MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK
Winter and wind had broken our spirits the previous week, so we decided to check out Knoxville and treat ourselves to some inside time at an air-bnb. Luckily, the University of Knoxville has a large football tourism industry, and therefore game day condos are very common, making rentals real cheap. We stayed in a studio condo right off Gay Street, and escaped the cold for a few days. It was delightful.
It doesn't take long for cooking inside and having a hot shower to be to notch luxuries when you live outside. Being able to cook a frozen pizza and watch tv was magical. The shower, unmatched by any five star hotel. Sleeping without a sleeping bag made this queen bed feel like burrowing into the biggest cloud. It picked us back up and we were ready to head out to Mammoth Cave National Park.
The drive to the park was surprisingly beautiful. I wish I took more photos driving to our destinations, as it's been interesting to get a sense of each state. Western Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky were pretty similar landscapes. They both had rolling green hills with spacious farm houses scattered between small historic or run down 'city' centers (most were about two intersections long.) Once we crossed the Kentucky border, however, I noticed two differences.
One, Kentucky has black colored barns about as much as red barns. This is apparently due to farmers growing Tobacco in the twentieth century painting the barns black to help with the tobacco curring process. The black barn became a bit of a fashion statement after tobacco farms were doing well, and this tradition is still prominent in Kentucky and West Virginia today.
Two, it looks like a great life in Kentucky if you have money, and a real bad one if you don't. There wasn't too many middle class areas at least where we drove through, and the homes of the wealthy were usually pretty far away from any city, so either it was a long line of family wealth, or apparently cattle farming is the way to get rich.
When we arrived at Mammoth Cave, we did see the normal National Park demographic mixing pot. Though it seems this park is mainly treated as a one day adventure for most people, especially as the northern snow birds make their way down to Florida for the winters (a lot of Minnesota, Indiana, Nebraska, Michigan plates.) The campground was nice and empty though!
We spent five nights here, and it was probably one day too long realistically. It is a small park, and most of the interest is obviously within the cave system underground. Mammoth Cave is the longest consecutive cave in the world, with over 405 miles of discovered cave and growing. If you are into caving or spelunking, this park is for you. Eric and I, however, appreciate this environment but have no interest in shoving our bodies in tiny dark crevices deep underground. Also, most of the cave has to be seen as a part of a tour group which costs money and is not covered by the National Park yearly pass.
We did the Grand Avenue tour which covered the largest sections of the cave system, and we loved it. This 4 hour tour had large cathedrals with all the stalactites and stalagmites you could want, small slot canyons carved by underground rivers, cave waterfalls, and bats (little chicken nuggets!) The only down side was most of the tours were huge. Ours was 65 people and we felt like we were running through most of it. It was a great hike, but I much prefer taking my time through most new environments so I can see all the small details. Also, a few people talking in a cave sounds like a stadium so our group of 65 wasn't exactly a serine experience.
We did however LOVE the employees through out the park because they had absolutely no since of humor, and that in itself was very funny. The front desk lady who sold tour tickets started out with the most blunt no bull shit attitude, without being rude, I have witnessed in customer service. The assistant tour guide gave us a stern talking to for asking questions in the back of the tour stating “he wasn't there to provide a more personal tour, but to provide first aid if needed” and we “should keep up or we shouldn't be on the tour.” Again, he wasn't mean, but I definitely felt I better get my shit together. All the other employees we encountered were very similar. Professional, but stern, about everything.
We also got out above ground and hiked a few trails across the Green river. I am glad we saw these woods, but it was not the highlight for the park. The plus side was there were very few people out exploring these areas, so at least this hike was peaceful. The other days were spent driving around the back roads, checking out the one millionth historic church thus far, and staying dry during the thunder storms. I enjoyed this park for what it was, but I would personally not plan a vacation specifically here again in the future. I have been to Carlsbad Caverns many years ago too, and I would say they are very different cave systems, both equally worth spending time at. As always, the National Park did inspire awe, exploration, and learning.
8/10 would go again with family type group.
Song: Green River – Creedance Clearwater Revival