Kentucky’s underground realms enchant and thrill
Bourbon. Horses. Caves. With myriad mysterious worlds yawning beneath our feet, including the mother of all caves, these subterranean playgrounds earn their place on the list of assets for which the Bluegrass State is most famous.
Here are five caves that can be experienced in five ways—from swinging through the underworld and floating past a former underground night club to picking your way along lantern-illuminated dirt trails and entering a wonderland of stalactites, stalagmites and flowstone that has been closed to the public for four decades.
Zip and sway
Unique, complex and a little on the wild side—rather like Kentuckians themselves—Hidden River Cave is the only natural cave located inside city limits and with a sidewalk view. The tiny town of Horse Cave sits atop the cavern, now home to the world’s longest underground swinging bridge. At the end of the bridge? The largest dome room in the cave area, the 5-acre Sunset Dome, which was closed to the public for 70 years.
And yes, there’s more. Adventurers can zip line 70 feet above the ground and across the cave’s entrance, rappel 75 feet down the face of the cave, and go off-trail and into muddy and wet passages on a Wild Cave Tour. For tamer activities, they can go surface-side to trace the pathway of the labyrinth concealed below and learn about blind fish and cave geology at the American Cave Museum.
An atmospheric underworld
Stretching under highways and animal habitats, with over 17 miles of passageways beneath Louisville, is the world’s only fully underground zip line course at the Louisville Mega Cavern.
The 100-acre landmark, created by a huge limestone quarry, is roomy enough to hold up to 16,000 boats, and with rock pillars rising up to 90 feet tall, it once produced 8 inches of snow when it was snowing nowhere else in the city. It is an atmospheric underworld primed to draw daredevils.
Six zip lines, with a dual zipping experience and two challenge bridges, are in an area of the man-made cavern most visitors never see, where ceiling heights soar up to 70 to 90 feet tall.
“Hopefully, you aren’t scared of heights!” says Lauren Parker, senior director of marketing and guest experience.
In addition to zip lining, the Mega Cavern offers tram, bike and walking tours, plus Mega Quest, the only fully underground aerial ropes challenge course in the world.
Float your boat
Billboard Magazine once gave Bowling Green’s Lost River Cave a shout-out as the only air-conditioned nightclub in the country.
“During the big band era (of the 1930s and 1940s), the Cavern Nite Club featured well-known bands, including Francis Craig and His NBC Orchestra, and celebrities like Dinah Shore,” says Lost River Cave CEO Rho Lansden.
The boat tour that glides past this once rocking historic hot spot that hosted dances and other formal affairs is Kentucky’s only natural underground cave boat tour (one at Mammoth Cave was discontinued in the 1990s). Visitors learn about the role the river played as an ancient Native American hunting ground, Civil War campground for both the Union and Confederacy and, according to local folklore, a hideout for infamous outlaw Jesse James.
The cave is part of a 72-acre urban park that includes hiking trails, Butterfly Habitat and the Flying Squirrel Zipline, which shoots adventurers through the treetops and over the valley’s largest blue hole.
Two in one
At Mammoth Cave National Park, the Violet City Lantern Tour dazzles spelunkers.
“It’s a wonderful way to experience Mammoth Cave and learn its amazing history in a very nostalgic way,” says park management analyst Molly Schroer.
Although the lantern tours and other large, guided tours currently are suspended due to COVID-19, the park offers a self-guided tour within the cave’s historic section. The Rotunda, Methodist Church, Giant’s Coffin and mid-19th century stone-built hut used for treating tuberculosis patients are some of the sites on this 2-mile trail.
One of three lantern tours offered during non-pandemic times, the 3-mile, three-hour Violet City Lantern Tour winds through tunnels, up steep hills and over rugged, uneven terrain as cavers travel a timeline back to the cave’s prehistory.
“It is my favorite tour that we offer because it really is special to see the cave only by lantern light,” Schroer says.
The Violet City Lantern Tour will again be offered once regular guided tours can be safely resumed.
And now, drum roll, please. After being closed to the public for 40 years, Wondering Woods Cave at Mammoth Cave National Park will reopen as soon as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, offering a new caving experience.
“The cave is full of beautiful dripstone formations that provide a chance to see the stalactites, stalagmites and other features typically associated with the underground environment,” says Schroer.
To prepare it for the public, the Wondering Woods Cave has been given a thorough spit shine, with handrails cleaned, entrance stairs and door reworked and pathway and stairways within the cave mended or rebuilt. In addition, the surface trail leading to the cave has been improved and a small shelter built for tour groups to gather beneath.
“It will be a great addition to the variety of cave tours we offer each season,” says Schroer.
Facebook: Hidden River Cave. (270) 786-1466. Check website for information about reserving tours.
Facebook: Lost River Cave. (270) 393-0077. Visitors are encouraged to book tours in advance through the website.
Facebook: Louisville Mega Cavern. (877) 614-6342. Advance reservations strongly suggested. Check the website or Facebook page for information about a new attraction coming to the cavern this spring.
Facebook: Mammoth Cave National Park. (270) 758-2180. A self-guided tour and a few guided tours with reduced capacity are currently available at Mammoth Cave; more will open when it is safe to do so. Tours at Wondering Woods Cave, a separate site within the national park, will follow the same safety guidelines.
All five caves are open year-round