Smokey Caverns was discovered in 1985, a result of getting lost in another cave. We were exploring a cave (which we eventually mapped and named Murphys’ cave) north of Sand Gap, when we got turned around and found ourselves in chest deep water. One of our party did not have a wetsuit and was getting chilled, so we headed for a dryer side passage. When we got there, we found graffiti! We knew the long gone vandals had not come in the way we had, and we quickly found ourselves headed out a ‘new entrance’ up the valley a few hundred yards. Trudging back to the cars, parked near the first entrance, we startled a local family relaxing on their porch. Here was a group of muddy, wet, and probably pretty stinky strangers cruising past their front yard. Curiosity got the best of them and a long conversation ensued.
Turned out the valley was full of caves. The local family was describing them when one caught our attention. They told us about a valley a short distance away, where they used to burn wood for charcoal (you couldn’t go the Piggly Wiggly and get a bag in those days). In certain conditions the smoke would enter a cave high in the valley and exit out of the entrance we had just come out of. Always a sucker for a good story, we took off looking for this cave. Sure enough we found a large entrance in a high broad flat section of the valley. Around the corner, we found yet another.
Coming back we quickly surveyed the stretches between the two upper entrances. We called them the Upper Upper, and the Lower Upper because we were sure we would eventually connect them to the entrance we had come out of below. We named the cave ‘Smokey Caverns’ to honor the history. During this survey we found the pit our friends had warned us about. Local story has that a woodcutter was killed when he went exploring and fell down it.
It was quickly rigged in a way to keep out of the water and was descended. This 30 foot drop led directly into the Oasis room, a huge room with high ceilings and a sand beach (thus the name). We pushed around this room looking for the fabled connection for quite a while, and found nothing. All the downhill passages seemed to pinch. We found a up valley facing passage, and started following it only to find it went around the back of the oasis room, and then trended straight down valley. We were on our way. Here too we found proof of our friends stories. All along the passage we found large deposits of charcoal in sand or dust like form. We named this Charcoal crawl. This crawl goes for some distance, sometimes getting smaller and sometimes crawling through breakdown. However a terminal breakdown ends down valley progress. There are numerous crawlways under the terminal breakdown, most tight, but not all pushed out.
Meanwhile, work started on the first cave – Murphy’s. John Neack climbed a dome, and we soon found ourselves in a passage that matched charcoal crawl, right down to the charcoal deposits. When surveyed this passage also has the same trending. However the same terminal breakdown stymied us. Several dig trips have headed up there, and we have had faint voice contact but the two caves remain unconnected to this day.
Smokey Caverns is in Forest Service land, and is presented in this guide. Murphy’s cave is not and is not included.