To wrap up National Park Week we return to Mammoth Cave National Park to explore two more above-ground areas that visitors often don’t get to experience on their trip to the Park (famous for its enormous cave system). Although we did take the Discovery Tour to get a taste of the underground, the big surprise on our visit was the adventure waiting for us on the 80 –mile trail system; from spring wildflowers on the Cedar Sink Trail to the massive bluffs on the GreenRiver, there were beautiful views and interesting geographical oddities around every bend.
After our morning wildflower hike we ate a picnic lunch and then headed a very short distance to 0.5 mile Turnhole Bend Nature Trail (not to be confused with the 1.8 mile Turnhole Bend Trail north of the Green River). This short loop brings hikers to an overlook of the bend the Green River makes on its 27 mile journey through the Park. At the base of the bluff is Turnhole Spring, and along the trail are several sinkholes.
Turnhole Bend Spring is the 3rd largest spring in Kentucky, originating from a large area of sinkholes south of the Park. After the water drains underground, it flows through cave passages, briefly surfaces at the Cedar Sink, and then continues its underground journey until converging with the Green River.
The area gets its name from the 19th century riverboats that would enter the spring to reverse their course up the river – a “turn hole.” Upstream from the bend in the river is the Green River Ferry crossing, one of two ferry crossings within the Park and one of only a few operating rural ferries in the US.
Before the establishment of the National Park, 8 private river boat ferries provided a way to cross the river. Among them was the Mammoth Cave ferry (near the Historic Entrance to the cave), the Turnhole Ferry (at the very south end of the bend) and Houchins Ferry, which still operates today (note: the Houchin ferry is temporarily out of service, for up-to-date info call the Ferry Hotline at (270) 758-2166).
The Green River Ferry operates year-round with the exception of Christmas Day (December 25), 6:00am-9:55pm. Your vehicle must not exceed 8 tons and can be no longer than 16 feet. During our short visit the ferry made close to ten visits across the river, ferrying one, sometimes two cars at a time. The Green River Ferry Rd. is the only vehicular access to the Maple Springs Group Campground and the majority of the north end of the park without having to drive all the way around the boundaries of the park.
The parking lot at the ferry crossing is also the trailhead for the Echo River Spring Trail. The one-mile hike circles around Echo River, splits off into the Whites Cave Trail and Mammoth Dome Sink Trail, and ends at the Green River Bluffs Trail above the mouth of the River Styx. We found an amazing sycamore on the bank of Echo River, the trunk entirely hollow all the way to the river below as well as up to where the main trunk had snapped off some years previous – yet it was still alive, clinging to the banks as it had been doing for a hundred years.
Our trip to Mammoth Cave ended sooner than I would have liked. We still had a stop or two before returning to Greenville, but we were leaving the wilderness behind as we headed south to Knoxville. It had been an amazing few days – above and below ground – and I can easily imagine our travels will bring us back to this area someday. As a finale to National Park Week I invite you to visit the More Than Just Parks website, where you will find amazing time-lapse videos of some of the most remarkable National Parks in the US, including Joshua Tree, Great Smoky Mountains, and the most recent, Zion. Watch, dream, and plan…