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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Winter in the Caves

During the holidays, Mr. K and I had the opportunity to take a long, meandering road trip from the Chicago area, through the deep south, to the Sunshine State. My goal was to check out the attractions each state was known for. I wanted to enjoy the ride. I wanted to make frequent and unplanned stops.

On road trips and in brochures, I'd become aware of a vast cave system in the Midwest. Coming from Florida, it's not the first thing you think about when you visit an area. I was making Kentucky a midway stop and thought it would be fun to finally stop and explore the caves. We added Mammoth National Park to our itinerary. National Parks are a great way to discover the United States. They conserve key parts of history and beautiful landscape that define our country.

Mammoth Cave National Park preserves the cave system and a part of the Green River valley and hilly country of south central Kentucky. This is the world's longest known cave system, with more than 400 miles explored. Early guide Stephen Bishop called the cave a "grand, gloomy and peculiar place," but its vast chambers and complex labyrinths have earned its name - Mammoth.

We walked through the museum area and waited for the tour. Park Rangers really know their stuff. Ever since the incredibly informational tour I stumbled upon in Castillo de San Cristóbal in Puerto Rico, whenever I visit a National Park I make a point to go on a Ranger-led tour. Some are free and some cost a few bucks, but it's worth it for the unique experience and knowledge shared.

The Park Ranger lead us through the Historic Tour that included a history lesson and explanations of what we were seeing and what we were going to see. He led us through the cave entrance through to a wide-open space. Much larger than I thought it would be. He described the tree-trunk pipe work and the people who had visited and explored the caves in the past. He told us how the caves were formed, the types of rock that made up the caves, and why there were no stalactites (lack of water). He described where we were in relation to the surface and the water below.

We walked through passageways cleared by the Civilian Conservation Corps and heard stories about the health spas set up in the caves to treat tuberculosis. We learned about Stephen Bishop, an eventually freed slave who made it his life's work to explore the caves. We learned about the fish Stephen Bishop discovered in the water.

Looking up at some of the rough rock formations made me feel like I was looking down at a topographical map. Names were neatly written on the ceiling. Our guide explained how visitors would mark their names into the rock with candle smoke.

We walked through wide spaces and down stairs so narrow we had to descend backwards. We carefully navigated through the Fat Man's Misery, a passageway so narrow through the bottom half that it was impossible not to touch the walls at some point as you twisted and turned through it. We had water drip onto the back of our heads as we looked down into deep dark pits. We ascended a long and steep staircase up into the dome looking at layers and layers of rock along the way.

This tour exceeded my expectations. It wasn't the Wild Cave Tour, but it still felt wild to me. There was raw rock all round me. While there was lights and paved paths in some areas, it was still more natural than most attractions. I could picture Stephen Bishop crawling on his belly through the cave and making the decision to turn down another passageway not knowing what he'd see next. It wasn't as sterile as the Grand Canyon overlooks where you admire nature from a distance. I was in the middle of it. I was squeezing through parts of it, and I liked it. Maybe spelunking is in my future! 

I'll be back for a weekend trip in the warmer months. The area has hiking, canoing, and other outdoor activities.

  • Wear comfortable shoes with good traction. It's not a long walk, but it's rocky terrain in areas. It gets slick in spots
  • Bring a jacket. It gets chilly underground even in the summertime. Bring a waterproof one if you have it. You will most likely get a little drop of water on you.
  • Bring tissues. The climate change might make your nose run.
  • Leave the flashlight at home. It's lit well enough and the Park Ranger will point out interesting sights with his flashlight. With tight areas at times, it can disturb others.
  • Plan for Central Time Zone. We drove out from Louisville so went in and out of the Eastern Time Zone. It worked out, because it gave us time to walk through the Visitor's Center.

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