Caving in Kentucky

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Journey below the earth’s surface and explore the natural wonders Kentucky has to offer!

Whenever we find ourselves driving through Kentucky, we see signs for the caves off I-65, but never before had we thought to stop.  I had been in a cave once – it was small, dark, tight, muddy and all-around unpleasant.  I had no desire to try another!  Luckily someone finally told me the truth about the caves in Kentucky: domed rooms and open passageways forming large caverns, where rivers once flowed before descending deeper to create newer routes.  We discovered an amazing world of wonder we had never thought to explore!

Diamond Caverns

In 1859, a young slave was lowered into a sink hole.  In the dim candlelight, he thought the sparkling walls were filled with diamonds – a name that stuck as Diamond Caverns.  We learned that the walls are actually covered in calcite formations, which sparkle less than diamonds might, but the beauty is just as breathtaking.  Stalactites, stalagmites and flowstones decorate the half-mile-long “living” cave, continually growing (although it’s not perceptible to the human eye – formation growth averages a tenth of a millimeter a year). 

Diamond’s small tour groups allow for intimate exploration that include bits of cave history and geology.  As we walked the  path and its 300 steps leading up, down and around the formations, we learned all about their creation, formed as rain water – acidified from carbon dioxide in the soil – flows down through limestone.  The carbon dioxide, 10 times weaker than the carbon dioxide in a can of soda, eats away at the limestone,  carrying bits of it deeper into the earth.  Finally, the minerals are redeposited in the form of stalactites, mineral “icicles” from the ceiling; stalagmites, deposits reaching from the ground upward; and flowstones, deposits gradually smoothing and rounding large rocks and stones.  Other interesting formations include cave bacon, cave coral and honeycomb ceilings, all biproducts of the same process.  

Mammoth Cave

Surrounding Diamond Caverns is Mammoth Cave National Park, the largest cave system in the world, with 350 miles of surveyed passageways and an estimated 600 miles of still unexplored caves.  Obviously visitors cannot view the entire system, but tours provide access to 10 miles of caves. 

Most of Mammoth Cave is located beneath a protective sandstone layer, prohibiting water from filtering down and causing growth.  However, the one living area open to the public can be seen on the Niagara Tour. 

The tour begins with a long descent down 300 metal steps into Grand Central Station, where our group of more than 50 individuals stopped for a ranger-led discussion of the caves and how they were formed.  We got a small taste of the vastness of the cave system as we strolled through large open passageways, making our way to a small room at the edge of the cave system that was filled with formations of all shapes and sizes.  The most notable formation is Niagara Falls, a huge flowstone that looks like a frozen copper-colored waterfall.  Many other tours for all ages are available, including a historic tour and a short discovery tour.

Kentucky Down Under

For a full day of excitement both above and below ground, visit Kentucky Down Under.  In addition to a tour of Kentucky Caverns – one of the most colorful living caves in the area – children visit with the animals of the Outback at many hands-on exhibits.  In the Discovery Area, pet a baby emu and wallaby, and meet some of Australia’s smaller animals, including sugar gliders, turtles and snakes.

You can get a taste of what life would be like on an Outback sheep station and try your hand at milking a cow or bottle-feeding a lamb at the Woolshed.  One of the most unique experiences is inside Lorikeet Flight Cage, where the rainbow-colored birds land right on visitors’ heads, arms and hands to eat the fruit provided. 

Fun Diversions

There’s more excitement to be found above ground in Cave City.  At Kentucky Action Park, take the lift up to the top of the hill for an exhilarating ride down the Alpine Slide, a quarter-mile concrete slide you ride down on a plastic board with wheels.  For a little less thrill, try the water bumper boats or go carts, play putt-putt or take a horseback ride through the park’s 600 acres. 

Guntown Mountain is just down the street and features carnival rides such as the Tilt-a-Whirl and Ferris wheel, all set in the Wild West.  Visit the Jesse James Museum of Gunfighters and see saloon shows and gunfights daily.

Where to Stay

We stayed in Cave City, smack in the middle of the region and just 20 minutes north of Bowling Green.  A few minutes west was Mammoth Cave, south was Diamond Caverns and north was Kentucky Down Under.  At the Comfort Inn, we had an outdoor pool, microwave and refrigerator, plus a quick continental breakfast we could grab on our way out. 

For an outdoor experience, camp at Jellystone Park, also in Cave City.  Jellystone features daily visits by Yogi, Boo-Boo and Cindy, as well as a swimming and toddler pool, water slide, hiking trails and sand volleyball court.  Cabins are also available; visit www.jellystonemammothcave.com for information. 

Whether stopping for a cave tour the next time your family happens to be travelling though Kentucky or planning a weekend getaway, the excitement of the Kentucky underground awaits.

Caves of Central Kentucky

Crystal Onyx Cave
270-773-2359; www.mammothcave.com/crystalonyx

Diamond Caverns
270-749-2233; www.diamondcaverns.com

Hidden River Cave/American Cave Museum
270-786-1466; www.cavern.org

Kentucky Caverns
800-762-2869; www.kycaverns.com

Mammoth Cave National Park
270-758-2328; www.nps.gov.maca/home/htm

Onyx Cave
270-773-3530; www.guntownmountain.com/onyx

Brenna Hansen is a freelance writer for this publication

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