Out with the old, in the with the new…at least that’s the typical thinking when a year ends and a new one begins. For us, it was kind of both. Adventuring is our norm, but this little trip was anything but the norm.
We’ve driven down I-65 through Kentucky and right past Mammoth Cave National Park many times, usually on our way to adventures in Tennessee or Florida, but have never stopped for a visit. When we decided to take a 3 day trip over the New Year holiday, we considered all of our usual haunts that were within a decent driving distance, but also had to consider what the weather might be like. But when it comes to caving, it doesn’t matter what the weather above ground is, it’s always mid-50s down below. Of course, we hoped to do some winter hiking as well. Mother Nature had different ideas.
We left home extremely early the morning of Dec. 31, and since I-65 is literally 3 miles from us, it was a quick 4 hour drive straight down the interstate to Cave City, Kentucky. The weather forecast for the weekend was highs in the 40s-50s and constant precipitation, very gloomy. Which is almost fitting, since one of the words often used to describe Mammoth Caves is “gloomy.” We arrived at the Mammoth Cave visitor center just as it opened, but we didn’t realize we would be crossing into the Central Time Zone, so we had an extra hour to kill before our pre-scheduled tour. We roamed the center, learning about the history and geology of the area.
At 10:30am CST, we boarded the buses to travel four miles to the “new” Mammoth Cave entrance, created back in 1921 by a businessman blasting his way into the caverns in hopes of becoming rich from a show cave. The downside to Mammoth Cave tours is the shear number of people. We were on the “Domes & Dripstones” tour with over 100 people. The first 10+ minutes of the tour is descending 300 steps through a vertical crag, before reaching “bottom” of this particular cave level (they say there are 5 levels of caves here.) From there it was mostly walking through varying sized caverns, occasionally stopping while the Ranger explained the history of the cave, and the background of the Kentucky cave wars, including the original owner of this particular cave. It was neat to know the limestone caverns we were walking through was formed hundreds of millions of years ago, when Kentucky was at the bottom of the ocean and south of the equator. Kaden even discovered a fossil sticking out of the cave wall! But overall, this portion of the tour was a little on the boring side. When we think caves, we think of formations like stalactites & such. Turns out, *most* of Mammoth Cave has no formations. These caverns have a sandstone and slate layer above them, protecting them from water seepage, meaning no formations. These were the “domes.” We worked our way to the front of the crowd, following directly behind the Ranger for unobstructed views. Finally, we reached the bread and butter of this tour, known as Frozen Niagara, the one spot on this tour where formations are alive and growing. Frozen Niagara itself is a HUGE flowstone, literally looking like a waterfall frozen in place. Below that formation is what they call the Drapery Room, full of dripstones and stalactites. The rest of the tour had more formations, but many were behind chainlink fencing to protect them from tourists touching them. The tour was about 2 hours long. Check out this video for the highlights:
The following day, we did our “First Day Hike” on the trails surrounding the Visitor Center. It was a foggy day with constant drizzle, but the fact we were out in nature for the first time in several weeks made it worthwhile. We hiked about 3 miles, down River Styx Spring Trail, and then up and around Green River Bluffs Trail. There were multiple springs to be seen, Dixon Cave entrance, the Green River flowing through it’s gorge, and rolling cliffs shrouded in fog. If it was this pretty on a dreary wet winter day, just how pretty would it be in the spring? Check out the video for the full experience:
Our adventure felt pretty much complete at this point. We had experienced a new place for us, done a cave tour for the first time as a family, and worked in our first hike of the year. So that Monday, Jan. 2nd, we packed up and got ready to head back to Indiana…but decided to do one more thing. While all the attention in this area is on Mammoth Caves, there are several private caves too. We decided to see what one of them had to offer in comparison to what we had experienced on the National Park tour, so we decided to visit Diamond Caverns. They are literally surrounded by the national park, even sold some of their land to the park when it formed back in the 1930s. Their cavern is one of the oldest in the area, discovered in 1859, and has been operating tours for more than 150 years. Our biggest hope was that Diamond Caverns would offer more cave formations than what we had seen on the Domes & Dripstones tour. We arrived at the caverns a little before 10:30am, but the family in front of us had just bought the last tickets for the next tour. So we had to wait until the next tour a half hour later. As luck would have it, NOBODY else showed up during that half hour, so Slone’s Wilderness Expeditions would be going on a private tour, just the three of us and our guide! Our only disappointment was that they don’t allow video on their tour (for safety reasons), but we could take all the pics we wanted, and we did. As soon as we entered the cavern, we knew this was going to be a very different experience than what we had from the national park. There were formations everywhere! We practically walked in on a flowstone (not really but right beside), and every step of the way from there were stalactites, dripstones, pretty much every kind of formation you could hope for. Our tour guide Natalie was patient with us as we took pics and asked questions. You could literally see the awe in our faces. The tour itself was about an hour long, not as long as our tour at Mammoth Cave, yet so much more to see! This is what we had come for, and what a way to end our trip. Check out the pics and video: