Wednesday, August 19, 2015

2001 Backpacking Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park

Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park was authorized as a national park in 1926 and was fully established in 1941. In 1981 it was named a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve in 1990. It is best known for its 358 miles of caves -- the world's longest cave system, with more miles being "discovered" and mapped every year. I have been there several times and have taken a number of the cave tours and the sights they display are wondrous. However, above the caves is a forest of 52,000 acres with over 73 miles of trails which wend and wind over hills, along rivers and streams, atop bluffs and ridges and around sinkholes.

Predominantly wooded with hickory, tulip poplar, sugar maple, beech, and white and black oats, most of the forest is second growth, although remnants of relatively undisturbed old growth remain. White tailed deer, flocks of wild turkeys, wood ducks, turtles, kingfishers, great blue herons, squirrels, chipmunks, and raccoons are the most commonly seen animals. The Green River is home to 82 species of fish and 50 species of freshwater mussels. Poisonous rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water moccasins inhabit the area but are rarely encountered. Ticks and chiggers are also present, so all are urged to stay on the trails. The book notes that Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme Disease may be transmitted by ticks found in the park. For backpackers (and horse parties) there are 12 backcountry campsites located near trails for which a free permit is required.

As in all national parks, the trails are well maintained and easy to follow, with signs posted at all intersections guiding hikers and equestrians to their destinations. The spur trails to the 12 backcountry campsites are marked with signs from the main trails and are well separated. Water can be a problem at some sites, so check with rangers or carry plenty with you. Although this shot is very green for early spring, the vast majority of the park has deciduous trees and no evergreens. Some 600+ families were moved to make this national park, and many of the trails appear to be old roadbeds as shown below.


One of our campsites as seen from above.

The Bluffs Campsite is a magnificent location and offers several possible camp sites, one of which is atop the bluff and has outstanding views. Three other sites are available by following the ridge line around the lower bluff line trail. A waterfall fell from the upper bluff down to the lower bluff trail and we used it as our water source after treating it with iodine. 

We bushwacked down the drainage from our campsite (a dry creek bed when we were there) to the valley floor where the Buffalo Creek runs. We then followed the Buffalo down creek to the Green River, encountering another intersecting stream not on the Trails Illustrated topo map nor on the National Park map. Unable to ford or cross the creek, we followed it 100 yards or so where it emanated from this cave seen below, so we climbed the hillside above the cave and continued, reached the other side of the creek, and went back to the Green River and continued our exploration. 

We were there the last week of March and an Arctic cold front had drastically dropped temperatures all the way south to Georgia. Our overnight temperature reached 20 degrees, freezing our water bottles and making for a rough cold night for us.

The Green River is a beautiful river and subject to huge flow fluctuations during the spring season, occasionally overflowing its already steep, deep banks. River beavers work the area, burrowing into the banks to make their homes, and we saw tree trunk evidence of their industriousness as we hiked along the creek and river banks. At-large camping is allowed in the flood plain, although that could be dangerous during flood season.


Guide to the Surface Trails of Mammoth Cave National Park; by Stanley D. Sides; Cave Books, University City, MO; 1995; 100 pages.

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