Studying in Style

Even though I took a break from blogging, I didn’t take a break from the outdoors. I did much of my studying for Greek exams in South Park, sometimes more casually and sometimes a little more structured.

south park field octThese pavilions were the best to knock out several hours of work, listening to my new favorite radio station, WYEP.

south park table octI can’t wait until the weather improves so I can work outside again!


Mammoth Cave National Park — The Hike (Part 3)

Finally part three! After our cave tour we decided that we should go for a hike to check out some of the more popular places near the visitor center.


We descended down the paved trail that led us to the historic entrance, and then continued down this gravel path. It was a very steep trail, so that having a stroller made me more than a little nervous. The topography of the area is quite interesting, since the Green River lies deep down in the valley and the underground rivers and streams which make the cave flow right into it, without any waterfalls or rapids. So we headed down to one of the biggest cave-tributaries, the River Styx.


It was drier than I expected; had it been a little deeper and a little less…disgusting, I might have brought Michael down there to dip him in head-first while holding onto his ankle. Then, learning from Thetis’ mistake, I would have sunk the ankle as well. You can never be too careful. It’s too bad (or “a really good thing,” depending on how sane/lame you are) that Cait responds to these epic (!) ideas of mine with a simple, “You’re ridiculous.”



My Little Achilles

After having descended as much as we did, we weren’t in the mood for a steep return ascent. So instead of going straight back, we took the long way around:

long way around

It doesn’t help that National Parks Service maps don’t typically include contour lines, so I had to guess based on other features that the map did include (like streams and creeks) to avoid steep hills as much as possible. After an initial ascent, we got some great views of the River Styx from about 100-150 feet above it:




After walking alongside the hill/mountain/cliff, we continued on into some forest with rolling hills. We came across an old cabin along with a deer. We have about a dozen deer that live near our house (read: in our backyard)…you’d think that seeing a deer in a National Park wouldn’t be a big deal. You’d be wrong.



We next hiked over to the mouth of the other significant cave-tributary, the Echo River, which emerges from underground as a kind of spring, rather than out of a cave like the Styx. Somewhat underwhelming:


Now we prepared ourselves for the ascent back. It was rocky, which was both interesting and challenging, on account of the stroller. This was a more manageable section; they’re obviously trying to prevent trail erosion.


We thought we were making it close to the top when we came upon an entrance to the cave which has been closed to us lay folk. I gather that with the proper training, documentation and permits you can gain access to more remote sections of the cave along with these more challenging entrances.



We thought we were done climbing, and then we began to descend again. It’s simple but important: on loop trails/hikes you begin and end at the same spot, and so at the same elevation. So any descent you have to “pay for” with an equal and opposite ascent. So we were not in the mood to be going downhill at this part of the hike! We were, however, able to get a shot of a significant sinkhole, the Mammoth Dome Sink. I promise there’s a cave under there.


Fifteen minutes later we were back to civilization. Given how many people were at the visitor center I was shocked at how few people there were on these trails that were right nearby. The park has 80+ miles of trail and we only covered about four, on trails in the visitor center detail portion of the park map. We were hardly in the backcountry, but only came across a dozen or so people on a summer weekend in an otherwise crowded park. I guess people don’t want to stray too far from the bathrooms and fried food. If you’re looking for a calmer park experience, walk for five minutes into the woods!


See that 1 inch pink square? Here’s the close up, and we hiked only about half of the trails included here. For the record: Visitor’s Center to Historic Entrance, down River Styx Spring Trail, down the Echo River Spring Trail, then up the Mammoth Dome Sink Trail, past White’s Cave and the sinkhole, then along the Heritage Sidewalk (ahem) back to the Visitor Center.

mammoth-cave-trail-map visitor center

Great hike and great park. As you can see from the big map, Mammoth Cave lies just a few miles west of I-65. If you’re ever driving by, you should stop in for a visit!

Mammoth Cave National Park — The Tour (Part 2)

[Sorry for the delay folks!]

We got up bright and early on Friday morning, which was a bit easier because this part of KY follows Central time. We had to pack and check out of the hotel by 730 in order to get a good spot in line at the visitor center before it opened at 8:15 CDT (if we ever come back, the thing to do is to stay at a bed and breakfast much closer to the park; Cave City is a good 6 miles out on small, slow country roads). We got our tickets for the 915 Mammoth Passage tour almost immediately (thankfully). We decided that the Passage tour would be the best, since it covered 3/4 mile over 75 minutes, as opposed to covering only 1/4 mile over 75 minutes. The so-called “Fro Zenaygra” tour was the same length of time, covered less ground, and more expensive. Both were categorized as “easy,” which at National Parks means, “easy for people who sit on their couch all day eating junk food while watching health shows and medical dramas.”

We had some time to burn, first by getting our stuff together in the car:

mammoth cave car


Since they allow neither strollers nor backpack carriers on the cave tours, Caitlyn had to wrap Michael up. We were to gather at “shelter A” for our tour, just behind the visitor center. We got there a little early:


The visitor center is relatively new, and backs right up to the path down to the historic entrance to the cave. So they built this bridge over the descending trail to get from the restaurant, hotel etc. to the new center.


You can see the new center in the background of this cute “mama and baby” shot:


OK, so we started the tour promptly with Darlene, if that was her real name. She gave us some background and some safety tips as we walked down to the historic entrance. Along the way there were some cool rock formations like this one (the photo doesn’t do justice to how tall this thing was, around 40 feet).


Before we descended into the cave she started talking about how we’re going to have some fun and learn some things about liberty, about how an enormous hole in the ground (my words) are a “testament to the liberty we all have as Americans” (her words). Call me skeptical. So we started down the stairs into the historic entrance of the cave. Of course I forgot a jacket, but was actually pretty comfortable down in there.


Lighting was pretty terrible in the cave, as you might imagine, and so I had trouble working Cait’s new camera. So while neat, some of these pictures are bad quality. Early on there were some lights in the cave that made it possible to get some shots. Unlike other caves I’ve been to, this one was particularly open, with no low ceilings. Of course, we were on the “easy tour,” but I was not expecting 20 ft high ceilings! We could have totally brought our carrier backpack…



We hung near the back.


The Rotunda.  Terribly focused.

You can see the dome. I was surprised that it wasn’t lit well enough for the camera to focus; you can see the lighting.


Some artifacts they’ve found in the cave.




Some old wooden pipes to get water in for ancient mining.


And we’re done.

The tour ended with a 5-10 minute discussion of freedom. I wasn’t sure what the cave had to do with freedom. I think she was trying to say that the original owners of the cave were free in their ownership and use of it, and we’re free to use it now. But even that doesn’t make much sense, especially considering the fact that the cave was effectively taken from the original family to be made a national monument. Probably for the better, but I wouldn’t call that so much a “testament to freedom” as a “pursuit of the common good.” She was also sure to mention something about the sequester and its effect on the parks service, so that “You’re not as free as you were a few years ago.” So, not really sure what Darlene here wanted to say, but it sure made me feel good about being an American!

In any case, after leaving the cave I took a picture of Michael (now asleep) and the lens was fogged up. Made for and interesting picture:


And here he is, still asleep, in the visitor center museum:


All around a fun tour. We had some time to burn while he slept until our late morning hike!

(end of part two)

Mammoth Cave National Park (Part 1)

mammoth cave

Three part series on our trip to the Mammoth Cave National Park in south-central Kentucky.

Last week we had the opportunity to travel south for one of Cait’s friends who was taking her first vows as a nun. Not something you see everyday:

sisters cakeTwelve newly professed Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia, with their wedding cake (Nashville TN)

So while we were down there, I decided it might be nice to visit a national park, especially since we were going to be driving right through one. We stayed at a Super 8 in Cave City KY, which was surprisingly tolerable, save one spider and one beetle (that we know of…). Thursday evening after getting back from the reception we went exploring a bit in the park.

sand cave sign

We went on a quick hike, advertised as 0.1 mi one-way, but it turned out to be a tad longer. This was the site of a failed cave rescue 90 years ago, when the cave was first gaining widespread attention. Cait was trying out her homemade baby wrap (I looked for a link on her blog, but I don’t think she’s posted on it yet). She wanted to practice because the cave tours don’t allow baby carriers or strollers in the caves, for obvious reasons.

sand cave cait mlb

This is one of 3 trails in the park that are fully accessible, and as the sign says, you are supposed to stay on developed trails. But as you can see, this is a pretty boring “developed trail,” with a pretty boring view of the cave:

sand cave 3

So I decided to look for other “developed trails,” and I found one, just to the side of the viewing deck:

sand cave trailI’ve never been too keen on a strict interpretation of “developed trails.”

After walking pretty far down there, I could get a much better glimpse of things…here’s a shot of the viewing deck from where I was, and a shot from the deck of me:sand cave collage

From down there I could get right up close to the cave without going in.  It looked pretty interesting, but I started to get nervous having just read about the tragic death which made this cave famous.

sand cave 2

Quick 30 minute excursion, hiking a total of 0.7 miles according to MapMyHike. Great intro to the park, but I was itching to plan the next day’s adventure. So we stopped by the visitors’ center and picked up some maps and guides and talked to a ranger about the cave tour options. We were particularly interested in a tour that Michael would enjoy…scratch that, a tour that we would enjoy having Michael along with us. The ranger kept recommending a great tour for people who have trouble getting around, the “Fro Zenaygra” tour. It took a few times and we realized he was saying “Frozen Niagra,” but eliding the words. We also considered the “Mammoth Passage” tour, both of which keep some of the spots reserved for same-day purchase only. At which point I realized we’d be getting up early to fight our way for a spot on those tours.

We headed back to town for some dinner. It’s hard not to bring those maps to the dinner table, which in turn makes it hard to think about or listen to anything else…oops. I was just so excited! After the obligatory Frosty for dessert we turned in early to get ready for a long day on Friday.

(end of part one)

Gilfillan Farm and Park

gilfillan trail

Cait and Michael at the trailhead

We finally went across the street to Giflfillan Park, a small park off of US 19 across from the mall near our neighborhood.  It’s a working farm and a historical site with a loop trail that goes around the perimeter.  The trail was supposed to be 1.25 miles long, but my MapMyHike measured 1.5 mi.

We saw lots of bunnies…Mikey got excited once we got him to look in the right place to see them hop away.  The loop takes you up about a 100-150 ft elevation gain so that on the back end of the loop you can look down on the field:

gilfillan field pretty

…and to your right, there’s a beautiful Target and if you really squint you might catch a glimpse of the Bonefish Grill.

gilfillan field ugly

That part was a little depressing, but we’re lucky to have anything like this at all so close to suburban madness.  Cait snapped this photo of me up on the hill and worked her photo editing magic…I’ve cropped it for the sidebar.

bootach gilfillan

It was a nice and short little hike, and we finished off the loop hiking alongside US 19 with this farm on our right:

gilfillan farm

Apparently it is maintained entirely by volunteers.  The two scarecrows are dressed as a “postman and postmistress.”

Great little excursion for a Saturday evening!

Just Get Out There! (South Park, Again)

It’s been hot along the mid-Atlantic over the last week or so.  Hot and oppressively humid.  After dropping Cait off at work on Friday, I had two options: mow the lawn before it got too hot, or go hiking before it got too hot.  Of course, I went hiking.  Among other things, I had to try out the new sunshade!

mike poco sunshade

We did a quick one hour, 3 mile hike on some new trail in South Park.  I think there’s probably over 25 miles of trails in the park all told, so there’s still lots more to discover.  It’s great we live so close.  After putting on some all natural bug balm we hit the trails.  Some highlights from the trip: 3 wild turkeys, inadvertently sneaking up on someone whose golf ball was wayyy in the rough (the park backs up to a golf course), finding a neat little creek that has a remote feel, and of course an overturned portable toilet:

south park

I’m glad I let the grass grow a little long.  As a philosopher-in-training, I often have to remember the words of William Forrester: “the first key to writing is to write, not to think” (I’ll include this clip because I love the scene and, as it happens, there’s some great advice about how to wear your socks at the beginning…seams can cause blisters!). In other words, thinking can often get in the way of doing.

Similarly, the first key to getting outdoors is not to go shopping for gear, or to ask advice, or to look at a map.  The first key to getting outdoors is just to get out there!  I’m not suggesting that you go unprepared, not at all: always be prepared.  But don’t let striving for perfect preparedness lead to debilitating inactivity.  Go on some low-intensity trips to well-populated parks and it won’t be a big deal if you wear the wrong shoes, forget a first aid kit, can’t figure out the map, or run out of water.  This is how we learn to be prepared.  I guarantee you’ll learn more spending an hour wandering around your local trails than spending an hour reading blogs (yikes, Jon).

What’s a park near you that you’ve been meaning to visit?  Get out there!

Mingo Creek Park — Visit 2

This morning we visited Mingo Creek Park for the second time (the first was a few days before Michael was born last August).  It’s a great little park in Washington County PA that has flat running trails and more rugged hiking and biking trails.  Cait went for an hour-long run while I took Mikey for a hike, again in the carrier, but this time with my gaiters, pants, and trekking poles.


Mikey, as usual, is calm but unimpressed:


He’s wearing that hat again…it has a little chin strap, but my boy hates hats…so I was told to make sure not to lose the hat (foreshadowing?).

I wasted about 10 minutes or so hiking the wrong direction (I really need to learn how to tell where a road intersects a trail and where it just misses it, but most of the time it’s the map’s fault, I promise…more on this in another post).  Because of the detour I was able to get some pictures of the creek and the covered bridge along the park’s main drag:



After getting back on track and hiking up a very muddy hill, the real trail opened up to a grassy field.  At one point we even got a glimpse of the park’s model plane field.  I should mention that I was happy that the park bothered to blaze trails with color codes at all, but the blazes there are really only at trailheads.  And with lots of side trails without constant blazes, staying on the correct trail can be difficult.  Fortunately, I’m good at that part of land nav.



Besides these two fields, most of the hike was in the woods and quite muddy, so I didn’t think to take any photos of that. We did come across an interesting rock formation and waterfall, but the hill was too muddy and steep that I couldn’t get close to get a good picture.  Here’s the full size, if it helps:


So after 2.9 miles and just short of an hour I walked up to Caitlyn waiting at the car, and she immediately asked, “Where’s his hat?”  AHHH!  OF COURSE!  Throughout the hike I would notice him trying to pull it off, and then give up.  So I figured it was still around his neck.  NOPE!  For the last five or so minutes of the hike I didn’t check to see if he still had it, and of course that’s when he finally threw it off.  Without much trouble we found it, but it was a little stressful.  I mean…it’s a cute hat, if you don’t remember:

cute hat

I began to feel bad that Mikey had been all strapped in for his entire visit to the park, so we let him dangle his feet in the creek, which was pretty fast-moving after recent storms.  I think he enjoyed it, despite his expression, whatever it is.




All in all, a fun Saturday morning trip to a park.

Goal for next time: get out of bed earlier so that we can spend more time out!