Stephens Gap Callahan Cave Preserve: Ultimate Travel Guide
In the words of Ev, this epic adventure deep in the countryside of Alabama was ‘unexpectedly amazing’. We’ve been waterfall chasers for a while now, and Stephens Gap Cave had been on our bucket list! This cave with a waterfall tucked away in Northern Alabama’s foothills of the Appalachian mountains was calling our names. After careful research, we made it happen this last January (2021)! (We’ve been all about the socially distanced hiking adventures this year!)
Whether you’re interested in hiking or rappelling into Stephens Gap Cave, you’ll find it awe-inspiring and every bit worth the road trip!
A Little History Of Stephens Gap Cave
Northern Alabama is well known for its famous caves. The Neversink Pit, (also owned by SCC – the Southeastern Cave Conservancy), Cathedral Caverns, Stephens Gap Cave, and the Russel Cave National Monument are some of the most photographed caves in the world!
In 2014, the Callahan preserve tucked away in Jackson County, Alabama, was officially purchased by SCCi. After a few avid spelunkers discovered the cave in the 1950s, people started coming from all over to explore. You may have seen the breathtaking photographs of humans suspended on vertical caving ropes surrounded by beams of light? More than ever the cave is becoming popular with social media, hence the need for the Southeastern Cave Conservancy to turn this area into a preserve.
After the 78 acres surrounding Stephens Gap were purchased from Nancy Callahan, SCC also purchased another 45 acres to allow visitors a chance to hike to the cave without trespassing on private property. Previously – to gain access to this cave you had to get permission from the owner. As any avid hiker knows, this isn’t always an easy feat!
Since the cave is an ecologically sensitive area, SCC put in place a permit system starting in 2015. This has allowed thousands of visitors access to the caves who previously never would’ve been able to visit!
When procuring your permits to see the cave – considering donating! Permits are free – but the upkeep of the Callahan nature preserve is not. It costs around $150,000 to maintain the preserve every year, and keep it open year-round for visitors. Considering that most national parks require a nominal entry fee, this stunning hike is well worth your donation!
How To Get To Stephens Gap Callahan Cave Preserve
In order to respect the hard work of the Southeastern Cave Conservancy, we won’t be sharing the address to the cave. However, we do have some tips once you get there! Cell phone service is spotty so make sure you take note of these tips and your driving directions before you start driving.
- On your very last turn, the directions to the address provided in your permit packet will take you right. GO LEFT!!
- You’ll see a black gate with a keypad. Enter the code you were given and make sure the gate closes behind you.
- When you park, put your permit in the dash of your car. (SCC does periodic checks!)
Although we haven’t given you specific directions, here are a few helpful tips for you weekend warriors!
Also take note that while you are passing through larger cities like Huntsville, you’re a good 45 minutes away from most restaurants, gas stations, etc. Getting to the cave trailhead isn’t particularly difficult, but does require a little pre-planning!
- The Best Road Trip Stops Off of I-65 – You’ll want to read this guide whether you’re coming North or South!
Getting A Stephens Gap Cave Trail Permit
‘It’s just a short hike to a cave.. why do I need a permit?’
If you’re asking yourself why you should get a permit, remember that not only is this a nature preserve – it’s a potentially dangerous one. In order to keep visitors safe and monitor the number of people going in and out – getting a permit is essential. If no one knows you’re at the park, it may be more difficult to get timely crucial help in emergencies.
Just last year – one person fell to their death while getting too close to the edge of the 143-foot pit. This is a very rustic area with no safeguards in place. Everyone climbs at their own risk. With that in mind, your permit is a liability release in the case that you don’t practice safe hiking. This is a casual plea that if you do go – don’t test your limits and try to get too close to the edge! We want this preserve to stay open for a long time to be enjoyed by everyone.
- Free Permits Obtained Here for Stephens Gap Cave SCCI
A few requirements to visit: no camping, helmets, and headlamps are highly reccomended, as well as sturdy hiking boots. DRONES ARE PROHIBITED!
Stephen’s Gap Callahan Cave Preserve Trails
The topography of Stephen’s Gap Callahan preserve is a mix of the the drier Highland Rim and the more lush Cumberland Plateau spanning the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. (Northern Alabama’s mountain range is the foothills of the Appalachian mountain chain that spans from New York all the way to Alabama!)
While the trail itself is a short 1.5-mile hike (0.75 miles in and 0.75 miles out), parts of it can be particularly difficult due to the region’s mountainous nature.
We hike frequently and still found ourselves glad we packed water, sunscreen, and wore sturdy hiking boots for this short trail. It’s not necessarily just a dirt trail like you’d find in many other places. The trail to the mouth of Stephens Gap Cave is rocky, and requires some hiking finesse!
As for the hike itself, you’ll pass a deep ravine that would be particularly epic in the spring, and hike up about 1000 feet in elevation before heading back down.
Make sure you pack water, hiking shoes, and any other gear in a backpack so that you’re hands free!
Once you’re about 0.6 miles in – you’ll start to hear the waterfall if there’s been decent rain recently. On the last leg of your journey (about 0.1 miles), you’ll see the upper waterfall through the trees! (The last 0.1 miles is also the most difficult part of the hike and requires a little scrambling up the hill.)
Rappelling Stephens Gap Cave
Vertical caving shouldn’t be undertaken by anyone without extensive experience or a guided tour. We’ve seen guided tours in other areas and it’s pretty incredible that the preserve allows people to do it! But if you’re not ready – please don’t try it! That 143-foot drop is incredibly dangerous for the inexperienced spelunker!
Not even that epic Instagram photo is worth the danger! The adventurous-looking trio of guys above? You’ll notice they were properly outfitted for vertical caving and rappelling. Upon asking, they talked about having been doing this stuff for years!
If you’re not going rappelling, there are still a few things you’ll want to take with you! A headlamp, hiking boots, and a hydration pack/backpack are essential. Keeping our hands free to climb and explore made the entire hike more enjoyable. (If you’re not going early morning or later in the day – the sun will be directly overhead and illuminate the whole cave! It’s still good practice to have your headlamp though in your bag just in case!)
- Hiking Boots
- Hiking Backpack / Hydration Pack – It might seem like a lot for a 1.5-mile trail – but you’re going to want to spend some time and explore!
- Bug Spray – Mosquitos in Alabama are no joke.
- Microfiber Quik Dry Towel – Dry off before you start your hike back if you’ve gotten near the water! This is our favorite antimicrobial, quick-drying travel towel!
What To Expect Inside The Cave
After you hike up the side of this little mountain, and you come to the edge of Stephens Gap Cave youâ€™ll take a left and climb down to the caves hikable entrance.
Even though this entrance is technically the â€˜easierâ€™ of the two entrances, the rocks are typically wet and slippery. (Hence why we recommend sturdy hiking boots!) Itâ€™s probably a good 20 paces to the bottom before you reach the mouth of the cave where youâ€™re sometimes greeted with your first little waterfall!
Inside the cave, the first thing youâ€™ll notice, and what surprised us, was the presence of an underground stream springing from the left and flowing towards the famous â€˜pedestalâ€™. We knew there would be a waterfall flowing from the mouth of the pit – but youâ€™ll notice that the stream that flows on the floor of the cave flows heavier than the waterfall.
Another interesting fact is that both streams of water come from an underground source! As you adventure through the crisp and cool air of the cave over to the sediment formed pedestal – youâ€™ll notice the waterfall comes from an area near the pits entrance but not actually from the top!
You should also be prepared for the fact that everything in Stephens Gap Cave is cool, slippery and wet. With mossy rocks, and a consistent mist from the spray of the waterfall – the area is continuously unstable underfoot! Getting to the pedestal means transversing over the rocks about 200 yards and doing a bit of climbing!
Best Time To Visit Stephens Gap Cave
As with any cave adventures, the best time to visit will be when temperatures are in your comfort zone – and they aren’t flooded, etc. Some people visit ice caves in Canada in the frigid temperatures and some people only have the desire to see caves when they don’t have to pack a bunch of gear.
If you’re the more adventurous type and you don’t care about temperatures – you can visit Stephens Gap Cave all year long with no problem. Temperatures in Alabama are rarely sub thirty degrees. We went mid-January and while chilly, it was honestly pretty amazing to still see a flowing waterfall during this time of year. (In Kentucky, the waterfall would’ve been frozen!)
If you’re looking to see Stephens Gap Cave at perfectly optimal weather – we suggest going early spring after a heavy rain or early fall. Both of these times will save you from the oppressive Alabama humidity, and mosquitos the size of bald eagles.
If you’re looking to add a few more awesome Alabama pitstops to your trip, we highly recommend two more stops!
- Lost Sink Falls, Alabama (About 30 minutes from Stephens Gap Cave.)
- The Rattlesnake Saloon (A hidden bar and music venue in a cave!)
Stephens Gap Cave is the 30th preserve owned by this company and they do great work to preserve the caves for future generations! For more caves near-by, visit SCCi
Cave Photography Tips
Stephens Gap is one of the most photographed caves of the Southeast United States. It’s not a hard hike, and there are plenty of places to set up for grabbing a great photo. If you’re considering getting some good photos of your adventure – you’ll need to consider a few things!
#1 – Bring a tripod. The cave is very slippery and not necessarily easy to photograph. You’ll need a sturdy tripod to set up your camera.
#2 – Use a wide-angle, low aperture lens. It’s dark inside the cave and the best way we found to photograph the cave in its entirety was a wide-angle lens with an even bigger aperture.
#3 – Make sure you know how to use the Bluetooth function on your camera to your phone. (We also recommend getting an easy fanny pack to slip on to put your phone in so that you don’t have to hold it while you’re making your way to the pedestal!) To get shots of yourself on the pedestal – you’re going to need a Bluetooth-capable camera. You don’t have time to run to the pedestal safely from the best vantage points for your camera.
#4 -Go to Stephens Gap Cave early. Although there aren’t many people allowed a day due to the permit system, you’ll still need to get to the cave early if you want to get a photo of yourself without many other people there!
Where To Stay Nearby
If you’re looking to stay overnight in this area – you can camp or stay in one of Huntsville’s best hotels!
- Camp for FREE at Stephens Gap Cave (Just select that option on your permit registration!)
- Parnell Creek RV Park – Within 20 minutes
- Monte Sano State Park Campground – Closer to Huntsville with stunning views!
Huntsville has a plethora of incredible hotels available for your ‘Rocket City’ adventures, and you’re only about 45 minutes from a good night’s sleep and good food after visiting the cave!
- The Westin
- Element Huntsville – Really pretty!
- Huntsville Marriott at the Space & Rocket Center – Add the Space & Rocket Center to your weekend getaway!
Save this post for your Alabama Weekend Getaway!
Until next time friends,