We left the Great Smokey Mountain National Park after a great week of exploration....however we could not resist one final small hike up to Laurel Falls on our way out. This before we started our day long drive over to Mammoth Cave National Park.
This is the most popular waterfall in the Smokies, mainly because of its proximity to the main road. Even though this trail is paved and relatively short at only two and a half miles return there are a couple of quite steep sections and with all the camera gear we were carrying, it certainly provided for a good morning's exercise. The water level is quite low and so it was quite difficult to get those nice silky shots we wanted without literally having to go down on our hands and knees. But it was worth the effort and we did have the whole place to ourselves for almost half an hour.
Laurel Falls and the beautiful Blonde Hiker.
From Laurel Falls we are making our way further north and then west through Kentucky on our way to our next national park venue, Mammoth Caves. This will be an almost 300 mile drive today and thankfully the interstate is relatively quiet. The landscape has definitely flattened out and the final part of our journey today is on some pretty back roads through more Amish communities, with their typical white picket fences at the entrances to their farms. This is tobacco country, and for the final 30 miles as we are driving into the park itself we are passing more and more traditional drying barns on both sides of the roads, which are mixed in with the new hi-tech drying sheds built on a much grander scale.
Traditional tobacco drying barns...and their contents.
We stop to take a few photos and then as we are on the last few minutes of our drive through this area we spot a small herd of "domestic" bison....featuring blondes!!
Gotta lurve....a blonde bison bull
Mammoth Cave has developed in thick Mississippian-aged limestone strata capped by a layer of sandstone, making the system remarkably stable. It is known to include more than 390 miles (630 km) of passageways and new discoveries and connections add several miles to this figure each year. Legend has it that the first European to discover Mammoth Cave was either John Houchin or his brother Francis Houchin, in 1797. While hunting, Houchin pursued a wounded bear to the cave's large entrance opening near the Green River. Mammoth Cave National Park was established in July 1941,to preserve the cave system after the "Kentucky Cave Wars" which were a period of bitter competition in the early 1900's, between local cave owners for tourist money. Broad tactics of deception were used to lure visitors away from their intended destination to other private show caves. Misleading signs were placed along the roads leading to the Mammoth Cave. A typical strategy during the early days of automobile travel involved representatives (known as "cappers") of other private show caves hopping aboard a tourist's car's running board, and leading the passengers to believe that Mammoth Cave was closed, quarantined, caved in or otherwise inaccessible.
We approach the main entrance to Mammoth Cave National Park and take the requisite photo of Big Henry by the sign....
Before setting up at the campground we go into the enormous visitors center and get all the info on the large selection of cave tours available to us, engaging with a very nice and informative ranger outside who gives us the lowdown on what is good and great. He immediately gains The Blonde's interest when he talks about a birding walk to take place first thing tomorrow morning and then introduces us to a special cave tour that only runs once a year, which he highly recommends...so we book to go on the Onyx Cave Tour for the following afternoon.
One of the larger caverns on the entrance into Mammoth Caves.
The campground is huge....maybe one of the biggest national park campgrounds we have been in, but the various loops in which you can camp feature quite private individual sites, and there is no need to be right on top of your neighbours unless you so wish.
The Blonde - It is Autumn this morning. Cold, misty, damp but nice and sunny. And absolutely glorious. We break camp and drive down to the information center, we could have easily walked there but David wants to get Big Henry out of the trees and into an open area so we can power up through the solar. At 8.30 am we join an ex-Ranger, ex-high school teacher, Steve and his Kentucky friend Tom for a birding walk. How exciting! We haven’t birded for AGES and we had dozens and dozens of birds logged in the first 15 minutes; Tennessee Warblers, Chickadees, Robins, Waxwings, Tanagers, Bluebirds, Blue Jays, Cuckoos, Downy Woodpecker, Red Headed Woodpeckers and Pileated Woodpeckers. Quite a feast really! Tom had a fabulous rolling Kentucky accent and was a good birder, and an amazing eye....plus his secret weapon....his whistle. Steve howevee, was an experienced and professional birder...he had an App on his phone with the bird calls from all of the local species....and from time to time he played the calls to try and draw the birds closer...often very successfully....nice trick.
Steve & Tom...our Kentucky Birders.....
We loved Steve so much that we joined him later in the morning for a Nature Walk he was also guiding, learning more about the flora along some of the many short trails to Green River in the park. It was very informative and peaceful too. And really nice for someone else to take control of our day! In the afternoon we then took the special tour to Onyx Cave. This cave is within the park but not attached to the 400 miles of interconnected tunnels of Mammoth Cave. It was billed well as a "Colman Gas Lantern Tour" and we needed a 20 minute bus ride to the cave entrance.
Our Park Ranger Bobby was extremely good and entertaining and recited the story about the discovery and development of this cave as a private venture away from Mammoth Cave system in the early 1920’s. It involved secrecy and battles between neighbours as they disputed whose property was directly above the cave tunnels. There was also a story about the infamous Kentucky caver, Floyd Collins, who hoped to find another entrance to Mammoth Cave in 1925 and became trapped in a narrow crawlway. The reports of the efforts to save Collins became a nationwide newspaper and radio sensation. The rescue attempt became the third-biggest media event between the world wars. The fame brought by his demise caused his tombstone to be engraved with.... "The Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known."
Hiking through a section of Mammoth Cave....
From the well concealed entrance the steep carved steps descended immediately into the cave from the heavily padlocked door. In the first 100 yards there were many stalactites, stalagmites, formations with names, bacon, and straws. It was impossible to photograph because only 1 in 5 or 6 people were given a latern and I’d been denied permission to use a flashlight to illuminate the formations. I can understand, but it was still a bit disappointing. Everyone’s iPhones seemed able to manage but not me and my Nikon! The cave soon became dry and the story of its early visitors, owners and legal battle took over. We walked on and on by lantern past “the nativity” and a couple of crystal flowers in the ceiling. They were tiny but pretty but no photo!
"Breaking in" to Onyx Cave....and the lamps all in a line
Our dear friends from Ontario, Wanda and Al, had recommended coming here and said they had enjoyed themselves but it was completely different to Kartchner and Carlsbad Caverns which we all saw back in 2015. They are still the most stunning places we’ve ever seen underground. Still, we enjoyed this tour. It was enough and we didn’t feel we wanted to explore any more of the caves. Glad we came though.
......and inside Onyx Cave......
The following morning we decided some exercise was needed....on yer bike! The Mammoth Cave Rail Trail which was originally used by tourists to get to visit the caves back in the 1920's had now been converted into a hike/bike trail from the visitor's center through to Park City. It is a 20 mile return journey. The trail itself was quite up and down with some sections very much on the UP...."Caution: Steep Grade Dismount and walk your bicycle in these areas."....David had to get off and push on a couple of occasions much to his dismay.
The small town of Park City held little to keep our attention and after a fairly quick 10 minute circumnavigation of the Bell's Tavern Historical Park, we were on our way back....up hill...and then downhill...at some speed...and then eventually back into the campground, just in time before the rain started. David's right knee was all blown up...again...so medicine was needed to be administered...ibuprofen, ice and gin and tonic...and not necessarily in that order of preference!
For more information please go to the excellent National Park website: https://www.nps.gov/maca/index.htm