Monday, April 18, 2016

Mammoth Cave - the Green River Bluffs

Happy National Park Week! This week is America's largest celebration of national heritage; it’s about exploring amazing places, discovering open spaces and honoring the national parks that make America great! From April 16-24th every national park will give you free admission, so get out there and find your park!

In honor of National Park week I’ll be blogging about some of the Parks we’ve recently visited as a family, wrapping up our spring break trip to Mammoth Cave National Park. Famous for over than 400 miles of explored tunnels, Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system – but that’s not all that’s there! Although we did descend down into the cave through the Historic Entrance on the Discovery Tour, we spent most of our time in the Park exploring above ground. Spring is the perfect time to visit as dozens of species of wildflowers are adorning the forest floor, and temperatures are mild allowing comfortable adventuring of one of Mammoth Cave’s 50 trails totaling over 80 miles of hiking.

Continuing on the Dixon Cave trail from the Historic Entrance

Our first taste of Mammoth Cave was the area around the Historic Entrance and the Visitor Center. We hiked a portion of the Green River Bluffs trail, the Dixon Cave trail, the Sunset Point trail and the Heritage trail, making a big loop down to the Green River and then back up. Leaving the crowds behind at the Historic Entrance we headed north on the Dixon Cave trail, 0.4 miles to reach what used to be a part of Mammoth Cave – perhaps a million years ago. The one cave became two when a sinkhole collapse cut Dixon off from Mammoth, creating the Historic Entrance. Endangered Indiana and gray bats use Dixon Cave, and so it’s gated off and shouldn’t be approached due to the threat of spreading deadly white-nose syndrome.

From Dixon Cave it’s an easy 0.1 miles back up to the paved picnic area loops where hikers can tie into one end of the Green River Bluffs trail. We elected to cut out a portion of the 1.3 mile trail and took the shortcut to the middle of the trail where we were rewarded with scenic views of the Green River from high on the bluffs.

After a swift descent to the river we were able to explore a sandy beach just opposite Cave Island. Large amounts of Tiger swallowtail butterflies had congregated here, and while I watched and photographed them the boys took turns throwing stones into the river.

The coves down adjacent to the Green River contained some enormous trees; the sycamores and beeches were each more massive and impressive then the last, colossal trunks supporting immense canopies that had just begun budding on our visit.

Soon we reached the mouth of the River Styx where there used to be an old riverboat landing. As the river was replaced as a means of transporting large loads by the railroad, steamboats took over touring the Green River, offering cruises complete with musicians, fine dining, traveling shows and circuses. We turned inland on the 0.4 mile River Styx boardwalk which leads to the point where the River Styx emerges above-ground for a short trip to empty into the Green River.

A short climb on the Echo River Spring trail brought us to the 0.3 mile Sunset Point trail which took us up the steep bluffs through a series of switchbacks. It was here that the boys encountered their third deer, eliciting a few screams as it crashed across the trail just as they had rounded a corner out of our line of sight – affecting a few more gray hairs before we learned the reason for their shrieks.

Sunset Point might provide a scenic viewpoint of the sun setting over the river; however it was more convenient as a rest point after a steep climb even as the shadows lengthened. The boys used the opportunity to continue work on their Junior Ranger Adventure books, the effort rewarded the following day when they received their hard-earned badges at the Visitor Center.

From Sunset Point we followed the half-mile paved Heritage loop past the Mammoth Cave Hotel back to the Visitor Center. Our loop totaled about 1.5 miles, but as it included several steep portions it was a challenging, rewarding hike. By including the entire Green River Bluffs trail it could easily be extended to 2 miles, and by adding loops to Dome Sink, Echo River and White Cave one could easily incorporate 4-5 miles of trail into their itinerary.

The view from Sunset Point

It seemed easy to separate our visit to Mammoth Cave into two parts; the descent into the underground world of the cave system, and the above-ground realm of rivers, forests and wildflowers. However, in reality these are two parts of a greater whole (hole!), unified by the various forces of nature that continue to form the caves and shape the landscape of this one ecosystem linked by water. With a wide variety of tours, trails and adventures awaiting, Mammoth Cave National Park is deserving of the title of World Heritage Site and should be included on your quest to find your park.


  1. Gorgeous. I think I mentioned that we went to Mammoth Cave ONCE in about 2001.. We didn't stay long and didn't do any other hiking... Looks like we need to go back.

    I published a blog post today --so check it out when you have time.


    1. OOPS---I see that you have visited my blog. YES---that covered bridge is really neat --and so close to the Parkway in Sevierville.


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