Mammoth Cave National Park & More
Sometimes the need to escape on a mini adventure is overwhelming. Weekend warrior is a well used term these days as so many people feel an increasing urge to escape the hustle and bustle, find some peace and enjoy the calming influence of the countryside. Last weekend we gave in to such an urge and made a charge down to Kentucky.
I’m not normally a fan of long weekend drives, it means spending less time at your location, but now and then, if there’s a big enough carrot at the end of the asphalt stick then I’ll make the dash. This week the carrot was a big one (over 400 miles in length in fact), called Mammoth Cave. I’ll admit, this park wasn’t particularly on my National Park hit list until I purchased a centennial celebration book last year and read up on it, since then I’ve been waiting for a chance to go peek. It was only established as a national park on July 1, 1941, a pretty recent addition, and it became a World Heritage Site in 1981 holding the title (by a long way) as the longest cave system on Earth.
We shot down from Chicago on Friday night, leaving at 7pm, which shows you how doable this weekend jaunt is, even from a distance. 6 hours later we were in Kentucky and following a quick motel stop and sleep we did the last hour on Saturday morning. The park campground is simple but actually wonderful. It’s spacious, tree-filled and quiet. As we set up our tent we noticed the huge piles of free firewood which caused me a minor heart flutter.
First on the agenda was a stop at the mammoth cave visitor center (an odd guilty pleasure of mine in any national park). I eyed up the souvenir mugs and then we browsed the center’s museum area, following the timeline of historical events from its formation, beginning around ten million years ago, to more recent history, including the use of slave guides in the 1800’s. One of the educational videos included a clip with a ranger, who still work’s at the park, and is a direct descendant of the most famous guides from that time.
With just enough time for a warm drink before the tour, we headed to the cafe. Now being British we consider tea a staple, whilst I am content with a highly caffeinated coffee Steph prefers a good brew. On arriving she asked for a hot tea to which the cashier replied ‘honey we got sweet tea, or unsweet tea’ which although was not what we were looking, for brought a huge smile to our faces. Then having sat down at our table with just a coffee for me the cashier approached Steph with a paper cup proudly holding out a tea bag she had somehow salvaged from the deep beyond. The hospitality down here might be some of the best I have ever come across and the people are genuinely wonderful.
Following our research, we headed out to the waiting area to jump on our green tour bus. I’m not kidding when I say I got excited at the sight of them, they reminded me immediately of the green Denali buses which dropped us off in the Alaskan backcountry wilderness a couple of summers ago.
While we were chit-chatting and sipping coffee, Steph noticed the Ranger walking over.
“Is that him?!” I blurted, seeing a likeness with the man we just watched in the short film.
“Yeah, I think it might be” she replied as we stared.
Sure enough, and completely by chance, we were to be accompanied by Jerry Bransford.
Jerry can trace his family back to the very first guides of the cave filled park, long before it was a park. In the early 1800’s the caves were already a tourist attraction, although at that point privately owned. Jerry’s ancestors were brought over from England, and as Jerry told us on the bus “they weren’t called slaves until they stepped on to U.S. soil.”
Jerry is amazing, a humble fast talker who gives an impassioned tour full of geological but also deeply personal facts, we were extremely lucky to have him guide us through the caves.
Mammoth Cave is, of course, an odd national park, despite its 52,000 acres of woodland and hiking trails, most of its treasures lay underground, and what treasure they are…
Our tour took us on a fast descent through thin crevices and wet walls, until eventually, we hit the start of our walk, just a couple of hundred feet below ground. This is not something to be taken lightly, these stairs were designed around the shape of the cave and are an amazing example of what modern technology can achieve. However, that still didn’t stop the family in front commenting every other step that an elevator would be an easier option. I personally thought they only added to the adventure and despite being the longest cave system ever found, it’s not all that deep.
We made our way into a chamber where Jerry gave a talk about the early explorers, before shutting down the cave’s light system, allowing us to be immersed in total, unnerving darkness. After ten or fifteen seconds I searched the various corners of the cavern, waiting for some dismal glow to find its way to my pupils, but no. There’s something striking about the revelation that you’re entirely cut off from sunlight.
The last section of the cave we explored on our 2-hour tour was a wonderful area full of stalagmites and stalactites. The natural sculptures have formed over long periods of time to create gothic looking formations which leave you absolutely in awe. They look like something off of a movie set or like they should be attached to a giants hand and on close inspection the build-up is a texture like nothing you have seen before or can even describe.
It’s worth noting that there are several Mammoth Cave tour options but they fill up fast and are available based on time of year and day. I would highly recommend doing one as this is the only way you can get into the underground cave system, however, the two-hour tour we took was an easy introduction, had season permitted we would have definitely been on the six-hour spelunking adventure!
That evening we camped in the mostly empty Mammoth Cave campground, it was March after all, and temperatures dropped below freezing. We felt none of it, snuggled in our bags, thermal layers and covered in an extra blanket we’d thrown in the rental car. It was glorious to be out of the city.
The next day we explored a little, the town of Bowling Green has a nice little brewery, and we enjoyed a meal in the hipster, craft beer haven. Our best find, however, lay perhaps an hour north. Apparently the most beautiful town in the USA, and certainly the prettiest in Kentucky, Bardstown held up to our scrutiny. Though mostly closed being a Sunday in Kentucky, it was extremely easy on the eye and filled with taverns, cafe’s, craft stores and more bourbon distilleries than you can count on one hand.
Pat’s Place, a small cafe owned by Patricia Adams is a quaint little store on the main street which boasts the ‘best burger in town’. We stocked up on coffee and eggs before we had to hit the road home. As we sipped coffee and let our food settle, we landed on two main conclusions: firstly, like the caves, much of Kentucky is a mystery and needs further exploring, and finally, we’re coming back.