Turnhole Bend Nature Trail | 0.5 Mile Loop
Turnhole Bend Nature Trail Location | Google Maps
Looking to escape some of the larger crowds while visiting Mammoth Cave National Park, I opted to explore another popular, yet out of the way area located a few miles away from the Visitors Center known as the Turnhole Bend. Named for the ox bow bend in the Green River, this area boasts some of the most stunning wildflower displays and lush forest scenery found anywhere in the park. Situated in the southern half of the National Park along Hwy 70, the Turnhole Bend Nature Trail is also a few minutes away from the Cedar Sinks Trail. Both of these trails have seen major improvements in the last year with the building of a new parking lot, freshly graveled trails, and updated signage.
From the trailhead, you have the option of starting the loop going clockwise or counter clockwise. If you head RIGHT the trail is mostly downhill while the path to the LEFT dips down into the forest and contains several steep climbs. Following the split railing, we head deep into the upland forests of one of the more unique types of topographies in the country. Created by bedrock that dissolves slowly over time, karsts landscapes are known for their sinkholes, springs, and of course caves. If you were to zoom out and look at this trail overhead, it would look like you were walking over the surface of a golf ball. Each of the deep depressions on the ground signify a sinkhole and quite possibly even open into a small cave.
The first overlook on the Turnhole Bend Nature Trail peers out over one such valley created by a massive sinkhole. Each of these features is unique in the sense that they create their own miniature ecosystems. Plants and animals that might otherwise not exist in the area, thrive in the sinkholes cool and moist environments. The large variety of ferns that exist surrounding these features was of particular interest to early botanists and the subject of several research papers dating back to the 1930’s. From the wet loving glade ferns, walking fern, and Christmas ferns, to the towering northern maiden hair, broad beech fern, lowland brittle fern, and rattlesnake fern, to the minuscule hairy lipfern.
Sun bathing amongst the rockfall within the sinkholes are some of the parks smallest inhabitants. Requiring a wet environment to survive, frogs, toads, newts and salamanders utilize the moisture rich surfaces here to help them breathe and absorb water through their thin skin. Though some of these creatures are often tough to spot, the most commonly seen is the common five-lined skink and the iridescent orange eastern newt. Descending deeper onto the bluffs of the Green River, you’ll quickly arrive at the Turnhole Bend Overlook. The thick forest canopy opens up here to perfectly frame the rolling knobs just across the river. Aside from Sunset Point, this is one of the most photographed overlooks in Mammoth Cave, especially during fall. A popular back country camp site within the Maple Springs Ranger District, the very top of the Turnhole Bend can be reached by hiking the 2.7 mile long Turnhole Bend Trail. Hidden directly below this overlook are two very significant sites within the park.
The first is the Turnhole Bend Spring, which is Kentuckys third largest natural spring. It drains 345km* of the surrounding region onto the Green River. This roughly translates to anywhere from 100 to 6,000 gallons per second. Most of it travels from the higher knobs south of the park and can briefly be seen through the karst windows within the Cedar Sinks Trail. The second adjacent site is one of the parks largest rock houses, the Patch Rockshelter. Eroded away by the rising and lowering of the Green River, this enormous cliff overhang is a well studied prehistoric site. Utilized by Native Americans from the Middle to Late Woodland Period, the site yielded archeologists with enough pottery shards and discarded animal bones to suggest that it was mainly used as a food processing center. The back of the rock shelter also contains a freshwater spring fed by an underground passage connected to the Turnhole Bend Spring.
Leaving the lowest section of the trail, the rest of this hike is marked by its steep ascent back to the parking lot. Not to fret though, because this is also the area with the best wildflower display. Thick stands of Mayapple, with its distinct umbrella shaped leaves, crowd every inch of the hillsides here. Its elusive, creamy white blooms are best seen between April-May. Every part of this plant, except its apple shaped fruit, is highly toxic if consumed due to its high content of podophyllotoxin. Used for a variety of medicinal purposes by Native Americans, podophyllotoxin is a common ingredient in many of our modern prescription drugs. Hiding under some of the umbrella flowers, with its distinct yellow splotched leaves, are the bright purple blooms of Dwarf Crested Iris .
The last overlook before reaching the end of the trail is a stop at the bottom of another massive sinkhole. This crescent shaped depression, with walls rising twenty feet above the valley floor is essentially a large garden. Protected on three sides, the microclimate within the site supports a lush hanging wall garden of sedges, ferns, and native heuchera (coral bells). With cool air circulating through the area year round, plants here are known to have multiple bloom periods extending well past their season. It’s not uncommon to find photographers along this trail, crouched down with their lenses deep in a colony of trillium or fire pink.
Taking only 1 hour or so to complete this loop, visitors typically add the nearby Cedar Sinks Trail to their itinerary to round out a solid day of hiking. With that being said follow us as we heave over to explore the various caves, cliff overhangs, and underground streams of the Cedar Sinks Trail. Stay tuned and until next time, catch y’all on the trails!