Thursday, August 12, 2010

Kentucky is Cave Country

Hidden River Cave in Horse Cave, TN.

Tennessee, the state I currently live in, has more caves than any other state in the union. But when people think of Cave Country, they think Kentucky, or more specifically Kentucky's south central region near Bowling Green.  Kentucky gets this distinction due to the fact that it's home to the longest cave system in the world, the Mammoth-Flint Ridge Cave System.  But it's not just Mammoth Cave that has helped create the name, but many more commercial and wild caves surrounding the park and two nearby towns - Horse Cave and Cave City - that truly sell the name.

Cave gates became vital to protect caves during the Cave Wars.

The Kentucky Cave Wars

A fascinating development occurred in the early 20th Century called The Kentucky Cave Wars. Dozens of caves were opened to the public with their owners vying for the numerous tourists heading for Mammoth Cave.  One common practice was cave owners hiring someone to pretend to be a state trooper, stopping cars full of families on their way to Mammoth Cave.  The actor would tell the family something to the effect of "Well, Mammoth Cave has flooded and is closed.  You should head over to So-and-So Cave instead.  It's a much prettier cave".  There were roadside stands selling onyx and other cave formations.  Often times the people selling these formations were not the true owners of the onyx, but were thefts who broke it off the ceilings of other peoples' caves.

A broken formation.

And a man named Floyd Collins, who's family owned Crystal Cave, was desperately searching for a cave closer to the main highway since Crystal Cave was located just a bit too far away from the main road.  He found one and sadly, it took his life. Today only a few of these commercial caves remain open to the public.

A totem pole and a giant knight are oddly enough the official
symbols of kitsch in Kentucky.

Since tourists have been heading to Kentucky's Cave Country for decades, other attractions have sprouted up.  While not quite the tourist trap mecca that Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge-Sevierville is, the area is still home to a few mini-golf courses, go-cart tracks, a Dinosaur World, an amusement park (specializing in gunfights), and of course competing commercial caves.  This area is literally so rich with caves that they accidentally discovered one building the parking lot for the amusement park.  And in nearby Jellystone Park campgrounds, tourists sleep in their own individual caverns.  Well, not really, but there are probably enough caves "lying" about on the Jellystone property to give every overnighter their own cave.  And if you're not keen on sleeping in your own tent, you can sleep in a giant one - Native American style:

Come to Mammoth Cave, stay in a wigwam. 

Hidden River Cave and the American Cave Museum

Looking up from the Hidden River sinkhole at the
American Cave Museum.
Just up I-65 a bit from Park City and Mammoth Cave is Horse Cave.  The town was built on top of a large cave entrance and the system is named Hidden River Cave thanks to the fast moving stream found inside there.  The town used the cave both for its water supply and to create electricity.  Over time the stream system became polluted.  Today, the cave has been cleaned up and is once again open to tourism.  The tour is short, but certainly worth it since it includes a tour of the American Cave Museum.  The museum houses a number of exhibits about - you guessed it - caves and also further illuminates the visitor on the history of Mammoth Cave and the Great Cave Wars in the area.

What Hidden River Cave looks like from the inside.

Diamond Caverns

Not only does Diamond Caverns have a lot of formations,
they also have an abundance of stairs.

It goes without saying that you have to visit Mammoth Cave.  I highly recommend the Historic Tour if you're short on time, and for a longer trip take the Grand Avenue Tour.  And bring along your bike as the national park has miles of bike paths.  But if you want to hit one of the caves outside of the National Park, check out Diamond Caverns which is located on Mammoth Cave Pkwy just outside the park.  Diamond Caverns has a number of formations (something the main parts of Mammoth Cave don't have) to gawk at, sadly some of which are broken thanks to the Cave Wars.

Flowstone, stalactites and stalagmites await you
at Diamond Caverns.

Sadly, one of my favorite caves in the area is no longer open.  James Cave, located on a nearby resort's property, is currently closed due to a bat colony that lives there.  There is also the ever imposing threat of the White-Nose Syndrome, a syndrome that's striking bats in caves all across the country.  When you go to Mammoth Cave you'll see plenty of signs about this disease and whether or not you could be potentially spreading it to their cave.  So far there haven't been any sightings in Kentucky's caves, and hopefully it'll stay that way.

For Jessica's view on this same trip, check out her blog post (note she ends her post with the exact same picture - completely accidental).

Jessica says goodbye to the official
Kentucky Cave Country monkey.

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