What better way to celebrate the International Year of the Caves and Karst than a road trip ping-ponging around the picturesque, storied state of Kentucky, whose topography includes a fascinating underworld network of caves? The Bluegrass State may be widely known for green rolling countryside (not to mention the Derby and mint juleps!), but what lurks beneath is just as impressively fascinating.
Whether by foot or boat, spelunking—or cave exploring—will thrill science, nature, and history buffs alike. It’s also a fun, educational experience for the whole family, so bring the kids along for the adventure.
On this customizable weeklong tour (which can easily expand to ten days if you want to spend more time exploring each), you’ll travel to ten different cave sites, with plenty of above-ground fun to be had along the way, from finger-licking barbecue joints to horseback riding. But the main events are the geological marvels underground.
Day 1Carter Caves State Resort Park
If you’re not driving here, fly into Lexington, rent a car and head directly to Carter Caves State Resort Park. It’s an easy 90-minute drive from the airport straight along I-64 in northeastern Kentucky.
Take a guided cave or canoe tour (offered year round) in Cascade Cave and X-Cave. You’ll discover 20 twisting caverns, and a 30-foot underground waterfall, luminous stone fans, and draped mounds of stalactites and stalagmites during the subterranean adventure, in caves created by nature over millions of years.
Take advantage that this is one of 17 resort parks in the state that include a lodge with accommodations, and book an overnight stay at Lure Lodge. This fieldstone lodge features 28 rooms with either a patio or private balcony overlooking the surrounding woodlands, and 11 two-bedroom cottages. (Insider tip: book one of the nine that have wood-burning fireplaces!).
For dinner, replenish with hearty buffalo meatloaf or bison brisket at Tierney’s Cavern Restaurant. Music lovers may want to check out the birthplace of country music icon Tom T. Hall, in the “Kentucky Trail Town” of Olive Hill for small-town Americana charm and old-fashioned bluegrass jam sessions on the Depot Trailhead, whether scheduled or just around the community fire pit.
Get up early the next day and enjoy 26 miles of hiking trails, on which you’ll find natural bridges, arches, caves, sinkholes, cliffs, and a boxed canyon. Natural marvels, like the six-foot tall, eight-foot wide Shangri La Arch, will invigorate you—shaped like a long funnel, it’s 50 feet in length. For athletic types, there’s no shortage of sporting activities: rock climbing and rappelling, fishing, mountain biking, seasonal horseback riding, 18-hole miniature golf, tennis, and a seasonal outdoor pool.
Day 2Cumberland Gap
Head down to Cumberland Gap via a three and a half hour drive along I-75, which will take you right to the site of the first gateway to the West—this is the route where Native Americans, pioneers, and buffalo all roamed westward. With more than 80 miles of trails for hiking and backpacking, take your pick from a simple quarter-mile hike to a longer commitment on the 21-mile Ridge Trail. Whatever you decide, be sure to hike to the Sand Cave for astonishing views and an otherworldly cave consisting of more than an acre of fine sand.
Guided tours will take you to historic sites in the park such as Civil War fortifications, ruins of an old iron furnace, and hand-constructed cabins and split rail fences at Hensley Settlement. Be on the lookout for the abundant wildlife here, including deer, beaver, fox, bobcat, bear, and over 150 species of birds. If you opt for a summer visit, the most beautiful mountain streams provide cooling relief from the heat.
You’ll work up an appetite over the course of the long day, which you can satisfy over microbrews and tasty burgers at The Butcher’s Pub on Courthouse Square in nearby Pineville.
Stay overnight at The Cumberland Manor Bed and Breakfast, an 1890 Victorian and former home of a secretary treasurer, which has been proudly renovated and offers Egyptian cotton sheets and a three-course breakfast using organic ingredients every morning.
Day 3Mammoth National Park
From Cumberland, it’s a three-hour drive to the area of Kentucky that’s pretty much cave central, with a multitude of caves to traverse in and around Mammoth Cave National Park. It’s the world’s longest recorded cave system, with more than 400 miles explored and mapped. Located midway between Louisville and Nashville, this World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve is so much more than just a cave—it’s home to thousands of years of human history and a rich diversity of plant and animal life. (For a delicious stopover on the way, go to Corbin to sample farm-to-table cuisine with a craft beer at The Wrigley.)
A stay at the Lodge at Mammoth Cave offers the closest option for overnight stays in the park. Its modern hotel rooms and historic cottages are nestled in a woodland setting, all within walking distance to cave tours and park trails, allowing you more time to roam around this massive park. It’s a great place to settle in for a few nights and use it as home base as you visit the many caves in nearby driving distance, too. Be sure to also set aside time for other outdoor activities, such as hiking, horseback riding, canoeing, or fishing. And history buffs take note—it’s just a 45-minute drive to Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, where the country’s first Lincoln Memorial sits.
Of the many ways to explore this magnificent national treasure, a cave tour is a must on your first day here. Located one mile from I-65 at Exit 48 on the scenic Mammoth Cave Parkway, Diamond Caverns is just outside of Mammoth Cave National Park—so this can easily be incorporated into an otherwise full day on premises at Mammoth. Visitors have been wowed by this historic place on guided tours over the past 160 years. On a fact-packed, mile-long expedition you’ll marvel at the intricate drapery deposits that line the halls in cascades of naturally colorful calcite, with thousands of stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstone deposits.
After a long day spent taking in miles of awe-inspiring nature, replenish with some world-class barbecue: Dig into juicy pulled pork or lick-smacking ribs at Bucky Bee’s BBQ.
In the historic small town of Horse Cave, just 15 miles (roughly a 30-minute drive) down US-31W from Mammoth National Park, the Hidden River Cave & American Cave Museum offers family adventures above and below ground. Cave tours include a trip across the new world's longest underground swinging bridge to the region's largest dome room that had been closed to the public for 75 years. Zip across the cave's beautiful sinkhole entrance or rappel 75 feet from the surface to the mouth of the cave. You’ll travel 150 feet below ground to the river's edge on a one-hour guided walking tour or a longer, more challenging wild caving adventure. Little ones and the young-at-heart will enjoy practicing duck walking and bear crawling along the muddy riverbanks—two subterranean rivers flow over 100 feet below ground. After touring the cave, learn about karst geology, groundwater quality, the history of caving, cave wildlife, archeology, and cave formation at the fascinating American Cave Museum.
Drive about 15 minutes to make a pit stop for a quick but colorful 30-minute guided tour of the privately owned, family-run Crystal Onyx Cave. Appropriate for all ages, this hidden gem is home to beautiful calcite crystals and 45-foot-tall stalactites among other remarkable formations, with a comfortable temperature that averages 58 degrees fahrenheit year-round. Small group tours and the owner’s passion for caves, including thoughtful lighting and spacious viewing, make it more than worth a visit.
You’ll still have plenty of time for some outlaw action on the way home at nearby Outlaw Cave. Named for the famed bank and train robber Jesse James, who hid out here on the way to Mammoth Cave, this 30-minute, non-strenuous tour is the only wheelchair accessible option in the area. You’ll witness beautiful formations and amazing large columns formed by nature from ceiling to floor. An 18-hole Western-themed golf course is also on the premises. And equine enthusiasts can stop by the Jesse James Riding Stables, one of the largest and oldest stables in KY, with over 500 acres of trails where Jesse James once roamed, robbing banks and stagecoaches. You can also bring the kids to Dinosaur World for a fun prehistoric playground learning experience. Dogs are welcome too.
Day 5Mammoth Onyx Cave
Discovered in 1799, the Great Onyx Cave in Mammoth National Park has been open for public tours since 1922. (You can drive to the site in under an hour from Mammoth Cave proper.) This 45-minute cave tour, among the easiest of Kentucky’s guided cave tours, takes you down to an utterly beautiful underworld rich with stalactites, stalagmites, and other formations (such as “cave popcorn” and “cave cauliflower”) created by water and time. It’s an active cave, so water drips into the cave when it rains, continually creating new formations. As a result, guides are able to interpret the geology of karst areas and help visitors better understand the importance of protecting caves and ground water. (A gem-mining exhibit also teaches kids how gemstones are mined, and a longer lantern tour makes for a special experience.)
;If you want a change of scenery, check in for a night to the Grand Victorian Inn, with 11 beautiful and unique Victorian guest rooms, and the convenient Mammoth Railway Café. Take the kids to the Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo, with its interactive and educational Animal Park, also located onsite.
Day 6-7Lost River Cave
End your Kentucky Cave tour with the Lost River Cave in Bowling Green, just a half hour south of Mammoth Cave National Park or a little over an hour if you decide to stay near Mammoth Onyx Cave. Take a historic underground boat tour—a 20-minute guided walk along the river’s edge leads you to the cave entrance and the start of a 25-minute boat tour, suitable for all ages. Moderate year-round temperature averages at 57 degrees, so it’s comfortable in any season. With 72 acres of park and seven natural ecosystems, there’s plenty to discover, including 2.5 miles of nature trails, featuring three blue holes, a spring, diverse urban wildlife habitats, and an outdoor zipline. The Butterfly habitat opens at the end of May.
Not only is it full of geological and natural wonders, the place is rife with fun historical facts: It was an ancient native hunting ground, Civil War campground for both the Union and Confederacy, a hideout for outlaw Jesse James, and home to a Prohibition-era 1930s nightclub. (You can still see the dancefloor and other remnants of it at the cave’s entrance.) For car aficionados, the National Corvette Museum is a short drive away.
It’s your last night, so treat yourself to a stay at The Lodge at Old Stone for a luxury retreat just outside of the city and a ten-minute drive from the cave. Music lovers, you’re only an hour north of Nashville if you feel like checking out Music City. Or take a three-hour drive back to Lexington and fly home from there.