A couple of months ago, before the cold really set in, we decided to strike out on one last (outdoor) adventure for the season; Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. The drive from Nashville took us about two and a half or three hours. It's not really that far, we just got sidetracked and it took a bit longer than expected; adventuring at its finest.
The interstate travel was pretty underwhelming, but once we got off the highway and onto the back(ish) roads that led into the national park, the scenery was really beautiful. Since we went in late November, most of the beautiful red and orange leaves were gone, but you could still see remnants of the passing season all around if you looked hard enough.
As you drive the couple of miles that wind through the park to the visitor's center, there are lots of places you can pull off the road and take in the beautiful surroundings, including several hiking trails.
There is also an overlook with a cool, informational plaque that gives data on air pollution and how it has affected the surrounding landscape. Wait! Did this just turn into an educational homeschool field trip?! You bet your behind it did. Learning happens everywhere, even for grown-ups.
After we meandered through the park for about twenty minutes, we finally arrived at the beautiful visitor's center where you purchase your tickets, overpriced souvenirs and take your final potty break before descending into the depths of the earth.
After reading the descriptions of each tour, we decided to do the domes and dripstones tour. Their website describes it like this ...
Wind down through deep pits and high domes via a 280 step staircase. Vertical cave gives way to large canyons and underground hill climbs. Visit the Frozen Niagara formation, then pass through one of the caves most decorative dripstone areas. A ten-minute bus ride to and from the entrances is included.
Well that doesn't sound so bad, I mean, I've walked down a flight of stairs before, how hard could it be?! Honestly, it was pretty intense. My legs got Jello-y right around the sixty-seven thousandth stair and I'm pretty sure I almost fell to my death at least twice, but the feeling I had while in that cave was something I won't soon forget.
It was something I hadn't felt in a while: brave. As someone who deals with varying levels of anxiety on a daily basis, staying safely in my comfort zone is where I feel best, but this day I was all kindsa out of my element and I was OK with it, excited even.
I usually like to be fully prepared for any and all things that could possibly go wrong, but this day, I was flying by the seat of my pants... and it felt amazing.
As I followed Neil Young down into the bowels of the beautiful blue grass state of Kentucky, I just somehow knew it was all gonna be OK. (disclaimer: this was not the real Neil Young, just some cool hippie imposter, but whatever)
After snaking down the narrow stairway, the cave opens up into a huge area that has been modified with bench seats for cave goers to sit down and listen to a short presentation detailing the history and cool facts about the caves.
Our guides: (I think his name was) Dave and "guy who resembles Dave, but younger" were amazing and super entertaining and even picked Micah to be the official light turner outer for the demonstration on "exactly how dark is it in here with the lights off". This was one of the fun q's from the q&a session with the rangers.
The cave is covered in some really cool drip formations and the rangers give you tons of great information about how they are formed and how long it takes and all that good stuff. They will also remind you "please don't touch the formations, not even just a little bit". You are, however, allowed to take pictures, but you can't use your flash.
The entire trip through the cave took about an hour and a half, maybe a bit longer and due to the small size of our party (25-ish spelunkers), we were able to go see a couple of things that aren't usually on the domes and dripstones tour.
The weather inside the cave was mild, but not nearly as cold as I had anticipated, plus the walk is a bit of a workout, so you will generate more than enough body heat to keep you going. A light windbreaker would suffice.
The caves are very well maintained and the trek was very safe, even though I was sure I was going to die, I never did. (sneakers with good soles are definitely recommended) There were two rangers in our party, one leading and one in the back making sure no stragglers got left behind (we were the stragglers) and he was very kind and understanding when Micah's little feet got tired and almost gave out on the seventy-seventh staircase.
Overall, this was an amazing adventure, one that I would highly recommend if given the chance, but, I think, for me, it would have been more fun if I hadn't been constantly worrying about Micah falling into the pits of the earth never to be seen or heard from again.
He had no trouble navigating the small, cramped spaces, but his little six year old feet wore out way before mine did and he was asking to be piggy backed about half way through the trip. No dice, kid. The tiny stairs and slippery passageways did not lend themselves very well to piggybacking.
There are several other tours that would be perfect for little spelunkers and they offer a handicapped accessible tour as well. The caves are open for tours from 8:30 a.m. till 4:30 p.m. through March 2017 (at which time the Spring / Summer schedule will begin), but you will want to check the website as the times for arrival and departure for each tour is different.
Admission is free to enter the park itself, but the guided tours (over 13 available) cost a fee depending on which one you decide to take and each tour has a different "ability level", so choose carefully when buying your tickets.
After your cave tour, make sure to take a ride through the rest of the park, there are lots of little hidden gems to explore, including an old cemetery right next to an old one room church that is super creepy and just happened to be unlocked.
As soon as I walked in, I felt like I was transported into another time and place. The sound of my feet shuffling across the nearly two-hundred year old hardwoods was haunting. The smell of the dank air. My voice echoing off the pews and walls. The history in that old building was palpable. I'm not sure if ghosts are real or not, but if they are, they are definitely kicking it in that old church.
As the sun began to set on our epic day trip, we had one last stop to make. I had seen a fireworks stand on the way back into the park from our lunch adventure at the Watermill (amazing country style lunch buffet, btw) and I remembered they had a sign advertising rocks and gemstones.
I'm a sucker for sparkly and shiny things, so we made a detour on our way out of town and picked up these little beauties to commemorate "that day we didn't die in a cave in Kentucky".
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