Kentucky

IMG_0016We found ourselves with Spring Break 2017 approaching and nothing to do since RG and I had just taken so much time recently for the Galapagos. It’s particularly difficult for me to reign in my travel tendency when we have back-to-back days of free time ahead, and the kids had the Monday following off for good rest catch-up… hence the whirlwind trip to Kentucky was born.

With only 2.5 days available, I knew we had to choose wisely and not try to fit in too many places since Kentucky would always be a close state available for another long weekend trip if needed (we’re looking at you, Churchill Downs and Kentucky Horse Park). Settling on Mammoth Cave was easy considering our interest for America’s National Parks. What wasn’t so easy was realizing Mammoth Cave was a pretty popular place even at the beginning of April. Turns out not everyone goes to Florida and the Bahamas for spring break. So, we hoofed it across the Ohio River to our neighbor to the south.

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While the caves are the highlight of the park, don’t skip over the trails on the surface.  Be sure to notice the sinkholes here and the rivers emerging from the rocks there.  The Visitor Center is first class, as well.  We’ve never spent so much time in a visitor center, and it makes sense at Mammoth Cave, with its central location to the entrance of the caves.

I had already committed to the area by booking a house through Airbnb. In hindsight, I wish I would have checked availability of Mammoth Cave tours before I booked accommodations. Although there are many hiking trails and lake activities to do in the area, cave exploration is the main attraction of the park, so booking one or more tours is kind of a necessity. Fortunately, while I was in the process of booking two separate tour times to accommodate our whole family, 9 tickets suddenly became available for the Domes and Dripstones Tour. I snapped up 7 of them before they could disappear then set out to find some other activities. I’m so thankful those tickets opened up. We passed  many disappointed families walking out of the visitor center lamenting the lack of tickets available. This situation may be different in the summer when they offer quite a few more tours, but the crowds will likely increase then, too.

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Please excuse the cave photography on this post.  Imaging is very difficult without a tripod and with very low light.  The NPS doesn’t allow flash or supplemental lighting, for good reason.

Let me just say, Domes and Dripstones was a fabulous tour, saving the best for last with Frozen Niagara and the Drapery Room. Don’t let the 500 stairs scare you – the pace is slow and there are several opportunities to rest along the way.

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There are quick 20 minute tours of Mammoth along with a self-guided tour  with tickets offered on a first come, first served basis, but they appeared pretty tame. With >400 miles of caves explored to date, I just don’t see a 20 minute walking tour of one cavern as representative. Clearly, it’s not possible to see all there is to see in one weekend, but advance planning would allow one to explore different aspects of cave geology by taking several tours spanning a wider range of areas.

As it turns out, don’t despair if you’ve already made plans but miss out on Mammoth Cave tours. Much of the state is riddled with caves. It’s a wonder South Central Kentucky doesn’t just collapse!

So the good news… it’s possible to find other cave tours outside the national park if visiting is a last minute idea.  Which brings us to…

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Lost River Cave, just south of the national park in Bowling Green, offers cave exploration by boat and kayak. They also offer the Discovery Cave Crawl for ages 6 thru adult. Get ready to reach for your inner child because this is no ordinary, sedate walking trip. When the liability and information page suggests a full change of clothes (including underwear) and a garbage bag, I’m pretty sure that guarantees at least the kids will have a good time. 🙂 And… they did!

The adults had a pretty fabulous time as well. All the recent rains made it a very muddy and authentic wet cave experience. We crawled on hands and knees for half the tour, army crawled through seriously tight spaces, and admired several resident brown bats, cave crickets and centipedes. All-in-all, it was a wonderfully intense way to experience Kentucky and every one of us (even the grandparents -you rock!) thought it was the highlight of the trip. Call at least 2 weeks in advance and request the tour. Although 12 spots are available, we ended up the a private tour with just the 7 of us. Pretty awesome!

In addition to fabulous cave formations, south central KY is also home to the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park.  Although the attention span of  6 1/2 year olds limited our ability to fully explore the historical significance of these sites (Lincoln’s birthplace in Hodgenville and his boyhood home in Knob Creek), exposing the children and ourselves to places such as these are a huge reason we embarked on Gates50States.

2H1A8892Exploration of the grounds is free of charge and there’s even a quick 15-minute movie highlighting Lincoln’s early life. Open 8-4:30pm everyday except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day allows this brief stop to fit into most schedules.

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A quick word regarding lodging… families of 4 or less will no doubt have less costly options when searching out lodging anywhere in the country, especially within the national parks. Our family of 5 likes to have space to spread out and access to a kitchenette at the bare minimum. I’ve found this particularly important when the kids are younger since they fall asleep easier and stay asleep longer when they have their own space. Well rested kids just makes travel more enjoyable all around. To this end, I typically search for homes or condos through TripAdvisor, Airbnb, VRBO and local sites.

Careful with VRBO and the HomeAway family of websites, however. They have a huge selection, but I’ve found their service and cleaning fees often add up quickly. The damage protection options are often onerous as well – $59 non-refundable or a $1,500 deposit, which lets face it, you may or may not get back depending on the honesty of the owner. I’m just not willing to gamble with that large of a deposit. The last house I almost booked advertised for $240 a night and ended up being over $320/nt after all the fees were added. Sometimes I have to hold my nose and just do it because it’s the best available.  However, I definitely recommend searching for alternatives.

We took the winding way home via Lexington so the kids could enjoy some fabulous horse country views. Shockingly, we passed a castle (yes- a castle!) just down the street from the famous Keeneland Race Track. Upon returning home, I discovered the random castle in the middle of Kentucky was Castle Post, or Martin Castle, and it’s actually open as a bed and breakfast. Weddings and other events may be scheduled there as well. Unbelievable! Taking the long way home is almost never boring.

And thus ended our whirlwind Kentucky experience. We’ll likely be back to explore other parts of this diverse state.  But for now,  I feel pretty good about checking KY off the list. Till next time…

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