Travel Diaries: Mammoth Cave National Park

Last weekend, we went on the first of 3 (three!) summer vacations.  This trip took us to Barren River Lake in Lucas, Kentucky with our friends, S & K and their Little Guy.  Stuart and S have been best friends since high school, but jobs have separated them by so many miles that they only get to see each other every few years at best.  Recently, S’s job transferred him to Chicago so we have the opportunity to see them more frequently–twice this year already!  We decided to meet near a halfway point to do some camping and settled on Mammoth Cave, but on a busy weekend like Memorial Day the sites were booked well in advance. We had to find a space outside that park.  Barren River Lake Camp Grounds was our spot!

First of all, let me say that I had no idea packing required so. much. stuff. I am (well, was) not a fan of camping unless an RV was involved and because Stu’s folks have a camper we’ve never had to pack all the things.  But this is what our stuff looked like sitting in the kitchen the afternoon before we left.  We hadn’t even left for the trip yet and I was already dreading having to pack it all up again!

(Side note: the huge box with doors sitting on the chair is a “camping kitchen”.  It was made and originally used by Stu’s maternal grandfather, and was eventually handed down to his parents, who used it when Stu was a kid.  This year, it was passed on to us and we made great use of it.)

We don’t exactly remember what time we left on Friday morning, but we are sure that it was the longest 5 hour drive of our lives.  That’s how long Mapquest estimated our trip to be, but it took more like 6, which didn’t even include the hour we crawled along a one-mile stretch of I-65 just this side of Bowling Green when a wreck on the outside of a bottleneck wreaked havoc on traffic.  Luckily, we weren’t in a hurry, so we just enjoyed the togetherness in the car.  When we finally arrived, we ended up driving around for another 15 minutes looking for our campsite because it was hidden in the very back of the grounds. As you can see by the sad, lopsided condition of our site, we reserved the last available one.

There were a few downsides to the site.  First (and most obvious), there was nowhere flat to pitch the tent.  We settled on an area between the trees at the top of the hill which was still on a slight incline–the boys kept sliding down their beds at night–and was covered in gravel.  Second, since we were so far back in the grounds, the bathroom was at least 100 yards away.  This was fine during the day, but for someone who usually makes at least one late night trip to the restroom, stumbling up there and/or “holding it” until daylight were less than thrilling options.  Finally, there was almost nowhere for us to park our van.  But we all made do and hung out and had dinner after getting situated and things were lovely.

On Saturday, Stuart, Dave, S and I did the Self-Guided Discovery Tour at Mammoth Cave.  The opening of this entrance was insanely large–a huge hole in the ground with 79 stairs going up and down.  It was created when leaking water weakened the area and it collapsed in on itself.

This area of the caves was used for mining saltpeter during the War of 1812.  Charles DuPont manufactured black gunpowder by mixing saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur to create gunpowder for the United States and most of the saltpeter used to create gunpowder during the War of 1812 was mined by 70 slaves at Mammoth Cave.

In true Beth fashion, I didn’t check before we left camp and my camera batteries were dead when we got into the cave, so we don’t have any pictures of this area, but here’s a picture of a saltpeter leaching vat from the Mammoth Cave website.

This part of the cave was pretty boring.  I mean, the historical significance was cool, but there were no stalactites or stalagmites or other cool cavey things.  So we bought tickets for a different tour the next day.  Before we left, we took a hike quite a way down a big hill through an area that could’ve been the arena in the Hunger Games movie to the River Styx, then almost died on the way back up the big hill.  Even the resilient kid had to stop twice to rest.

When we got home that afternoon, I took Dave to the pool while Stuart went fishing.  (Incidentally, he swears he caught the same 2 fish all weekend.)  Kentucky is in the midst of a drought, so the swim beach was closed temporarily.  The owners of the lodge were nice enough to invite all the campers to swim at the pool which was totally awesome of them, but it also meant that there were a TON of people at the pool all the time!  Needless to say, since David loves “swimming”, he could’ve just stayed at the pool for the whole weekend and been happy.

Post-pool/fishing, Stuart made his famous pork loin in the fire, which was amazeballs as usual, then it was time for bathing and bedtime.

Speaking of bedtime, that night was rough.  A rock under the tent punctured a hole in our air mattress and we woke up at 2 am on the ground.  Since we were awake and unhappy, we trekked to the bathroom and back, joking about how horrible Sunday was going to feel if we couldn’t sleep, and how we were going to have to buy another air mattress even though we’d only used this one three times.  In the end, I shared David’s twin-sized mattress with him (which was very elbowey and knee-ee) and Stu slept on S’s hammock (which is tricky to sleep in for long periods of time because you had to stay balanced on it or it’d flip over.)  The silver lining in the mattress debacle was that Stu was too tired to cook or make coffee at the site, so we got to eat at my guilty pleasure, Cracker Barrel! Woo!

After breakfast that morning, we hit Mammoth Cave to do the New Entrance Tour.  We had an awesome tour guide named Kevin who’s been a ranger at Mammoth Cave since 1969.  This wasn’t really the entrance I was expecting to see after the previous day, but the cool air that rushed out when Kevin opened the door was welcome since it was already 85 degrees at 9 am!

The tour began with a 300 stair descent into the cave.  By the time we got to the bottom, my knees were shaking so bad I didn’t think I’d ever finish the rest of the tour!  Luckily, Kevin gave us a little break at the bottom and gave us some of the history of the cave.  After another (shaky) walk, we entered a huge room with more seating where Kevin’s assistant turned off the lights to show us how dark it was in the cave.  Want to know how dark it was?  Go into a dark room, close your eyes, put on a blindfold, and then put a pillowcase over your head.  Now you’ve seen the inside of an unlit cave, too.

After the 2 hour hike we arrived at Frozen Niagara; it didn’t disappoint.


After the cave tour, we stopped at on overlook to check out this amazing view of rural Kentucky.

Then I made David take the obligatory Photo with Awesome Scenery Background.  He was not amused.

After the cave tour, we met S & K at the marina to spend the afternoon on the water.

S rented a pontoon boat and took us on a tour of the lake.

David loved being on the boat and bragged to S and K that it was his fourth boat ride.  (La-di-da!)   But even more exciting than getting to ride in the boat was getting to jump out of it!

Poor Stuart was so tired from the lack of sleep and the cave tour that I have no idea how he managed to hang out in the water with David for as long as he did.  Dave would jump out of the boat, tread water for a few seconds, then demand that Stuart swim him around to the ladder at the back of the boat so he could jump off again.  Daddy was a total trooper, and I’m surprised he didn’t sleep for two days after our super-long day!

I tried to conquer my fear of murky bodies of water by jumping in once and lounging on my raft for a few minutes, but once I added River Monsters to the things I imagine might be in the water, I’m pretty sure I’m never going to overcome that fear.  I was in and out of the water in less than five minutes, but I gave it a good effort.

David made a friend while we were camping.  There was a group of cousins camping in the site next to us and a little girl, Libby, took a shining to Dave.  They hung out whenever we were all just hanging out at the site.

All in all, we had an awesome trip and I can’t wait to go camping with the boys again soon!  If you’re surprised by the fact that I just said I’m looking forward to “roughing it” again, trust me, so am I.

To see all the pictures from our trip, you can view the set on Flikr.


2 thoughts on “Travel Diaries: Mammoth Cave National Park

  1. Pingback: What Makes a Space Sacred? | Writing Your Destiny

  2. Pingback: Kentucky | Everything About Hiking

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