Dunbar Cave

Useful Information

Location: Tennessee State National Park, Montgomery County.
Interstate 24, exit 8 (Rossview Road), turn left on Rossview Road. Atfer 400 m turn left on Dunbar Cave Road. The park entrance is on the right after 4 km.
Open: Park: daily 8 until sunset.
Cave: JUL Wed-Sun 13, 15.
04-JUL 10, 13, 15.
02-JUL, 03-JUL, 17-JUL, 27-JUL, 28-JUL 18:30 (night hike).
AUG Wed 13, Sat, Sun 13, 15.
Fee: Park: free.
Cave: Adults USD 4.
Classification: SpeleologyKarst cave
Light: None, bring a torch.
Dimension: L=13,000 m.
Guided tours:
Bibliography: Larry E Matthews (2005): Dunbar Cave / The Showplace of the South, 145 pp, many photos, survey etc. Published by the National Speleological Society, Huntsville, USA.
Address: Dunbar Cave, 401 Old Dunbar Cave Road, Clarksville, TN 37040, Tel: +1-931-648-5526, +1-931-552-6221.
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.


6000 BC Dunbar Cave inhabited by local prehistoric people.
1790 Thomas Dunbar discovers the cave, Isaac Rowland Peterson had already staked a claim to the land. A lawsuit awarded the land to Peterson.
18?? used to mine saltpeter for gunpowder during the Mexican War.
1833 new owner is also named Isaac Peterson, he is the grandson.
1843 property acquired by John Nicolas Barker, a wealthy slave owner.
1858 developers saw the potential in the area, along with nearby Idaho Springs, and the first cabins were built there. After the Civil War, the springs and the cave were acquired by J. A. Tate, who constructed a two-story hotel on the site.
1879 Charles Warfield buys the property from the Chancery Court.
1882 the property is bought by J M Rice, C P Warfield and J P Gregory who develop the cave as a tourist attraction.
1886 lit by electric generator.
1887 sold to A B Barbour after the death of J M Rice.
1895 O D Thompson is the proprietor.
1920-1923 livestock conventions held at the cave.
1931 the area is host to numerous social events, including dances, concerts, and fairs, but the site is in need of repair and renovation. At the time, the state had just completed a new road in front of the hotel and an opportunity arose. A group of Clarkville businessmen cleaned up the site, adding additional recreational facilities, including a concrete swimming pool, bathhouse, and tennis courts, and restoring and expanding the size of the hotel. The existing lake was also dammed up increasing its size to 20 acres (81,000 m²).
1948 Dunbar Cave purchased by Roy Acuff, a Country and Western singer, and hosted musical festivities and entertainment shows, which would include big bands like Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. Acuff also added a golf course adjacent to the lake.
1950s the popularity of the cave and surrounding area declined, and the hotel closed.
1963 sold to McKay King.
1967 the pool was shut down and buried.
1971 show cave closed.
1970s modern era of cave exploration begins.
1973 acquired by the State of Tennessee, classified as a State Park.
2001 the park is shut down briefly during the state's budget cutting crisis.
2002 reopened.
JAN-2005 pictographs and etchings from the Mississippian Era (700 to 1300 AD) discovered.
2006 new bat gate installed by the Friends of Dunbar Cave.


Dunbar Cave is located 60 minutes northwest of Nashville and about one and a half miles northeast of downtown Clarksville. Dunbar Cave is the most prominent of several caves located in this designated natural area. In front of the cave, square dances, radio shows, and big band era concerts were once held.

The entrance is 5 m wide and 2.4 m high and in the summer emits a strong and uniform breeze which has a temperature of 10-15 °C. A roomy entrance passage leads to Counterfeiter's Room, so named after being used by counterfeiter's in 1824. Among the places of note are the Music Hall which is 0.2 hectares in area, up to 10 m high; the Ball Room, which is 15 m by 120 m in extent; Dunbar's Coffin; Spray Hall; Rocky Mountain; The Cathedral, The Saltpeter Mine; Lover's Leap; Peterson's Leap; Relief Hall; Great Relief Hall and Independence Hall. The latter is about 0.8 hectares in extent and contains a wealth of speleothems of all shapes and sizes.

The present day "Cave Hike" follows the old cave tour, but the lack of concrete pathways etc make this trip more difficult than the average show cave.

Text by Tony Oldham (2005). With kind permission.

In 2005 more than 30 prehistoric cave drawings and etchings were discovered. They were dated to be of Mississippian Age, which means created between 700 and 1300 AD. The drawings show stars, circles, crosses, a swastika and a figure of a Mississippian supernatural warrior. The drawings are generally interpreted as religious symbols. After the installation of a more secure gate at the cave mouth, to protect the archaeological findings, the cave paintings are now open to the public. There are 53 caves with documented prehistoric finds, but most are on private property and this is the only one open for public viewing.

Once every year an event called Cooling at the Cave takes place at Dunbar Cave. It is an old tradition which started when air conditioning did not exist. The women with their children came to the cave and stayed at the cool entrance area, where the cold air from the cave provides a natural cooling effect. After work the husbands met their family here for a dinner picnic at the cave. During the day, tables were provided for playing card games or bingo, in the evening the tables were removed to make room for music and dancing. Once the cave was owned by country music star Roy Acuff, who added an olympic sized swimming pool and many other amenities. During the Big Band era there were numerous concerts at the cave.

The cave lost its appeal in the 1950s, and was sold to McKay King in 1963, who closed the swimming pool. The golf course was sold, the swimming pool filled in, the bathhouse transformed into the Visitor center of the new State Park. And even the electric light was removed, today the cave is guided with handheld lamps.

Dunbar Cave is planning to revamp its museum. As far as we understand the realization of this project depends on public funding. A fund of $250,000 was promised in 2006 but later cut from the budget. Now again a fund, this time $400,000 is promised from the 2011 budget. It is dedicated for the research and design work for two new exhibitions, one about the geologic aspects and one about the human use of the cave in prehistoric and historic times.