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Visit The Forbidden Moonshine Caverns of the Appalachians

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A series of caverns in the Smokey Mountains provided a perfect lair for bootleggers looking to make some illicit liquor during Prohibition. The government eventually cracked down on these subterranean "moonshiners," but you can still visit their secret underground distilleries today.

You have to admire the bravery of the moonshiners taking over these maze-like caverns, which dot much of the Appalachian Mountains, thanks to water creating criss-crossing patterns through the porous limestone. As difficult as it is to navigate these caverns nowadays, with flashlights, it would be way harder by lantern-light. But that same difficulty in navigating through the dark tunnels made these places the perfect hide-out.


Unfortunately, the materials and equipment needed to make moonshine was large and unwieldy, so it was only the most expert moonshiners who set up their stills in nearby caves. The ample source of water — particularly cold water — in many of these caverns only aided the distillation process. Water is vital to the distillation process, since a cool liquid is necessary to condense the high-percentage alcohol vapors created during liquor-making.


The caverns scattered across the Southeastern United States also provided a hiding place and steady stream of supplies for groups of thieves and bank robbers on the lam. Thieves would often take advantage of the winding trails and the shroud of darkness to lay low or hide their spoils, in the days following a successful caper.

Prior to the illicit uses of the caves in the early 20th Century, Native Americans made use of several of the caves to shield themselves from harsh elements of Winter, while Union and Confederate forces often took shelter in these limestone tunnels during the Civil War.


As Prohibition ended, so did the need to create large quantities of moonshine underground for commercial sale. The moonshine operations moved above ground, where their legality continues to be questioned, but the caves themselves became major tourist attractions.


You can visit caves used in moonshine operations throughout the Eastern United States, with caverns in Ohio and West Virginia open to tourists, as well as the “Forbidden Caverns” of East Tennessee. According to the My Smokey Mountain Vacations website:

The one hour tour takes visitors through a half-mile loop around the cave, so wear comfortable shoes. There are steps to traverse - 9 up and about 50 down - so the cavern is not handicapped accessible. Older preschoolers should have no problems on the walk (provided they aren't afraid of the dark or enclosed spaces), but this may not be the best choice of attraction for younger preschoolers or toddlers. And while most people realize that bats live in caves, it is highly likely that you will see one or more bats on your tour.


Top image via Matthew Venn/Flickr. Additional image by MarkScottAustinTX/Flickr. Distillation unit image by brankomaster/Flickr.