In the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park of Tennessee, nestled within the mysterious Craighead Caverns, lies a remarkable wonder that still baffles geographers today—the “Lost Sea”. This underground wonder is celebrated as the largest underground lake in the United States and is considered the second largest in the world. Its depths, however, remain unknown, which only magnifies its enigma.
The Lost Sea measures an impressive 243 meters in length and 67 meters in width at first glance. However, these dimensions only account for what one can see with the naked eye. The intrigue deepens below the surface, where the lake’s true extent is hidden. Despite the use of sonar and other advanced technologies, the lake’s bottom has never been charted. Its size has stirred the imagination of many, including the likes of Jules Verne, who might have envisioned it as a gateway to the center of the Earth.
Many divers have attempted to explore this underwater labyrinth, venturing into its network of tunnels that seemingly go on forever, splitting off and leading to more chambers filled with water. Reports suggest that this body of water is an endless maze—one that has yet to be fully explored. With each dive, new tunnels and chambers are discovered, but no end is in sight.
The Lost Sea is often compared to Dragon’s Breath Cave in Namibia, which is also cloaked in mystery and currently holds the title of the world’s largest underground lake. While Dragon’s Breath Cave is estimated to be about 2 hectares in size with a depth of roughly 100 meters, the exact measurements of the Lost Sea are still unknown, leading many to speculate whether it might outstrip its African counterpart once its full scope is revealed.
The discovery of the Lost Sea dates back to 1905 when it was stumbled upon by a 13-year-old boy named Ben Sands. While playing in the caverns, he squeezed through a narrow tunnel, roughly the size of a bicycle tire, for more than 12 meters and found himself plunging into the lake. Fortunately, he landed in a shallow area where the water reached only up to his knees. Sands managed to escape and shared his discovery of a site that has since been used for a multitude of purposes throughout human history.
Remnants of various cultures and timelines have been found within these caves. Artifacts such as gunpowder and saltpeter left by Confederate soldiers suggest the caves were used as an arsenal. Pottery and arrowheads hint at a Cherokee tribe seeking refuge. Waste from European settlers indicates the caverns may have served as storage spaces. Even the footprints and bones of a giant Pleistocene jaguar, measuring two meters and weighing 225 kilograms, have been unearthed. Additionally, the caverns are home to awe-inspiring stalactites, stalagmites, and rock formations dating back millions of years.
During the 1970s, exploratory missions of the Lost Sea ceased, and it transformed into a tourist destination. Visitors to Craighead Caverns today can embark on various tours and even enjoy a boat ride on the surface of the lake. The impact of droughts has sometimes lowered the water level by more than 10 meters, raising questions about the water’s depth and what secrets it may hold. With climate change and human presence, one wonders how these factors will affect the Lost Sea, which remains one of the few natural enigmas that has resisted full human understanding and domination.