Over Memorial Day weekend, my boyfriend, Brian, and I took off on what he would call a “dirtbag”. He would probably explain it a little differently, but from what I can gather, “dirtbagging” is simply taking off on an adventure with no real destination and only the necessities to sustain you. Now, being the type that likes to be prepared, I was already out of my comfort zone. This was our first trip together and, although we had a destination in mind, we had no campsite, no reservations and no itinerary. Two coolers full of food and beer, bedding, clothes, hiking boots and camping supplies were all we took along with us. I was nervous to say the least. We both joked that this was a “make it or break it” trip: that we’d have a blast and come back ready to embark on another journey together or we’d have a long drive home, marked with total silence and never speak to each other again.
The day we left, we attended the State Middle School Track Meet in Louisville on our way through to watch my oldest daughter, Skylar, compete in the 4×400 meter relay. We had a great time watching all the athletes and, although Skylar’s event was the last of the day, her and her teammates were rockstars. After spending a long hot day in the sun, we hopped back on the highway and headed towards our destination: Mammoth Cave National Park in Cave City, KY.
As soon as we got into Cave City, we headed straight for the Mammoth Cave Visitor Center. Unbeknownst to us as we sat and grubbed on chicken salad wraps from our cooler, we had arrived 10 minutes before closing time. Womp, womp, womp. It was too late to get a backcountry campsite and there were no other places to stay in the Park because, obviously, it was Memorial Day weekend. But Brian gets this glimmer in his eye and says “this is where the fun starts, darlin’.”
Apparently, the girl at the front desk of the Mammoth Cave Lodge had given him directions to KY Action Park campgrounds, which her family owned and operated. She had told him that we didn’t have to pay if no one was there, we could just park and stay. I smiled enthusiastically but my insides were quaking and I could hear distant banjo tunes.
KY Action Park is just outside of Cave City, a dilapidated roadside attraction that offers alpine slides, ziplining, bumper boats, mini golf and holds tours of Outlaw Cave, one of many privately owned caves in the area, made famous by Jesse James and his use of the cave as a hideout. Now, we didn’t partake in any of the fun they had to offer but we did really enjoy their campsite (we ended up paying but it was a steal at $15 a night). Each site was equipped with a water spigot and firepit and there were a few trees in between each to setup hammocks or tarps depending on what you needed to hang. We set up camp and, exhausted, we kicked back with a beer and retired to our truck bedroom for the night.
The next morning, we were up at dawn. With the time change, I believe it was around 5:30 that we woke up and started moving for the day. Breakfast of bacon and eggs over the single burner propane stove and coffee hit the spot as we talked about our plan for the day.
Before we went back to the Park, we took a little trip outside of Cave City to Wigwam Village #2, one of only three remaining Wigwam motels across the U.S. Originally built in the 1930’s and 40’s, there were 7 Wigwam Villages total and the remaining ones are located in KY, AZ, and CA. All 3 are on the National Register of Historic Places. I’ve been obsessing over a Route 66 trip so, to visit a place such as this had me giddy with nostalgia and bouncing around all over the place taking pictures. We weren’t able to get a reservation but we did grab some pics.
Satisfied that I had seen a made it to the visitor’s center just as they opened and waited in line for tickets but weren’t able to get any tours for the day before they sold out. We settled for the self-guided Discovery Tour that leads through the Historic Entrance and works its way through the Rotunda, one of the largest rooms in the 400+ miles of cave system at the Park. We also managed to get a Domes and Dripstones tour for the following day, snagged a backcountry camping permit (free) and headed out to explore on our own for the day.
Our first stop was of course at the gift shop where Brian snapped a quick pic of me in full spelunking gear. We grabbed a couple of souvenirs and made our way down the hill behind the Visitor’s Center to tour the Rotunda. The air from the cave was so cool that, even on such a muggy day, it caught us by surprise and we had to run back up to the truck and get our jackets.
The caves stay at 54 degrees all the time. Once we got acclimated, it felt great and we spent quite a while in the cave, reading over the history, uses and formation of the caves. There were rangers posted up at different points talking about different aspects of the caves but we were more interested in a less structured approach.
No, we didn’t go in but, MAN, we really wanted to jump the rope and EXPLORE! If Brian had had his way, we would’ve but it doesn’t look good if you get kicked out of a National Park and I try to be good every now and then…
Once we finished up the Discovery Tour, we hiked down the hill further to Styx River trail. At the bottom of the trail, there was a wooden walkway that led to a lookout. We could see there was a huge group of Boy Scouts down on the creek bank below so, in true rebel style, we hopped the rail and made our way down to the water.
As you can see in the pictures
, the creek is fed by a spring that comes from the cave and water levels were evidenced by a 40ft marker propped up to the side and massive amounts of mud and debris on the banks. We were both baffled by how much water could be produced from a spring that didn’t seem to have a visible aquifer. To the naked eye, it just looked like a pond.
Nature is a powerful force.
By the time we finished exploring for the morning, we were both running low on energy so we drove back into Cave City and Brian treated us to lunch at El Mazatlan. It was delicious!
With full bellies, we decided to find our campsite in the backcountry area. We knew we had to cross a ferry and that the trip would take us around an hour so we set off across the park with our map…aaaaand we got lost. .
After a few unsuccessful attempts at procuring help from gas station attendants and waitresses, and several wrong turns, Brian finally found a cowboy that agreed to drive us out to the camp. We made it to the First Creek area and Mr. Cowboy warned us that the Temple Hill area we were slated to stay in for the night, located much further over the hill, was a pretty arduous hike. We went anyway, fearing that rangers would be out looking for us if we weren’t in our designated area and hopeful that the secluded nature and lazy river glorified by the clerk at the visitor center would be the big payoff. I was so looking forward to swimming and maybe even washing my hair…
ALWAYS LISTEN TO THE COWBOY, FOLKS. With cooler, backpacks and hammock in tow, a scraped shin and bruised butt cheek, we finally reached the bottom of a muddy horse trail to find a stagnant river unfit for swimming. The water looked so thick you could walk on it. There were fish everywhere but with our poles all the way back up the hill, I said a few choice words about the map and the trail and flopped down in the hammock for a nap. Brian would later remind me, numerous times, that I said the “hammock was the best thing about this whole trip”. It wasn’t and he instantly forgave my dramatics and laughed at me.
After much convincing, I finally decided to make the long trek back to the parking lot, leading the way, sweaty and disgruntled. I was having a moment, y’all. Once we got back to the parking lot, there was no one in sight and we decided that, although it’s not technically permitted, we’d chance it and sleep in our luxurious truck bedroom again. A couple did eventually wander back to the lot later that evening. Brian and I chatted with them and gave them a few beers for a bag of Werther’s candy. After they left, we dined on crackers, and beer cheese and stayed up talking and laughing about my bad attitude, getting lost and the rest of the day’s events until late in the night. It had turned out to be another great day.
Morning came and we were eager to get out of dodge and find some water. Foregoing campfire breakfast, we set off to find the nearby Nolin Lake State Park. We had passed it at some point when were “lost” and in just a matter of minutes we found it and it’s nearby beach. We parked, changed and jumped in. It was glorious! The water was like a bath, (Brian brought his soap) and it was exactly what my weary bones needed after the hike the day before. We swam and then laid on the beach in the sun for awhile, watching the geese try and decipher whether we had food for them or not, until our bellies started rumbling.
Our cue to find breakfast led us back to the Mammoth Cave Lodge, where we filled up plates from the buffet at the Green River Grill. We ate until we hated ourselves and slurped coffee until we felt sure we were wearing out our welcome. We still had a few hours to kill before our 12:15 tour so we decided to check out some shops and sights back in Cave City. We stopped in a couple of tourist trap gift stores but the most notable stop was Froggett’s Guntown Mountain.
Guntown Mountain has had several owners over the years and has become infamous because of it’s previous owner’s antics. I had read a little about the debauchery that had taken place there so I thought it’d be fun to stop in and poke around. An old west style roadside attraction, formerly named Funtown Mountain and located next to the privately owned Onyx Cave, they offer a haunted house, a saloon, putt-putt golf, ziplines and a skylift. We stopped in the gift shop at the entrance and talked to an employee and family member about the park. After craftily making sure she was not related to the previous owner, I inquired about the history and she laughed and said “his footprints are still out in the parking lot”.
Sure enough, just outisde the gift shop and down the front walk, leading out from a splatter of grey paint, size 11 footprints meandered across the parking lot. If you think that’s weird, it gets weirder. Apparently, Mr. Former Owner had a girlfriend at the top of the mountain, too…a mannequin. You can read more about Guntown’s past here and here. All jokes aside, mental illness and addiction do not discriminate and I only laugh cause I’ve been there sans the Kickstarter money.
Moving on, we made our way back to Mammoth Caves to embark on our Domes and Dripstones tour, our last activity for the weekend. The tour kicks off just behind the Visitor’s Center and takes cave-goers on a 4 mile bus trip, complete with cheesy bus driver jokes (I cackled, Brian didn’t), to the New Entrance of Mammoth Caves, aptly named because, well, I’ll let you get your history lesson when you visit yourself…
Arriving at the cave, you’re treated to a spiel, as per every cave tour, about white nose syndrome (serious stuff), not touching cave formations (equally as serious) and safety. Our ranger guides then led our group of 100+ tourists down a series of narrow, winding staircases, 280 stairs to be exact, and into a room located 250 feet below the surface. As we desended, a quick glance over the side revealed drop offs upwards of 60 ft deep, full of jagged rock. Needless to say, my knees got a little weak on the descent.
Once we came to our first stop, the ranger talked to us about the history of the caves and how they were discovered. Just before we continued our tour however, a nice group of very talented choir kids serenaded us with an African Spritual.
The tour continued through narrow passageways and dimly lit channels until we reached the motherload of dripstone formations. The optional descent down an additional 49 stairs gave us these beauties to behold, the largest of which is called Frozen Niagara.
All in all, the tour was definitely money well spent. Natural wonders like these are worth being preserved and fully deserving of all the “oooohs” and “ahhhhs” because they took millions of years to form into what we see today.
Last but not least, after we finished our tour, we stopped in the Spelunker’s Cafe and grabbed waffle cones to cool off before moving on to Cave City to gas up and grab some delicious BBQ from Bishops BBQ. Despite the rainy forecast for our weekend, we hit the road; heading home just before we felt the first drop, with fat bellies and full hearts. I’ll remember this trip for a long time and Brian and I have agreed to keep each other around. 😉
If you’d like to plan your own trip to Mammoth Cave National Park, start here.
If you’d like to help support The National Park System, go here.
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Peace, Love and Cheesecake!!!