Between Two Worlds
Experience Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park.
By Larry Rice
MORE THAN 2 MILLION PEOPLE visit Mammoth Cave National Park each year. About 500,000 of them come for a guided tour of the mysterious underground frontier—the longest cave system in the world with more than 365 miles of known passageways.
The rest of the visitors explore the park's more-familiar surface world. They get to enjoy the 52,830 acres of pit-marked, rolling land that harbors rare plants, the largest virgin forest in Kentucky, an unusually diverse aquatic ecosystem in the Green and Nolin rivers, and wildlife—deer, raccoon, beaver, red fox, coyote, hawks, owls, and wild turkey, to name a few.
With 85 miles of aboveground hiking trails in the park, your troop or crew will have plenty of opportunities for backpacking before probing the dark and silent labyrinth below. Find the best hiking opportunities on the north side of the Green River, the sluggish waterway that divides the park.
One particularly noteworthy route: the Good Spring Loop Trail with a side trip to McCoy Hollow, a 12-mile trek ideally suited for a weekend getaway. The well-marked trail winds up and down oak-covered ridges, along pebble-filled streams, and through quiet hollows laced with small caves and waterfalls. This is the Kentucky that Daniel Boone would have seen. Scattered sinkholes and limestone outcroppings help you understand, and appreciate, how the worlds above and below are closely intertwined.
Four designated campsites are spaced along the route; all have a nearby water source, except McCoy Hollow. At night, with the whip-poor-wills and barred owls calling, the ghostly hills and hollers can seem downright spooky at times. However, if you hear strange, scratching noises and growls in the dark, don't worry too much. You won't find bears here, but raccoons can present problems if your camp isn't clean.
When you're finished exploring the park's surface realm, it's time to go underground. Fourteen miles of trails in the cave are maintained for 16 different ranger-guided cave trips. If you're going to do only one spelunking excursion, try the three-and-a-half-hour "Introduction to Caving Tour." It's described in the brochure as "a good choice for families who want to learn and experience the basics of responsible caving. Although difficult, this tour visits passages off traditional routes. It requires some hands-and-knees crawling and squeezing through narrow openings on the belly."
The park provides helmets and lights, but you must furnish required footwear, kneepads, gloves, and clothes that you don't mind getting slimed.
Tour ticket price: $23 for adults, $18 for youths. Participants must be at least 10 years old. For reservations (strongly recommended), call 877-444-6777. Or visit recreation.gov.
LOCAL WISDOM: At the Good Spring Loop trailhead, visit the Good Springs Church cemetery. The weathered tombstones suggest the hard lives of frontier folk—many died young.
PRIME TIME: The best times to visit are in spring, when the hills burst with blooms and all the streams are flowing, and autumn, when the foliage glows red and yellow and there are no bugs. Speaking of bugs, you'll find ticks and chiggers during the warmer months.
ACCESS: Mammoth Cave lies in south-central Kentucky's scenic hill country, about 90 miles south of Louisville or 90 miles north of Nashville, Tenn. I-65 passes within a few miles of the entrance. Exit at Park City or Cave City. Obtain a free backcountry use permit at the visitors' center, cross the Green River by car ferry, and go about three miles to the trailhead at Good Springs Church (a half-mile west of Maple Springs Group Camp).