Mammoth Cave National Park

Wanderlust 2013

The Pre-Road Trip Road Trip

June 9th & 10th, 2013

Before we embarked on our 40 days on the road, we were able to fit our next National Park into a shorter road trip we took in June.  On the move within 48 hours of D’s last day of school, we headed south out of Wisconsin.  We sped down I-94 through the northeast corner of Illinois before meeting up with I-65 outside of Gary, Indiana.  The massive 4-lane freeway is a highly traveled supply route, most often dominated by multi-trailer semis and delivery trucks rushing goods to their destination.  It cuts straight through a large section of Indiana’s steel mills, manufacturing fields, and wind farms.  Our otherwise tiresome stretch down the spine of Indiana was energized by a deluge of rain and lightening. At night, this industrial openness is usually just endless black, save the lines of wind turbines and their cycloptic red eyes blinking in unnerving unison in the darkness.  Instead, the early summer storm clouds created bulbous shadow boxes displaying the incredible amount of energy exploding across the sky. Each flash momentarily exposed the unwieldy masses as they rolled and swelled in slow motion above us. We watched the lightening leap between the clouds, the blots splintering hot white veins to the Earth and throughout the tumultuous sky.

We continued on I-65 through Indianapolis, across the state line, though Louisville, and then finally stopped a rest area somewhere in Kentucky.  It was 1:30 am when we pulled off to get a few hours of sleep.  Stirring after a few hours crammed in the front seats, we jumped back on the freeway and headed towards our target.  The sun was up and doing her best the shine through the grey of morning.  Low clouds wove fog through the tree-covered Kentucky hills and a single swipe of blue emerged amidst the clouds like it had been spread across the sky with a butter knife.  At 7:30 am, we arrived at our objective: Mammoth Cave National Park.  We parked at an overlook and got out to stretch our legs.

Entering Mammoth Cave N.P.

Entering Mammoth Cave N.P.

Everything's so green!

Everything’s so green!

Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park

As we admired the misty view of the valley, we read some disturbing park signage about the steady increase of air pollution in this region.  The “natural haze” seen in this view is often due more to the toxic mix of sulfates and airborne particles swirling around than it is actual fog or mist.  According to the sign, within 60 miles of the park, coal-fired power plants, factories, and vehicles release more than 11 million pounds of pollutants into the air each day.”  As winds from the southwest carry pollutants from Nashville and Memphis and winds from the northeastern contribute pollutants from Lexington, Indianapolis, and Chicago, current research suggests that Mammoth Cave National Park “may contain more plant species vulnerable to air pollutants than any other National Park.”  Only 100 miles away, Lexington Kentucky has recorded “one of the greatest declines in visibility in the United States.”  This serves as a reminder that protection of our precious parks and other natural places must go beyond terrestrial defenses.  It is not enough to just set aside and shield the land.  We must face the damaging effects of our impact on nature as a whole and try to minimize our destruction.  As the park sign suggests, “The pollution here at Mammoth reflects a growing global problem.  To solve it, each of us must act locally, recycle, and conserve and advocate that others do the same.”  Spending time in the National Parks is just as much a lesson in ecology and responsible sustainability as it is conservation and protection.

Eager to find the visitor center and purchase tickets for cave tours, we headed down the quiet park road.  A small cluster of white-tailed deer and turkeys picked their way through the thick green grass, barely missing a beat between chews as we cruised past.

White-tailed deer - Odocoileus virginianus

White-tailed deer – Odocoileus virginianus

We're here!

We’re here!

Established in 1941, Mammoth Cave is home to the longest known cave system in the world.  More than 367 mapped miles at present, several miles of new passages are discovered every year.  Geologists postulate that up to 600 miles of cave or more is still yet to be discovered. When the park was established, only 40 miles of passageway had been surveyed and today, only 14 miles of Mammoth Cave system is offered for tours.

Judging by the lack of cars when we approached the Visitor Center parking lot, we realized that the park services had not yet opened.  We stretched our legs at a nearby picnic area while we waited.  Thunderstorms had been predicted for the morning and the sky did not look like it would disappoint.

Storm's a comin'...

Storm’s a comin’…

As soon as the box office opened, I secured two tickets for the 9:30am “New Entrance Tour” (now know as the “Domes and Dripstones Tour”).  We wondered around near the visitor center while we waited.  The majority of the tour is subterranean and is ranked as “moderate difficulty”.  There are 500 stairs, 280 of which make up the initial staircase decent.  The tour winds through a series of pits, domes, and large passageways and allows cave-goers a view of some dripstone and other formations.

The majority of Mammoth Cave is undecorated, a departure from your stereotypical cave tour which tends to be filled with varying rock formations.  This is because of the sandstone layer located just above Mammoth Cave’s cave passageways.  This protective layer stops water from seeping in to the cave, preventing an array of characteristic cave formations in the majority of the passages.

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One impressive cave formation that is present is called The Frozen Niagara Formation.  In this section of the cave, the sandstone cap has dissolved due to millions of years of erosional forces.  Cracks and holes in the sandstone allow water to drip through into Mammoth Cave’s limestone layers.  Water combined with carbon dioxide forms a weak carbonic acid that has the power to dissolve the limestone, leaving accumulations that develop into formations over tens of thousands of years.   This dripping rainwater also created sinking streams that helped to hollow out the cave and created underground rivers.

Frozen Niagra

Frozen Niagara

The largest stalactite formation found in Mammoth Cave, Frozen Niagara is an immense 50 feet wide and 75 feet high.  It looms beside the trail like a sodden stone ogre, silently oozing and dripping in the darkness.

The tour winds through the Drapery Room, a cavern with a ceiling beset by rows and rows of swollen stalactites.

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As we were finishing the cave tour, we were able to capture a picture of one of the few beings that thrive in this dark, dank environment: cave crickets.

Cave Crickets - Rhaphidophoridae

Cave Crickets – Rhaphidophoridae

After our cave tour, we checked on our reservation.  Since I knew exactly which day we would be stopping in Mammoth, I had reserved a “Historic Hotel Cottage” ahead of time. Fortunately, we were able to check in to our cabin early.  Neither one of us had gotten much sleep the night before and were hoping to take a power nap before we went for a hike.

Our Historic Cottage

Our Historic Cottage

Historic Cottage Interior

Historic Cottage Interior

Just big enough for a bed, a few small pieces of furniture, and a mini fridge, our quaint historic hotel cottage was exactly what we needed.  There was also small bathroom with a shower.  We flopped onto our bed and were asleep in minutes.

When we woke a bit later, we went to explore a few of the more than 70 miles of hiking trails at Mammoth.  Though this park was set aside for the treasures hidden beneath the ground, the features above ground should not be discounted.  Mammoth Cave National Park is located in a transitional area between the Forest and Savannah Ecosystems.  According to N.P.S. literature, Mammoth’s forests are a combination of the drier Hickory Forest Region to the west and the mixed Mesophytic (medium moisture) Forest region to the east and north. The park is home to 1,200 species of flowering plants including 84 species of trees.  As we set out on our hike, it was apparent that we were unlikely to stay dry.  Rarely deterred by rain (especially in a warm climate) we secured our cameras in dry bags and wandered into the forest.

Beneath a steady drizzle, we began with the Heritage Trail, a short trek at the top of the ridge, south of the historic entrance to Mammoth Cave.  (The tour we took earlier had started at the “New Entrance”.)  The trail loops around the Old Guide’s Cemetery.  Here you can find the graves of several old cave guides, including one of the parks most well know, Stephen Bishop.  Brought to Mammoth Caves in 1838 Stephen Bishop was one of the first African American slave guides in the park.  After learning the toured routes from other guides, Bishop explored further into the caves and is responsible for discovering many miles of Mammoth Cave that had not yet been seen by man.  Bishop was the first to cross the deep vertical shaft known as “the Bottomless Pit”.  He also discovered many other well-known cave features including Cleaveland Avenue, Mammoth Dome, and Fat Man’s Misery.

Old Guide Cemetery

Old Guide Cemetery

The grave of Stephen Bishop, Mammoth Cave Guide

The grave of Stephen Bishop, Mammoth Cave Guide

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The rain fell harder as we continued on our hike.  Thick enough in some places to shelter us almost entirely from the rain, the lush deciduous canopy provided small dry pockets along the trail. We dashed between the dry oases, laughing and shoving each other from cover at each stop.  The rain increased in intensity and we huddled together beneath an awning of oak branches.  After a few minutes of hiding from the downpour, we weighed our options: Go back and get wet, keep going and get wet.  Already fairly soaked, it’s not like we would be dry anytime soon anyway, and it was still quite warm out…we continued on the trail toward Sunset Point.  Instead of the view suggested by this moniker, we watched the rain move across the ravine.

Rain over the Green River Ravine

Rain over the Green River Ravine

The rain had washed an ashy veil over the wooded slopes flanking the Green River ravine.  To the west the blue sky and deep green trees blurred into misty grey and black shadows, like an old faded photograph slightly out of focus.  We watched as the grey ghost of the rain drifted northeast, following the bend of the Green River.

As the rain let up and the sun reclaimed command, we branched off to the River Styx Spring Trail.  Stepping back into the thick forest, we were transported to a place of dramatic contrast, a world of parading shadow and light. Shadows cast by the canopy dominated the world beneath the branches. Blurred lines cross-crossed the path, moving just slightly, like they were breathing. Dark curves and corners shadowed the edges and borders of our vision.

Outside the dense woods, the Kentucky sun shined brightly, breaking through chinks in the arborous armor casting luminous filigrees and on the forest floor. The patterns of light seemed almost electrified, radiating a wonderful energy.  The sun illuminated the outermost trees, their leaves a brilliantly bright green, trunks thick dark columns reaching up until they disappeared in crowded crown of leaf and shadow.

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The path led up to an old riverboat landing on the bank of the Green River.  True to its name, the Green River beamed like a glorious emerald consommé.

Green River, Kentucky

Green River, Kentucky

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We soon arrived at the River Styx Spring.  The pool was a most delicate and fantastic shade of jade green, golden shafts of sunlight beaming on the surface.  The water trickled from the rocks, the soft sound echoing inside the limestone overhang.  I held my breath; perhaps if I were quiet enough I could hear the spring itself, bubbling up from inside the Earth.

River Styx Spring, Mammoth Cave N.P.

River Styx Spring, Mammoth Cave N.P.

We continued on our hike through the wooded wonderland towards Dixon Cave.

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Dixon Cave

Dixon Cave

Then along the Green River Bluff Trail.  The longest river in Kentucky, the Green River flows 370 miles from its headwaters in Lincoln County (east of the park) to its mouth in Henderson (northwest).  Tributaries of the Green River flow underground for miles in the Mammoth Cave area, wearing away cave passages and widening underground rivers.

The Green River

The Green River

The Green River is considered on of the most biologically diverse in North America.  It is home to over 100 species of fish and 41 species of freshwater mussels, including several that are endangered.

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We wound our way along the trail above the Green River back toward the River Styx Spring and Sunset Point.  As we came around a corner, D stopped suddenly a gestured ahead of us.  Two white-tailed deer were feeding just ahead of us.  They did not seem to have noticed our presence.  We stood quietly watching them pick their way through the thick underbrush with their spindly legs.  The forest was silent, save a nearby woodpecker and the muted rustling of the hungry deer. We could hear their teeth tearing and gnawing at their leafy delicacies.  We watched their heads cock to the side, then slope forward as they reached to sniff their next bite.  We watched their ears twitch and turn as they tuned in to the surrounding soundscape.  Stalk still, we waited until they moved enough to hide the sound of our footfall and crept closer.  D got within about 6 feet before the deer’s heads snapped to attention and they bolted down the hillside.

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White-tailed deer – Odocoileus virginianus

Flicker - Colaptes auratus cafer

Flicker – Colaptes auratus cafer

Hoping to go for another hike before it got dark, we headed back to our cottage to shower and have dinner.

The return hike.

The return hike.

We ate at the Mammoth Cave hotel restaurant, The Travertine.  Our tasty meals of Red Pepper Chicken and Mediterranean Chicken also came with delicious fresh biscuits and homemade black cherry preserves.  The portions were quite large and left us stuffed to the gills.  Time for a post-dinner hike!

In the fading daylight, we headed back to Sunset Point.  We stepped beneath the trees as dusk signaled the beginning of the forest night shift.  Fireflies slowly began to wink at one another. Crickets chirped and crooned.  The air was still, not a whisper of wind or breeze.  All was shadow and shade, grey, black, and deep green.  The fireflies steadily grew in number, three lights blinking where there had been one, four lights blinking where there had been none.  Soon the dim forest was alive with countless tiny blinking lights.  There is no other light quiet like flare of a firefly.  It is not a sharp, abrupt beam, but a slow measured glow that pulses and fades.  A firefly flash is like a spark being coaxed to smolder, a blaze moving at the speed of an eyelid’s last descend before sleep.

Sunset Point

Sunset Point Photo by D.R.J.

Arriving at Sunset Point, we looked out over the Green River ravine where we had watched the rain clouds ghost across the treetops earlier.  Now, a slow fog skulked over the river’s surface.  The white-grey haze seemed to turn and curve, maneuvering along the rails of the riverbank.  We watched the fog as it crept silently in the evening.  The sky was shaded in pastel hues of blue, purple, and orange, as the dense forest silhouette grew darker and darker.

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A small black figure shot across the opening in the trees.  Bats!  The next stage of the dark-dwellers was in motion.   The bats emerged from the valley below, swooping and diving through the air.  The experience of watching bats appear from below you instead of above is bizarre.  Like standing on the Lake Michigan breakwater watching the wave rise toward you then break and explode in all directions, the bats appeared from the darkness below, careening toward us before breaking suddenly sideways and flapping out of sight.  Some bats over shot their entrance and swooped inches above our heads. The short high-pitched yelps of their echolocation calls mingled with the cricket chirps into the soft song of a summer night.  The fireflies had slowly drifted to the edge of the woods were we stood.  Uncountable, they pulsed and flickered around us.  “You can’t put a price on an experience like this,” D said softly.  I nodded and took his hand in mine.  We stood mesmerized by the scene until it became almost too dark to see.  The bats moved on to other insect-rich locations and the fireflies began to disperse.   We walked back along the dark trail, giddy with awe and delight.  The forest was almost pitch lack, save a few determined fireflies flickering in the underbrush.

These are the experiences that keep us coming to The Parks.  They fuel our constant desire to be in nature, to live in a place dominated by wildness and wonder.  Even when we are home in Wisconsin, we try to seize every opportunity to experience wild woods and water, open fields and meadows, uncultivated flora and untamed fauna.  Without access to a strong, tangible connection to nature, we are lost.  We drift aimlessly through parking lots and buildings, down streets and freeways searching for a way out, a way back to where we feel whole and at peace.  When we obtain that connection with nature, that direct physical relationship with the true “real world” by hiking in a county park or paddling a nearby river, we are fulfilled.  We feel whole and right, yet all the more hungry for a life lived with the wild, not removed from it.  As D said, you can’t put a price on an experience like this, a truly wild and natural moment.  But you can ask yourself how far am I willing to go to get there?  Am I willing to do what it takes, to pay the price of exclusion from convenience, separation from technology, and isolation from social expectation to get there?  Yes.  Yes.  A hundred times, yes.

It was completely dark by the time we reached our cottage.  We curled up in our bed and were soon asleep.  Tomorrow we would start the morning with our final cave tour before departing this natural sanctuary for the freeways once again.

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