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.

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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.

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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.”

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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

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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).

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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.

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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…

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We hung near the back.

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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.

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Some artifacts they’ve found in the cave.

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LET ME OUT OF HERE!

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

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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:

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

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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)