Theres more than just caves at Mammoth Cave National Park! Living an hour and a half from the park, I find myself coming here several times per year to get away from the city and relish in the country air. Im particularly fond of the National Parks, making it my 6th visit this year alone! If you missed it, earlier this year I traveled to Glacier, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, and the Smoky Mountains.
What most unprepared visitors don't realize is that cave tours usually sell out pretty quickly and are on a limited schedule depending on the time of year. I have been one of those visitors myself, deciding to drive down on a whim to catch a tour and being greeted by "SOLD OUT" notices above all of the tours. So if you find yourself in the same situation and feel that your day is lost, never fear, you can still go for a hike!
Mammoth Cave National Park contains roughly 84 miles of mixed trails. The immediate area around The Visitors Center contains almost 20 of those miles. These trails are some of the most accessible and scenic hikes that anyone can trek and still remain relatively close to all of the amenities the park has to offer. I spent this past Sunday hiking these trails and reacquainting myself with the beauty that the hollers of south central Kentucky have to offer.
Sand Cave Trail
This easy 0.2 mile trail is located literally in front of the Mammoth Cave National Park sign along state highway 255. Most people discover this trail when they pull over to take a selfie in front of the iconic park entrance. This paved hike takes you on a leisurely stroll to the sight of a historic tragedy within the caving community in the early days of the park.
On January 30, 1925, local cave owner and well known cave explorer Floyd Collins descended, alone underground searching for a cave in a better location. The Collins family's cave, Crystal Cave, lay too far off the main route to attract many visitors. Crawling through a very tight squeeze on his way back to the surface, Collins kicked a rock lose behind him, pinning his leg. Constrained by the tight passage, floyd Collins was trapped, 60 feet below the surface. A partial collapse of the cave passage way, triggered by rescue efforts, resulted in the loss of his life.
After enjoying this first glance at the mystery and beauty Mammoth Cave has waiting for you, continue up Highway 255 for several more miles until you reach the visitors center. Along the route you will undoubtedly come across Little Hope Cemetery. This cemetery with over 200 burials has markers dating back as far as 1857. This is just 1 out of at least 7 cemeteries within the park.
Once you leave the visitors center with map in hand, you will more than likely wander south towards the mass of people walking down a ramp between the visitors center and lodge connecting bridge.
This paved path meanders down a hill strewn with moss covered boulders and exposed limestone cliffs. Its absolutely gorgeous, especially this time of year with all of the colorful fall foliage to contrast the cool blue and gray tones of the natural stone. Before you know it you will reach the historic entrance to Mammoth Cave!
The natural opening to Mammoth Cave is believed to have been discovered by native americans some 4,000 years ago. With a meandering brook streaming over the front of the opening creating a small cascading waterfall, its truly a breathtaking scene worth filling up a memory card full of pictures.
Taking the steep staircase down into the opening of the cave, one has to wonder whom would ever voluntarily enter such a place. Walking along the path towards the gate guarding the cave, noticing as all daylight was sucked out, gave me the chills.
Dixon Cave Trail
Upon reaching the historic cave entrance you will find the Dixon Cave Trailhead just off to your right. If you take this path to the right, the trail is a breezy 0.5 mile stride up a dirt hillside path littered with wildflowers, exposed sandstone cliffs, and views of the valley below.
The longer path on the right is a more arduous 1.5 mile hike down towards the Green River along the River Styx Spring Trail connecting onto the Green River Bluffs Trail before looping north up a steep hill towards Dixon Cave. I chose the shorter route which had me climbing the steep hillside above the historic entrance.
Here the hill has eroded in several places creating stone shelters all along the route just below the soil level that are large enough to crawl into. This was the first of what would be many climbs up and down rocky slopes. After climbing the hill I reached the wooden fence surrounding the entrance to Dixon Cave. The pit like opening to Dixon Cave was once a capillary to the much larger Mammoth Cave.
Geologists believe that some time around 1 million years ago, a sinkhole collapse caused Dixon Cave to be cutoff from the larger cave and simultaneously created what is now the historic entrance to Mammoth Cave. Nowadays, this cave has become a safe haven for the endangered Indiana bats. The undisturbed and cold, stable temperature have made this place one of a few dwindling number of suitable spaces for these creatures to inhabit.
At this point I had several options to consider. I can turn back and retrace my steps to the River Styx Spring Trail or take a left from Dixon Cave, heading northwest onto the Green River Bluffs Trail. All of the trails in the visitors center area are interconnected via a series of loops. A few have dead ends that force you to hike back in the direction you came in order to connect to another route. Others simply morph into a new trail at a scenic view point or place of interest. You really can't go wrong, which ever way you choose. Personally, I’m not a fan of moving backwards, choosing to always find a path moving forward, wether on the trails in a forest or in life.
Green River Bluffs Trail
Once I reviewed my map and got my bearings, I headed out onto the Green River Bluffs Trail. If you start from the trailhead behind the woodland cottages picnic area, its a 4.5 mile loop around the entire lower section of the visitors section trail system. In my case, I was taking the shortcut in order to make my way towards the River Styx Spring. This section of the trail winds its way along the Green River bluffs for which it is named. Here you'll hike through thickets of beech and sycamore trees crowding the rivers edge. Some of the wetlands along the river are home to endangered species of rushes and sedges not found anywhere else.
Hiking my way through the low lands I eventually reached the old riverboat landing. In the mid to late 1800's, riverboats would cruise from Evansville or Bowling Green to Mammoth Cave bringing literal "boat loads" of tourists to visit this famous attraction. Any remnants of this once busy river port are long gone. From here, I saw the sign for the River Styx Spring just around a bend and followed a long winding boardwalk to the mouth of the spring.
River Styx Spring Trail
For those of you unfamiliar with the River Styx, she was a deity and river that formed the boundary between Earth and the Underworld. The deities of the Greek pantheon swore all their oaths upon the river Styx. This was the very river that one ancient tradition claims Achilles was dipped into by his mother, making him invulnerable. Well almost invulnerable except for the heel by which his mother held him. Staring at the shallow cave entrance, watching as the water flowed into the dark abyss beyond, I could imagine the Grim Reaper paddling a boat full of souls reluctantly entering the underworld.
From this point looking out onto the hills across the river I could see the sun beginning its descent towards sunset. According to the map I was only 0.2 miles from the trailhead to Sunset Point. I set my sights on making it there just in time to enjoy watching the sun crest the hill. I took off in search of the Echo River Spring Trailhead.
Echo River Spring Trail
This trail connects to the Sinkhole Trail creating a 3.1 mile loop if you were to take it from start to finish. I was merely hitchhiking onto the last 0.6 mile section up to Sunset Point. From the River Styx Spring I hiked my way up a stone covered hill to find something reminiscent of a castle rampart.
This elevated wooden boardwalk hugged the rugged moss covered limestone cliffs hanging over the valley below. Walking across them reminded me of scenes from The Lord of The Rings. I was half expecting orcs in full body armor to appear marching from around a bend carrying torches.
After 20 minutes of wondering if I were even on the right path I finally found the Sunset Point trailhead. To say that this trail is steep would be a huge understatement. The map clearly shows 2 zig zagging sections before reaching the top. The park needs to add about 6 more zig zag patterns to make it a little bit more accurate.
Every time I thought I had climbed to what looked like a picture worthy point, I came to the realization that I was not there yet. The views of the sun cresting behind the hill were spectacular even from the trail leading up to the point.
The scene when I reached the top was worth a thousand words. The forest gave way to views out onto the southern portion of Big Hollow. The vibrant reds of sugar maple, mellow yellows of beech, and deep green of hemlocks lit the hills up like a Christmas tree.
Every grueling stretch of that uphill climb was worth getting here in time to watch the sunset. I enjoyed my view while snacking on some chocolate covered almonds, well earned.
If you find yourself at Sunset Point, then you probably got here by taking the Heritage Trail. This trail is an easy 0.8 mile hike starting at the visitors center and looping back around. This area is usually teeming with wildflowers during the spring. One of the main points of interest here is the Old Guides Cemetery. The history of this particular cemetery is dark and murky at best, considering that its believed to have begun as a slave cemetery.
After completing the short loop around the cemetery I decided to take a detour onto the Sinkhole Trail. This easy 2.4 mile out and back trail traverses 357 feet down a limestone strewn valley connecting to River Valley and Whites Cave Trail.
Expect to come across a few scenic outlooks here and if you chose to hike near sunset there will be plenty of more opportunities to soak in that view.
The main point of interest along this trail, besides the obviously gorgeous woodland, is Mammoth Dome Sink. Climbing down the hill to get a closer look at this "sink" is nothing short of dull and seemingly pointless without a little bit of extra information.
Turns out that this depression in the ground is a mere 70 feet above one of the largest rooms in the mammoth cave complex, Mammoth Dome. Gravity, nature, and time are all working together to wear away at the stone beneath creation small channels where water can seep through into the ceiling of the cave. Someday, it might even create a skylight above the dome, but geologists believe it wont be in our lifetime.
At this point seeing as dusk had set in, I decided to pack it up for the day and head back to the car. I met a lot of great people on the trails enjoying the day, marveling at the beauty of the area. I even got an opportunity to chat up a fellow hiker whom turned out to be a Park Ranger from Isle Royale National Park.
She humored all of my nerdy National Park Service questions and gave me cool insights into her various jobs, from out in the back country working on projects to managing concession stands. Note to self... I must travel to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan!
While packing up my gear I gazed up to notice a dozen or so deer roaming the mostly empty parking lot. These creatures seem to not even notice that there were people around. A few onlookers were even within a few feet, taking selfies with an unsuspecting deer too caught up in eating some grass to care.
As a last hoorah on my drive to the expressway, I pulled over to enjoy the last glimmer of sunlight at an empty go-kart course. The wide open views of the hollers beyond, glimmering in shades of purple and orange were complimented by the only other lit object around; a Coca Cola vending machine. As I sat on the roof of my car taking in the scene, I was reminded of a few words from the poet known as Ice Cube... "today was a good day."
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