Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Two days in Mammoth Cave National Park.

We've seen a lot of caves over the past few years, many of which claim to be the "world's -est" (world's largest, world's battiest, etc). At 400 cavernous miles and counting, Mammoth Cave might just win the actual title of "world's longest" - at least for now! Here's a recap of our visit...

But first a few flash-related disclaimers. First, Mammoth Cave National Park doesn't allow flash photography in the caves so we did the best we could with our old, crappy cameras under those circumstances. Second, for the most part Mammoth Cave isn't one of those flashy caves with cool stalactite and stalagmite formations so we didn't even take many pictures. That doesn't make it any less amazing though!

true to its name

The hikes. I guess this is the final disclaimer. Judging from the lack of hiking information we were able to get from park staff, Mammoth Cave National Park is not exactly a trekker destination - most people only come for the walks underground.

But there are some well-maintained, very flat trails above ground too. Unfortunately, during our visit the western trails we really wanted to explore were closed off from the south side and it would've taken an extra hour in the car to get to them. (Next time?) We still managed to get in 12 miles, though, so we can't really complain.

Day One: we set up camp and meandered around the trails near the visitor center for a few hours. There weren't many bluffs or sights along the paths but the forest was really peaceful and the occasional view was pretty.

Green River - longest in Kentucky,
one of the most biologically diverse in North America

Mammoth Dome Sink was particularly cool. See, Mammoth Cave is "dry" (like most of the bible belt of southern Kentucky, haha) - the geology of the area generally prevents water from seeping in and forming those amazing stalagmites and stalactites we are used to seeing in caves. But there are tens of thousands of sinkholes in south central Kentucky which serve as natural downspouts into the underlying limestone, creating open vertical shafts in the cave system. Mammoth Dome Sink is 192 feet from top to bottom!



Pretty awesome.

Day Two: we opted for the 2-mile, 2-hour historic tour of the cave. At first we were worried about another Luray Caverns rushed impersonal experience, but Ranger Rick was patient and informative, and our group of 58 people seemed much smaller once we were inside the massive cave.

in the old "church"
(they really did hold church here back in the day)

It was also half the cost of our Luray tour... Your tax dollars at work, people.

just miles and miles of stone

one of the few formations on the historic tour

old "graffiti"
(smoke writing - they had to get pretty close to the rock to do this)

There are other tours that show more of those neat cave formations, if you are so inclined. (Given our cave experiences over the last few years, we were happy with miles and miles of plain old stone.)

That afternoon we headed over to Big Hollow Trail, one of the newer trails in the park. The 5.25 mile path weaved through forests similar to what we'd seen the day before. Definitely not a trekker's paradise...

it was still pretty though

The campsites. Our plan was to stay at Houchin Ferry, the more isolated campsite of the park's three (and the one closest to the trails we wanted to explore). But the ferry to the trails wasn't running so it would have been pointless to camp there.

The park staff seemed to think we could camp at Maple Springs, the group campsite, but no one could confirm this and a quick drive-by showed an overgrown, primitive, and probably tick-infested campground.

So we begrudgingly opted for the main campground.
  • Mammoth Cave campground (we chose site 5)
    • Pros: close to the visitor center, trails, camp store and showers; lots of trees for shade
    • Cons: showers cost $3, on top of an already-hefty camping fee of $20/night
Otherwise it was your standard public campsite and we had no complaints whatsoever. The national park does have a lodge (which looked straight out of 1977) and the area around the park has plenty of RV camps with mini golf and waterslides, if you're into that sort of thing.

The food. Oatmeal breakfasts, cheese sandwich lunches as usual. Since it wasn't raining we actually cooked one night... and then we went back to salad the next night because our "demand" wasn't really justifying the "supply".

eggplant mushroom spinach tofu rice noodle mayhem

and... salad again

More photos here...

The summary. We added this park to the tour route on a total lark before we left - it's close enough to the Great Smoky Mountains and it's another national park to check off the list! But while Mammoth Cave might not necessarily be glamorous (to some), it's really astounding and totally different than any other cave we'd visited. So glad we went, and so glad we were able to check out almost every angle of the park in just two days.

Next up: well-deserved bbq, one of our favorite bands, some Nashville sightseeing and a real bed for a night... To the city!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Kentucky, we hardly knew ya.

On our way from Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Mammoth Cave National Park, we passed through a thick part of the Bible belt. Throughout the entire morning I don't think we went a mile without seeing a church or some kind of church-inspired signage.

no, but we can look busy!

We also passed through a lot of dry counties, easily identified by the "last chance for liquor!" stores lining the county border. (These stores usually also sold guns and ammo - neat!)

Southern Kentucky - and most of the south, for that matter - was as foreign to us as anywhere else we'd been on this trip. Everyone was nice, and things were sort of familiar, but we definitely didn't feel at home...

... despite Portland-esque senses of humor ...

... and this pleasant break from the Jesus warnings

And then we got to Daniel Boone National Forest.

a brief but amazing stay

Had we known about this scenic area of southern Kentucky ahead of time, we probably would have planned to spend a LOT more time there.

but probably not during a terrible thunderstorm
(our campsite was dead center of this for a bit)

There are a few camping options in the area where we stopped for the night. Some are more resort-like and family-oriented, others are geared toward fishing enthusiasts. We fit neither of those categories so we chose a quiet, empty state park.

Grove Campground near Cumberland Falls
(site A15 was A-OK)

We waited out the rain and then set up the tent, we waited out the rain some more and reheated leftovers, and then I think it rained some more... Isn't spring camping fun?!

it's no strawberry ale, but it'll do

The weather was more cooperative the next morning so we stopped by Cumberland Falls - at 125 feet wide, it's considered the "Niagara of the south." We knew nothing about it beforehand. We just saw it on the map and decided to check it out. Sometimes that's the best way to travel.

hard to grasp the magnitude with nothing for perspective
but it's LOUD

Cumberland Falls is surrounded by resorts and hotels for people who try to see the moonbow on clear nights when the moon is full. Our timing and the weather were both a bit off for that, so we'll call it our reason to return to Cumberland Falls someday.

not a moonbow

We also stopped by the Natural Arch Scenic Area.

again, hard to grasp the enormity
but it's HUGE

there's a little perspective

All we really did was walk about a mile out to the Natural Arch but in talking with some locals who were hiking around the area, it sounds like there are miles and miles of scenic trails and interesting rock formations all over southern Kentucky. If you find yourself in the National Forest, the ranger stations are apparently really helpful - stop by and see what they recommend. (If you've been, leave a comment with what you recommend!)

Speaking of scenic, the road to Mammoth Caves was not too shabby either.

driving between a rock and a hard place

Before Mammoth Cave we stopped in Glasgow (a "moist" town - a new-to-us term meaning that they serve wine and beer in restaurants but you can't buy it in stores) to inquire about distillery tours. Sadly, we were too far into the Bible belt for any of that debauchery but the nice lady at the visitor center did suggest we check out their free South Central Kentucky Cultural Center. We took a quick look; many of the artifacts would be more meaningful to locals but it was still interesting.

a replica of the olde tyme "general store" -
always fun to see what small towns consider "historical"

hey, I just Freecycled one of those bells!

We may not have toured the distilleries, but no Kentucky visit would be complete without a couple of wild turkeys, right?

90 proof

Our next Kentucky visit will definitely feature a Bourbon Trail tour and a quest to figure out why Louisville thinks it's so weird. For now, though, we'll hold onto our fond memories of the unexpected natural beauty of this unassuming southern state.

Westward bound!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Three days in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Twenty years ago I went on a cross-country road trip with a friend. Our first stop was Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It had been a long drive from DC and we naively thought we would get a camping spot late at night... on a Saturday... in the most visited national park in the US.

Riiiiiight. My friend and I ended up finding a cheap motel several towns away and heading straight to Nashville the next day.

Several weeks ago Patrick and I planned a little better - we were able to spend four nights and many daylight hours exploring the natural beauty and cultural artifacts that the Smoky Mountains have to offer. Here's a recap of our trip...

"smoke": part natural, part smog-induced

The hikes. There are 150 trails, including the famous Appalachian Trail, spanning 800 miles of Great Smoky Mountains NP. You can go high onto ridges and deep into valleys - we did both.

Day One: we got settled into camp just a few hours before dark, so after dinner (and a quick storm) we wandered up Smokemont campground's pleasantly short nature trail.

our intro to GSMNP bridges

Day Two: we headed up to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Smokies. (This "highest point" thing would be a running theme throughout our national parks trip.) The short, steep trail ends at a strange concrete structure offering panoramic views of the surrounding area.

on-ramp to nowhere

6643 feet above sea level

From there we walked 3.8 miles down into the forest and out to Andrews Bald.

Andrews Bald

note to selves...

... buy wildflower book

The walk was pretty but the flies at the bald were pretty obnoxious (warning: foreshadowing) so we didn't stay long.

After lunch we made a quick stop at Newfound Gap, the dividing line between North Carolina and Tennessee. Nice views and the chance to straddle two states and reminisce about that time one of us stood in Spain and the other, Portugal.

no trendy clothes at this gap

"you got your NC in my TN!"
"...you got your TN in my NC!"

Our last stop that day was Chimney Tops. The sign at the beginning of the trail warns that you have to scale a giant rock to see the summit views. "Pshah," we thought, "we did The Crack and Cradle Mountain and Mt Amos and Old Rag, we can do this one."

um... we did NOT do this one

Yep, after a grueling mile of uphill trail to the rock base, we opted to skip this adrenaline rush and enjoy the views from a sane vantage point instead. One woman, on her way up a particularly tricky part, exclaimed, "I have NEVER done anything like this before!" Good for you, lady. We did The Crack and Cradle Mountain and Mt Amos and Old Rag, we didn't need to do this one.

the views were good from here too

Day Three: because we weren't tired enough from the previous day's adventures, we decided to try a ~12 mile return hike to Rocky Top. The first two legs of the trail were uphill but creekside, where the forest and wildflowers were lovely and the air was cool and calm.

Anthony Creek

Once we hit the AT for the last leg, though, the flies came out en masse (swarming around our heads) and it got HOT. We looked up at the peak, realized the next two hours were not going to be pretty, sighed, and turned around. Good ole Rocky Top, maybe we'll try you some other trip.

any specks you see are flies

GSM does a great job with trail signage though

Day Four: we decided to take a Sunday drive around the 11-mile historic Cades Cove loop. Lots of old churches and cemeteries along the beautiful valley drive...

primitive Baptist church

primitive Methodist church

not-so-primitive Baptist church

... and so on. Halfway through the drive we stopped for the 5 mile return hike to Abrams Falls. It was perfect - a little uphill, a little downhill to the falls, and back up and down again.

it's no Multnomah,
but it'll do

the wildflowers were stunning here too

From the trailhead it was just half a mile to the home of Elijah Oliver, son of the first white settler in the area. We'd seen John Oliver's home at the start of the Cades Cove loop so we had to see what his offspring came up with...

like father...

... like son

The loop tour ends at a small historic community featuring still-intact buildings and one of the original grist mills.

good barn design

still grinding corn and wheat today

Day Five: we got up early and enjoyed our coffee along the Cades Cove campground nature trail. This one had signs explaining the tree varieties and how the American Indians used the forest in everyday life back in the day. (Why must we always pick these informative trails at the end of our stay?)

it had to be done

Almost 27 miles hiked in five days... Not bad.

The campsites. Our plan was to stay at Big Creek the first night; we arrived too late and the campground was full. Instead, we spent two nights at Smokemont and two nights at Cade's Cove.
  • Smokemont (we chose site B-17)
    • Pros: gravel tent pads (awesome on rainy days); great nature trail; open year-round; right next to lovely babbling brook
    • Cons: no showers; no soap in camp bathrooms; campsites were pretty close to each other; have to drive to all other trails
nowhere to hang a tarp, either

  • Cade's Cove (we chose site C-10, right next to the dump station but we hardly ever saw RVers using it)
    • Pros: great nature trail; walking access to nearby hikes, Cade's Cove loop and camp store; roomier campsites than Smokemont; trees for the hammock
    • Cons: sand tent pads (gross on rainy days); no showers; no soap in camp bathrooms; lots of traffic from curious or lost drivers on Cades Cove loop
we probably still have some of this sand in the car

We are sure both sites probably get pretty lively in the high season. And really, GSMNP - NO showers, even coin-op showers? We managed alright but we did pity the poor summer AT thru-hikers who have to trek to Gatlinburg just to get clean...

The food.  Oatmeal breakfasts, cheese sandwich lunches (this would also be a running theme during our road trip).  It rained a lot during our stay so we kept dinners easy.

salad in the car, part one

salad in the car, part two
(looks suspiciously like part one)

rice noodles and grilled veggies

couscous and grilled veggies

Lots more photos here...

The summary. We had fun hiking around the park but even early in the season, it was quite busy. The campsites are a little small and the lack of facilities requires a little more planning than usual - no big deal, just good to know. The mosquitos and humidity are probably unbearable (for us) in true high season but early spring or late fall would probably be amazing.

We were also hoping to check out Asheville while we were in town but the park was farther west than we realized. No matter - the final running theme for our road trip is that it's always good to save some things for next time! (Still talking to you, good ol' Rocky Top.)

Next up: Kentucky and Mammoth Cave National Park...