Cascade Cave Location | Google Maps
Carter Caves State Park Location | Google Maps
Having just finished up an extensive day of hiking along the 33 miles of trails in Carter Caves State Park to see all of its arches, I stopped by the Visitors Center to inquire about taking a cave tour. As it so happens, having just missed the tour for X-Cave, I was just in time for the last tour of Cascade Cave. If you visit the park during winter, the schedule for cave tours is limited to two per day with those two caves being your only choices. Seasonal walking tours of Saltpeter and Bat Cave are offered from Memorial Day-Labor Day. Unlike most of the 29 caves in Carter Caves State Park, Cascade Cave is located just outside of the parks main property, 2.3 miles away in the Cascade Caverns State Nature Preserve. Taking the 8 minute drive south, I pulled back into the Box Canyon Trailhead parking lot to meet the rest of the group on this ranger guided walk.
Following the short gravel path towards the start of our tour, we reach the metal door guarding the entrance to Cascade Cave. As opposed to just one single cave, Cascade Cave is made up of three separate caverns; Cascade Cave, North Cave, and Cascade Falls. While the tours length is only 0.75 miles long, the tunnels in this cave system go much further. Created over millions of years, this caves passageways were carved by two distinct processes, chemical and mechanical erosion, which is typically what we find in the predominantly limestone bedrock of Kentucky.
As rain water falls it picks up carbon dioxide from the air, which then mixes with the soil to create a weak acid. Once this acidic water reaches the bedrock below the soil level, it slowly dissolves the porous limestone along joints and fractures. These small openings can eventually become large enough to form caves. Just imagine, it takes at least 100,000 years of erosion to widen a cave large enough to hold a human.
As the limestone dissolves, it is broken down into different minerals which can solidify into some gorgeous natural formations that can often be mistaken for jewels. The first section of the cave has a small, but striking display of calcite crystals that shine when exposed to light. Water rich in carbonate (Ca) usually in the form of condensation forms a thin film over stalactites and stalagmites that crystallize over time. Some of this condensation was also used by early cave explorers as a way to navigate in and out of the dark tunnels. Condensation only forms in areas where air from above ground and below ground mix, letting you know that you are near an opening. This is how some of the first guides were able navigate the dark tunnels when tours began at Cascade Cave in the 1870’s.
This entry room at the start of our tour is also known as the Dance Hall. As guided tours began to become more popular, the original cave owners were constantly coming up with ways to draw in more visitors. One of their concepts involved holding square dancing events here all throughout the 1920’s. Still today, the park uses this room for screening movies able to hold up to 300 attendees called, “Cave-In Movies”. The hall is also used for receptions for geology students from Morehead State University, a recording studio for local artists, and a venue for wedding ceremonies.
Heading deeper underground, we follow the path down a few of the 225 steps scattered throughout the tour and emerge in the largest room of Cascade Cave. The Lake Room is named for the large reflection pool that accumulates in the center of the room. At the far end of the pool flows an underground river, that exits the cave through a wide opening directly ahead of us. The rivers origin is a small natural spring emanating from the hillside above us. Recently, during a period of heavy precipitation which saw 5 inches of rain drop within a week, this gentle river swole to the point of flooding this entire room. The erosive force of this river is thought to have caused a large cave collapse which severed the link between Cascade Cave and North Cave. While there still exists a large natural opening where the water flows out, a small portion of that was enclosed to preserve the caves atmospheric conditions.
This is the part we exit out of onto a wooden boardwalk leading to North Cave. Emerging out from the mouthlike opening of a massive cliff overhang, we get our first view of the remains of this cave collapse. Stretching in front of us is the wide valley which this river flows into. The scene is reminiscent of the entrance to Batmans’ secret cave. Just around a bend, we climb a staircase and step inside North Cave. Consisting of a wide, tear drop shaped cavern, it holds an area known as the Cathedral Room.
This tall room has a natural chimney that on occasion would allow enough rainwater in to cause a small flood. To combat this, a drainage system in the form of this large steel pipe was installed to divert water out of the cave. As we head deeper into North Cave we enter the Graveyard, known for its stalagmite formations that resemble a mausoleum and grave stones. On the other side of this is are more cheerful looking formations; the corn dog and a wedding cake. Another notable aspect of this area is its large collection of soda straw and drapery formations.
Leaving behind North Cave, we re-enter Cascade Cade and walk over to the roped off entrance of a large passageway. Cascade Avenue, as its called, is a wild passage with giant sinkholes leading down to even deeper parts of the cave. Along our route we spot a tall flowstone named “melted ice cream” as we enter a narrow underground canyon. It’s in this area, in the rubble of a cave collapse that the Cascade Caverns Natural Bridge exists.
This is one of a few rare underground arches that exists in Kentucky and one can only see by permission from the guide. Clinging tightly to the ceiling above our heads here, we catch sight two different species of bats. The larger of the pair is a common Indiana Bat, with a noticeably smaller bat right beside it. Measuring only 8 to 10 inches from wingtip to wingtip is the microbat species known as the Tricolor Bat. This threatened species of bat is one of the rarest found living in Carter Caves State Park.
The entrance into the last room on our tour is reached by ducking under an expansive flow stone formation named the Frozen Cascade. The Garden of Eden, as it’s called, is a junction where the main tour route and the wild passage of Cascade Avenue meet to form a wedge. The wall dividing these two areas bears a stark resemblance to a dragon laying on its belly with its wings stretched back. Within the wall is a circular entryway that could possibly be classified as an arch. As we are allowed to enter a small portion of Cascade Avenue, we look up in dismay at the dozen bats perched on the ceiling just above our heads.
A few of these bats are identified as being another once rare species not usually found in Kentucky until recently. The Seminole Bat once had an exclusive habitat along the southern edge of the Gulf states, primarily Texas. In the 1970’s, their population began to migrate outside of its normal range into parts of southern Kentucky, Missouri, and Virginia. Some of this has been attributed to the effects of climate change and unseasonably warmer winters in northern climates.
From here, we walk out of Cascade Cave through another heavy steel door and head towards a solitary cavern with the highlight of this tour. Descending down a spiraling set of stairs, the passageway here ends at an overlook of Cascade Falls. The source of this waterfall is a natural spring located in the hillside above the tiny cave. Water from this wet weather creek flows through several underground channels before taking a 30 foot vertical drop into a little explored section of Cascade Cave.
While this concludes our guided tour, it’s only the beginning of what’s sure to be multiple return visits to Carter Caves State Park. With three more cave tours plus two wild caves, there is still a ton of caving that I plan on doing here! As always, make sure to check the Kentucky State Park website to check the tour schedule while planning your trip. Tour times are very limited through most of the year. Until next time, see y’all on the trails!