information

Location: Bone Cave State Natural Area, between Sparta and McMinnville.
Open: Closed because of White Nose Syndrome (WNS).
With permit, after appointment.
Fee: Closed because of White Nose Syndrome (WNS).
Classification: SpeleologyKarst cave Mississippian Montegeale limestone
Light: bring torch
Dimension: L=15,494 m, A=294 m asl
Guided tours:
Bibliography: John L. Smyre, Ronald L. Zawislak (2007): Big Bone and the Caves of Bone Cave Mountain, Rocky River Press, Rock Island Tennessee ISBN 978-0-9779471-0-2 ISBN 0-9779471-0-6
Larry E. Matthews (2006): Big Bone Cave, National Speleological Society ISBN 1-879961-24-5
Thomas C. Barr, Jr. (): Caves Of Tennessee, Bulletin 64 of the Tennessee Division of Geology, 1961. See pages 451-460.
Address: Rock Island State Park, 82 Beach Road, Rock Island, TN 38581-4200, Tel: +1-931-686-2471.
Division of Natural Areas, 401 Church Street, 7th Floor L&C Annex, Nashville, TN 37243, Tel: +1-615-532-0431.
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.


1810 begin of saltpeter mining.
1811 discovery of the fossil skeleton of a giant ground sloth (Megalonyx jeffersonii).
1815 end of saltpeter mining.
1861 begin of saltpeter mining during the American Civil War.
1863 end of saltpeter mining.
1971 discovery of the fossil bones of a Pleistocene jaguar (Panthera onca augusta).
1972 first survey.
1974 purchased by the State of Tennessee.
1979 survey by Ronald L. Zawialak and John L. Smyre.
13-DEC-1981 human feces discovered by the Clayton County Cavers Grotto.
AUG-1984 archaeological study on the feces.
2009 closed because of White Nose Syndrome (WNS).


Big Bone Cave is named after the fossil skeleton of a giant ground sloth (Megalonyx jeffersonii), which was discovered in 1811. The skeleton is today in the collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. It also revealed numerous other bones, including the a Pleistocene jaguar (Panthera onca augusta), discovered in 1971.

The earliest human remains in the cave date between 3,000 and 1,500 years BP. Native Americans mined salts and gypsum. Salt is obviously very useful, even necessary, but the purpose of the gypsum mining is mostly unknown. It may have been used for religious purposes. The cave is very dry and so the artifacts they left are very well preserved, even items which would have decayed under other circumstances. There were numerous cane torches, woven moccasins, gourd fragments, and a woven fiber bag. Some itmes were C14 dated between 3,060 BP and 1,650 PB. There are archaeological excavations until today.

The cave was twice used for saltpeter mining, during the War of 1812 between 1810 and 1815, and during the American Civil War between 1861 and 1863. It was possibly the largest ever saltpeter mining operation in the U.S.A.. The first discovery of bones of a huge Pleistocene animal was during the first mining period. The remains of this era are also very well preserved. There are dozens of square-shaped leaching vats, wooden water pipes, and a few wooden ladders.