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Lookout Below!

Though the picturesque Appalachians stretch through eastern Kentucky and the west is known for its fish-filled waters, not all of the state’s attractions are readily visible. A number that are tucked “underground” are every bit as much fun to explore as those on the surface.

Mammoth Cave National Park
Tourists began descending into the depths of Mammoth Cave as early as 1816, and it became a national park in 1941. Only 40 miles of caves were mapped at that time.

Today, Mammoth is the world’s longest cave, with 10 miles of its surveyed 400 miles of passageways open to the public. Underground visitors can “see” total blackness; “hear” almost total silence; smell dank, earthy air; and squeeze through Fat Man’s Misery.

“In the 1800s, Steven Bishop, a self-educated slave who gained worldwide fame as a legendary cave guide, called Mammoth Cave a ‘grand, gloomy, and peculiar place,'” says Vickie Carson, public information officer for the park. “That still holds true today. The cave is like an alien world.”

Explorations of this 54-degree marvel include a two-hour Historic Tour; Trog Tour – for kids 8-12, no parents allowed! – complete with a hard hat, headlamp, and belly-sliding; and an “extremely strenuous” 5-mile Wild Cave Tour adventure for those over age 16.

Great for folks who have walking issues and those with toddlers, the Frozen Niagara Tour wends through the part of the cave with the most stalactites and stalagmites.

Aboveground, you can hike on 85 miles of trails, take a horseback ride, paddle a canoe down the Green River, and spend the night in a concrete teepee in nearby Wigwam Village
Inn #2.

Kentucky Coal Museum and Portal 31
Much of America learned about Kentucky’s coal miners and their families from country music great Loretta Lynn’s popular ballad Coal Miner’s Daughter. Before the advent of modern heavy-duty equipment, men deep-mined millions of tons of “black gold” by hand, spending their days at grueling, lung-congesting manual labor, with only a helmet lamp for illumination, a caged canary to warn of noxious fumes, and the threat of being buried alive a daily possibility.

Today, visitors can learn about the industry in two former coal camps, Benham, home of the Kentucky Coal Museum, and Lynch, where folks can ride a mantrip (miners’ shuttle with a metal canopy) through 1,800 feet of underground tunnels in a once-active coal mine, Portal 31. Along the way timeline exhibits, lifelike animatronic figures, and total-surround videos showing the creation of coal bring history to life.

“As soon as you come in, you hear recordings of miners’ voices,” says Phyllis Sizemore, curator of the museum. “So you get caught up in their lives. You’re riding the tracks they rode and feel the darkness. You’re in the heart of the earth. A quiet respect usually settles on visitors.”

Housed in a former coal camp commissary, the museum features a slew of mining artifacts, a mock mine, poignant early black-and-white camp photos, a scale model of Black Mountain with coal seams indicated, and an exhibit on Loretta Lynn and her stage costumes.

Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo and Mammoth Onyx Cave
Near Horse Cave, you can experience two completely different “under” attractions. Begun in 1990, Kentucky Down Under (KDU) Adventure Zoo and Mammoth Onyx Cave (it originally opened in 1922) – previously called Kentucky Down Under and Kentucky Caverns – gives a fascinating peek at unique animals aboveground and interesting cave life underground.

Way more than your average petting zoo, KDU offers the opportunity to meet friendly kangaroos and wallabies, step into an aviary and feed the birds while a vivid-colored rainbow lorikeet lands on your head, pat a python, watch a Border collie herd sheep, milk a cow, and get laughed at by a kookaburra. Schoolchildren come here in droves for much-anticipated field trips.

On a 30-minute tour into Mammoth Onyx Cave, one of the Commonwealth’s premier show caves, you can ogle loads of hanging stalactites and towering stalagmites, cave coral, and naturally occurring onyx, all in a cool 60 degrees.

Open daily, KDU this year has added numerous exhibits and improvements, including white peacocks, Egyptian fruit bats, a gorgeous blue and gold macaw, a zebra, wagon rides pulled by two teams of draft horses, and the Snowy River Range, where you can practice pellet gun shooting and take home your score and target. The cave lighting has been completely redone, the better to see Cray Charles, the blind crawfish who lives in the cave. And that’s not all.

“We have a new pair of dingo pups, and are partners in a dingo breeding program with the Australian Dingo Foundation/Dingo Discovery Center,” says Candace Forsythe, director of group sales.

Louisville MEGA Cavern
Did you know that a 17-mile-long man-made cavern snakes below 70 percent of the Louisville Zoo and all 10 lanes of the I-264 Watterson Expressway?

Excavated for 40 years as a limestone mine, beginning in the 1930s, Louisville MEGA Cavern is a 100-acre cavern with the world’s only known underground zipline, MEGA Zips. Low lights illuminate all six different ziplines and two challenge bridges, creating an atmosphere of stepping back in time to an era when miners were digging out stone. Their cross-canyon zipline is 900 feet, the length of three football fields. You can even challenge a buddy on a 700-foot dual racing zip. Along the way, guides relate cavern history and science, and point out a “nursery” for growing stalactites and stalagmites.

“One of our zips, called the Zipline to Hell, is lit with red lights and fake flames,” says Emilie Pinto-Schmeling, the cavern’s manager of group sales and marketing. “On this one, you start high and ride the zip down low.”

Should heights and speed not appeal, on an hourlong open-air Historic Tram Tour, you can check out underground storage units and warehouses, and learn how the cavern’s backfill – rumored to contain everything from roofing shingles to unused Corvette parts – has made it one of Kentucky’s largest recycling centers.

Touted as the largest building in the Commonwealth, MEGA Cavern plugs into the holidays with Lights Under Louisville, 800 lighted characters with 2 million-plus points of light that made it one of USA Today‘s Top 10 holiday light displays in the nation for 2012. And they were recently voted one of the Top 15 Craziest Ziplines by, one of only three U.S. ziplines to make the list.


Kentucky Coal Museum and Portal 31
(606) 848-1530

Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo and Mammoth Onyx Cave
(270) 786-1010

Louisville MEGA Cavern
(502) 855- MEGA (6342)

Mammoth Cave National Park
(270) 758-2180

Wigwam Village Inn #2
(207) 773-3381

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