Tag Archives: Kentucky

Adventures Above and Below Ground- Kentucky Cave Country

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:

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Winter Hiking in Kentucky

You probably know that Slone’s Wilderness Expeditions has taken a real liking to the Red River Gorge Geologic Area in east central Kentucky over the past year.  So it probably comes as no surprise that on a weekend in January, when temps were predicted to approach 60 degrees, that’s where we headed! No camping this time, we headed down before the crack of dawn Saturday morning with a one night reservation in the Natural Bridge Resort State Park lodge.

We arrived in the area just after 10am, and took the obligatory cruise around the scenic byway (Nada Tunnel is not to be missed).  Our plan was to hike Tarr Ridge East, as it is a little known ridge with amazing views.  However, upon arriving at the trail head parking, it was full.  What I hadn’t counted on was that all the park gravel roads were still closed due to a snow storm from a week before, meaning all the weekend hikers were left to the border trails off the scenic byway, instead of the more popular trails in the heart of the park.  As we continued driving around the byway, the story was the same with most all trail heads.  We finally found a spot off the Angel Windows trail, so we went for it.  Angel Windows is a short half mile hike out to the main attraction, two small arches just tall enough to walk through.  One of the arches looks like a horse bending it’s head down, at least that’s how we see it!  We continued around the arch and explored cliff faces and rock shelters, admiring the landscape still covered in snow and ice.

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Angel Windows

Afterward, we continued around the byway and back to Slade and the state park.  With all the RRG trail heads full, we knew there would be plenty of parking here.  We decided to hike the Whittleton Arch Trail (part of the larger Sheltowee Trace), which starts at the back of Whittleton Campground and follows Whittleton Branch.  While the temps in the sun were quickly climbing into the 50s, this trail follows the stream at the bottom of a long ravine where little sun reaches, keeping the temps hovering around the freezing mark.  The trail was only listed as a mile long, but it sure seemed longer than that, as hiking on snow covered trails is about as difficult as hiking on loose sand, but more slippery.  Once you reach the Whittleton Arch, though, it was all worth it.  The stone arch is actually the longest in the geologic area, because it was originally a deep rock shelter that had the back side cave in.  Somewhere around 50 feet of ice was hanging off the front as the snow above melted and trickled down into the colder ravine.  The only thing that can make this landscape even more spectacular is the ice formations of winter.

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Front of Whittleton Arch

After a good night’s sleep at the lodge, we stayed close and headed straight up the Original Trail, the very first trail created by the logging companies from a century ago when the logging companies owned the rights to this land.  The Original Trail is the most direct route up the cliff to Natural Bridge, and was very slippery in spots with trampled down snow turning into ice in spots.  But the beauty can’t be denied, at times surrounded by the greenery of mountain laurel, the sounds of a trickling stream, and cliff faces pock marked with crazy erosion designs.  The trail comes out right under Natural Bridge, a true spectacle, but only one of many such natural arches in the geologic area.  Getting to the top involves shimmying through Fat Man’s Misery, a narrow crack between the rock face just wide enough to pass through sideways, made more difficult when wearing backpacks! Once on top, the view is expansive.  Crystal blue skies above, snow down below (none on top as the sun had melted most of it the day before).  We walked across and up the ridge to Lookout Point and Lover’s Leap.  At the point where the ski lift reaches top, a crew of men were working on a new landing deck for the lift, should be nice this summer for those who prefer that route vs. the hike.

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Natural Bridge

I had expected the state park to be very busy, but the trails we were on were much less crowded than those out in the gorge the day before.  We walked back across Natural Bridge and took the Balanced Rock Trail down.  It is a longer, more scenic route, with more mountain laurel and more cliff faces and rock shelters to explore.  Stairs were plentiful, definitely glad we were going down instead of up.  Once to the bottom, Balanced Rock stood out like a fossilized UFO sitting atop it’s landing post.  Shortly after is another rock shelter, but this one actually has a cave entrance (gated to protect the bat population) that exits on the other side of the ridge, where the Original Trail begins.

And so went yet another awesome hiking weekend in the Red River Gorge.  That’s five visits to the area in the past year, and we’ve still just scratched the surface.  Looking forward to spring and getting back into backpacking!

Video Adventure:

Going Wild in the Clifty Wilderness of Kentucky

The July 4th weekend is one of the busiest for camping, busiest for getting outside in general.  So what is a family to do if they want to enjoy nature and find solitude on such a busy weekend?  Head to the wilderness, as the crowds rarely make it to the back country.  So that’s just what the Slone’s Wilderness Expeditions did for this Independence Day, we drove down to the Clifty Wilderness of Kentucky, located within the Red River Gorge Geologic Area, within the much larger Daniel Boone National Forest.

Camp in Clifty Wilderness
Camp in Clifty Wilderness

We arrived before the break of dawn at the rest area in Slade, KY, on the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway on July 3rd.  It had rained hard on the way down, with flash flood alerts popping up on my phone.  Once dawn started creeping up on the eastern horizon, we picked up our backcountry permit from the local Shell station and headed south to Rock Bridge Road into the Clifty Wilderness.  We found the pull off we wanted, with access to an unmarked trail that leads all the way to Swift Camp Creek a few miles away.  Camp was quickly established about a thousand feet off of Rock Bridge Road, this way we were away from everybody, but could still access the car if needed. For the record, never once did another soul come down that unmarked trail, it was true solitude.

Rain was in the forecast for the entire weekend, so we decided if we were going to get wet anyway, might as well do a hike that included a creek.  We made our way to the end of Rock Bridge Road to the picnic area, and took off down Rock Bridge Trail.  Parts of this trail are paved, but it is very old, broken up, with roots coming through, so don’t think you can take a stroller or wheelchair down this trail (not to mention stone steps and creek crossings).  The trail immediately begins descending into ravines cut out by Rockbridge Fork and Swift Camp Creek, with the trail often tunneling through rosebay rhododendron (mountain laurel).  The trail felt very much just like some trails we have hiked in the Smoky Mountains, perhaps with more scenery in a shorter distance.  We came up a large rock shelter with a small waterfall coming down, where we took some time to climb around.  As we made our way on down the trail, the roar of an upcoming waterfall was unmistakable.  The view above Creation Falls and the grotto it creates is a very special spot indeed, even though we’ve seen similar waterfalls and canyons in Indiana, the surroundings of the Clifty Wilderness are unique and give this area a much more secluded and ancient feel.  We found our way down to the creek, where we slipped off our shoes and waded to the waterfall for some photo opportunities.  We had it completely to ourselves for a good 40 minutes before another group of hikers came along, so we let them have it to themselves while we headed on down the trail.  Not far from the falls is the namesake of the trail, Rock Bridge.  The Red River Gorge is famous for having the largest concentration of stone arches east of the Mississippi, but this one is a little different, as it is the only arch here that forms an actual bridge over a running stream.  Pictures don’t do it justice, it is definitely larger in person.  We wanted to climb on top of it, but the rocks were still very wet from the the previous night’s rain, so we hiked on.  Our intention was to hike beyond the Rock Bridge Trail and up Swift Camp Creek Trail to that unmarked trail that lead back to our campsite, which included another arch, the Turtle Back Arch.  So we passed the trail back to the picnic area and headed up Swift Camp Creek Trail, which borders the creek but up above on a bluff looking down on the creek.  In many spots, the trail was only a couple feet wide with a sheer drop off to the right.  When views opened up through the rhododendron, the Swift Camp Creek was beautiful flowing through it’s canyon, with house-size boulders in some places, and waterfalls running off cliff sides.   We found the unmarked trail and headed up it, but ran into a roadblock when we discovered the trail required some rock climbing to get up to Turtle Back Arch and beyond.  There was a rope there to help get yourself up, but again the rock was wet, and trying to get a 10 year old and a Siberian Husky up that small cliff didn’t seem the safe thing to do.  On our own, Robin and I would have totally gone for it.  After some exploring and finding other less-than-safe options, we decided this far in the backcountry wasn’t the best place to be taking chances with our child.  So we finally decided to backtrack to the trail we had bypassed earlier and made our way back to the picnic area.

This is when the backcountry gets the best of us.  About 6pm, a drizzle starts, so we get a campfire going for dinner.  The drizzle slowly turns to a rain.  A constant rain.  We scarf down some hotdogs and crawl in the tent.  With the rain unrelenting, we call it an early night.  And all night, it rained.  Nonstop.  When we got up around 7am, it was still raining, and everything was wet.  Our expensive backpacking tent, complete with the rainfly and it’s vestibules, could not hold up to more than 12 hours of soaking rain.  Water had pooled under our tent, allowing seepage from the bottom, and our backpacks inside the vestibules soaked up the rain as well.  We were completely miserable.  The rain lightened to a drizzle so we could finally make coffee, and by 9am it had mostly tapered off, but the trees above kept raining on us with every shift of the wind.  We made an executive decision to pack up camp, count our losses and be better prepared next time.  About noon we headed out of the Clifty Wilderness, but the sun had come out at this point (it’s such a tease), so we figured we might as well get some more exploring in.  We drove up Skybridge Road to the picnic area there, and walked across the second largest natural arch in the RRG.  Again, there is no such thing as a bad trail in the Red!  Even though this one was fairly short (0.7 miles), it had amazing views of the gorge and surrounding cliffs, the arch itself makes you feel tiny, and the rock shelters and sheer cliffs you walk under take you into another world.  Our bad mood from the drenching rain of the night before was replaced by our natural sense of awe and wonder.

Our final destination was Chimney Rock picnic area where we ate lunch, and planned on when our next excursion into the Red would be.  Expect a return trip very soon.