Bristol Caverns

Useful Information

a historic postcard, a colored black and white phtograph of Mayor Preston's Conference Room.
Location: I-81 exit 3 near Bristol, Hwy 421 southeast 8 km.
(36.548916622102226, -82.12092251418689)
Open: 15-MAR to OCT Mon-Sat 9-17, Sun 12:30-17.
NOV to 14-MAR Mon-Sat 10-16, Sun 12:30-16.
Closed Easret Sunday, Thanksgiving, 24-DEC, 25-DEC.
Fee: Prices are not published.
Classification: SpeleologyKarst Cave Speleologyriver cave.
Light: LightIncandescent Electric Light System
Dimension: T=13-15 °C.
Guided tours: D=1 h. V=50,000/a[2007]
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Address: Bristol Caverns, PO Box 851, 1157 Bristol Caverns Hwy., Bristol, TN 37621, Tel. +1-423-878-2011, E-mail:
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.


1863 rediscovered by Samuel Sesler while digging a cellar.
1944 opened to the public by Mr. Kitt.
1981 purchased by three brothers, Gary, Tom, and Charles Barnett.


Bristol Caverns was already known to the Native Indians. In the frontier days, they used the Underground River as an attack and escape route in their raids on settlers. At least according to legend. Another legend tells about Betty Bishop, a local woman of extraordinary beauty. Many women were jealous, but one of them decided to hire a hitman to kill her. The hitman dumped her body into the entrance of the cave where it was found after a few days. From this day the cave was generally called Bishop’s Cave.

The cave had at least two natural entrance, but both were rather narrow. The locals did not care much about caves and so its existence was forgotten. It was rediscovered by Samuel Sesler while digging for a cellar in 1863. We guess what he discovered was a new entrance, and he used it to explore the cave. Then he converted it into a business venture by renting space for storage and growing produce. We guess the last point is also legend, while the temperature and humidity would allow growing fruits and vegetables all year, including winter, we guess the lack of light is a huge drawback. Plants need sunlight to grow.

The cave was converted into a show cave and opened to the public in 1944 by Mr. Kitt, a local. He also renamed the cave Bristol Caverns, because he did not want to admit his business was named after a murdered woman. Probably a bad decision, as cave visitors like such creepy stuff. He built concrete staircases and paths with metal handrails. Quite exceptional was that he used limestone gravel and clay to produce concrete in the same colour the cave floor had, so the trails would blend in seamlessly. At this time conservation issues were unheard of.

Today the cave tour shows three levels of the cave. The lowest level has a cave river which is actually crossed on bridge. Cavers call such river caves active caves, which means they are still in the process of being formed. The river is eroding the cave passage which continually grows. This level has few speleothems but shows interesting erosional forms. The other two levels are fossil levers without cave river. They show a wide range of speleothems including stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, and bacon rinds.

The cave is today owned by three brothers, Gary, Tom, and Charles Barnett. They worked at the cave as tour guides while in high school, and when the cave was for sale years later they bought it. Beneath the local legends the guides tell a lot about the geology of the area and cave formations. The cave is a popular place for school field trips and Boy Scouts.