Move over Mammoth Cave and all the other caves located in south-central Kentucky: there’s a new kid on the block.
Cub Run Cave, although not exactly new by cave standards, has recently opened to the public.
Most of the show caves of Kentucky’s cave region date their discoveries well before the 1900s, but Cub Run Cave wasn’t discovered until 1950. That’s when a pair of Hart County teenage farm boys tracked down the source of gushing cold air near the mouth of a small spring.
Their efforts turned into pure delight when, once inside, they raised their kerosene lantern to discover they were standing in a large underground room. As dim as their portable light was, they could still make out the extraordinary formations. Plentiful stalactites dripping from the ceiling, helping to form stalagmites rising from the cave’s floor, were something the two boys knew others would want to see.
The cave was opened to the public for a short time until legal battles among the three owners of the land resulted in the cave being closed and sealed in 1952.
In November 2005, Terry and Judy Schneble, regular visitors to nearby Nolin Lake, purchased the cave and the land around it. Their aim was to develop it into a tourist attraction that would enable others to visit this long-overlooked natural sculpture.
“My wife and kids came here and had an opportunity to go into the cave,” Terry Schneble says. “I went through it and we all decided we wanted to turn it into a tourist attraction.”
Amish carpenters were employed to build an elevated wooden walkway that covers the half-mile tour through the cave. Salamanders, crickets, blind crawfish, and minnows thrive in the cool stream that flows through the cave, and occasionally visitors will see or hear some of the bats that occupy the cave.
Making the construction more difficult was that in order to not disrupt the environmental balance of the cave, each piece of the walkway had to be measured and cut before being transferred into the cave. The concern was that sawdust left in the cave could be detrimental.
In addition, more than 11,000 feet of wiring was installed to handle the new lighting system.
From start to finish, the trek through the cave takes about one hour. Strategically placed lighting emphasizes incredible formations that tour guide Steve Miller calls “still active.”
Miller and another guide, Blake Clark, have spent as much time in the cave as anyone, both working on the lights, walkways, and mapping out new routes that will be added to the tour later.
“There are still several passageways being explored and mapped,” offers Clark. “We want to make them available in the near future.”
A 100-seat restaurant and gift shop feature local crafts and also serve as the tour’s starting point. Transportation carries visitors to the cave opening.
Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green has been a good source for the cave’s tour guides. Most are geology students who, according to Schneble, “really know their stuff about caves.”
Cub Run Cave
Cub Run, Kentucky
Cub Run Cave is open seven days a week. Admission is $14 for adults and $9 for children ages 4-18.
Directions from I-65: take Exit #65 at Munfordville. Turn left on 31W toward the downtown area. Just before the square, turn right and follow Highway 88 West for 13 miles to Cub Run. Travel two miles to Cub Run Restaurant.
Directions from Western Kentucky Parkway: take Exit 107, Leitchfield. Turn away from Leitchfield on Highway 259 South. Travel seven miles to the intersection with Highway 226. Turn left and travel one mile to the flashing light. Go right on Highway 88 East, travel 12 miles to Cub Run Restaurant.
Other cave tours of central Kentucky
Crystal Onyx Cave, Cave City
Diamond Caverns, Park City
Hidden River Cave, Horse Cave
Kentucky Caverns, Horse Cave
Lost River Cave & Valley, Bowling Green
(270) 393-0077 or (866) 274-2283
Mammoth Cave National Park
From I-65 take Exit 53 Cave City
or Exit 48 Park City
(270) 758-2328 or (800) 967-2283
Onyx Cave, Cave City
Gary P. West is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.
Kentucky coal miner Harold C. “Sonny” Koger had a dream of restoring the mining camp where his dad Austin had worked for 48 years. So in 1984, he purchased the McCreary County land where Barthell, the first of 18 Stearns Coal and Lumber Company camps, had been built in 1902 and inhabited through the early 1950s.
Construction began in 1993 and in 1999 the Barthell Coal Mining Camp opened to the public.
“With love and hard work,” said Sonny, who passed away in 2003, “we have reconstructed the (camp).”
That work has paid off, for the project to date has garnered the National Park Service Southeast Region’s 1993 Preservation Award and the Ida Lee Willis Memorial Foundation’s Service to Preservation Award in 1995.
Located west of Stearns in the Daniel Boone National Forest, the Barthell Coal Mining Camp, a family run business, offers guided tours through antique-filled buildings like the Bath House, where the miners washed away the coal dust after each shift. You can see a vein of coal while touring Mine #1, the first Stearns mine, built in 1902 and from which the first trainload of coal was shipped in June 1903. To honor that occasion, the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company threw a big July Fourth celebration, a tradition that continues to this day, more than 100 years later, as the annual McCreary Heritage Days and Homecoming in Stearns with fireworks, a car show, artisans, crafters, and benefit auction.
“It was coal mining that industrialized our country,” says Richard Koger, Sonny’s son and now Barthell’s director of operations. “Coal fired the steel mills during the war. Folks should know that and how people lived who mined coal.”
Overlooking Paunch Creek, 15 “company houses” provide overnight lodging with modern amenities. All have porches and swings to take in the peaceful views, while a three-meal-a-day diner offers country cooking with mouth-watering homemade fried apple pies.
Founded in 1902, the nearby town of Stearns is one of America’s last remaining company-built coal and lumber towns. Nearly the entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to the McCreary County Heritage Foundation. Its wooden buildings now house gift and craft shops, and the original 1907 Stearns Coal and Lumber Company office building is now the McCreary County Museum.
“We present the county’s history, including mining, lumbering, railroading, and farming,” explains Amy Combs, the museum’s director. “One of our most popular exhibits is a moonshine still, with a sample you can smell.”
A museum visit is included in a ticket to ride the Big South Fork Scenic Railway, as is live bluegrass music at the original 1902 Stearns Freight Depot. Meandering through the spectacular gorge of the Big South Fork, the 16-mile train ride stops halfway at Blue Heron for self-guided tours of the abandoned coal town, where former residents tell their stories through audio recordings in “ghost structures.”
“You can hear the miners talk about what it was like to work in the mine and listen to the mountain rumble above them,” says Becky Egnew, passenger operations manager for Big South Fork Scenic Railway. “It gives an incredible insight into the mountain people of southern and eastern Kentucky.”
Barthell Coal Mining Camp
552 Barthell Road
Stearns, KY 42647
Open Tuesday-Saturday, with tours every day. Call for specific times. Camp tours are $12 adults, $11 seniors, $8 children ages 5-12, free for ages under 5. Mine tours are $8 all ages. Full tour $20 adults, $19 seniors, $16 for children 5-12, and free for ages under 5. Call for group prices of 20 or more.
To get there, from I-75, take Exit 11 at Williamsburg, and go west on U.S. 92 for 19 miles, then take slight right onto U.S. 92 for 3-1/2 miles to U.S. 1651. Stay left on 1651 and go 1/2 mile to U.S. 741 and turn right. Go approximately 1/2 mile to U.S. 742 and turn right. Go 6 miles and follow signs to Barthell Coal Mining Camp.
Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area
Big South Fork Scenic Railway
McCreary County Museum
McCreary County Tourist Commission
Around the Area
Get on the water with Sheltowee Trace Outfitters for whitewater or calm water rafting, kayaking, and canoeing, or loll over lunch on their riverboat. Hike a short mile to 113-foot Yahoo Falls, Kentucky’s tallest, or walk on forested 270-mile Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail.
Anglers can grab a guide at Paul Coffey’s Fishing Guide Services in Whitley City, while shoppers can peruse handmade stoneware at Junkyard Pottery at Parkers Lake, then hit Stearns for a sugar fix at Sweet Kreations Gift Shoppe & Fudgery.
Don’t miss the Ice Cream Parlor when you spend a night or two in a Jacuzzi suite at Eagle Falls Resort & RV Campground at Cumberland Falls. Or cozy up in a traditional Kentucky log cabin at Farm House Inn Bed and Breakfast at Parkers Lake in the Daniel Boone National Forest, and hike to waterfalls and two fishing ponds.
Katherine Tandy Brown is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.