Caving in Kentucky by Motorcycle

Getting in touch with your inner caveman.

I had clipped an article from a travel magazine years back trumpeting the virtues of Kentucky's number one tourist attraction--Mammoth Cave National Park. I had been intrigued, since caves have always held a fascination for me. And Mammoth is the Grand Pooh-Bah of underground chambers--the longest cave system on the planet. So when Yamaha announced it was hosting its Star Days event in Kentucky, I jumped at the chance to get in touch with my inner caveman.

Mammoth Cave is situated in the south central part of the state, so I charted my journey from Bowling Green, which is about 45 minutes south of the cave. Speed demons can opt for a straight shot to the park up I-65, but since I'm a lollygagger, I chose to amble along historic U.S. Highway 31W from the town's center, hoping to smell the roses all the way up to the caverns.

U.S. 31W is a slice of the Duncan Hines Scenic byway, part of a loop that begins and ends at the restaurateur/author's former home and office in Bowling Green. U.S. 31W is also known as the Dixie Highway, and is an old, old road--it was the first paved highway in Kentucky, splitting the western part of the state north to south from Louisville all the way into Tennessee. This artery meanders through hills heavy with tobacco leaves, passing historic homes and battle sites dating back to the Civil War. The Duncan Hines loop then peels off to the north and weaves around Mammoth Cave National Park, while 31W continues in a more easterly fashion to other historically important structures and cave sites galore.

Naturally, I again chose the scenic loop. After a short jaunt on 31W, I veered north onto the rural SR 101, which yielded lush foliage and narrower lanes. From whichever direction you approach Mammoth Cave, you're guaranteed a melange of lonely, sweeping back roads and honest-to-goodness cliches--from silos to riding stables. At this point in the trip, I started noticing small craters filled with water and ground depressions pockmarking the surrounding fields. This is what geologists call "karst" topography--landscape dotted with springs, sinkholes and openings in the bedrock. The "natural sink" depressions indicate that rainwater has entered the ground and dissolved the limestone underneath. Cave drains flush dissolved limestone away, and the surface soil settles, creating bowl-like depressions. Rain runoff collects here, and if the sinkholes become plugged with soil, a pond forms.

Rainwater mixes with carbon dioxide in the soil, forming a mild acid (much like that in soda pop) that eats through the limestone, creating passages within the rock. Over the years, acidic groundwater has formed immense chambers and miles of passages beneath the surface, with the same type of erosion also shaping the landscape of the area above. Sequestered beneath these dimpled hills and valleys, Mammoth Cave was authorized as a National Park in 1926. In fact, Mammoth Cave lies at the very beginning of tourism in America. At the time, our nation was desperately seeking to dignify its industrial might and forge its national identity, but we lacked the ancient places and cultural antiquities of Europe. Instead, we reveled in our natural wonders.

No one really knows who discovered the most famous of Kentucky's myriad cave formations. Predictably, European explorers claimed first rights, but archeological evidence suggests aboriginal people explored the cave more than 4000 years ago. It's regarded as the longest surveyed cave system in the world, with more than 350 miles of explored passageways and cave networks located under five different ridges. The cave became an important source of saltpeter mining during the War of 1812, and the Civil War held several skirmishes amongst these ridges. The infamous Jesse James and his brother Frank scoped out the area too--not for its scenery, but for its financial institutions.

These days, most of the activities at Mammoth Cave involve the outdoors--or the indoors, if you want to be technical (caves are as indoor as it gets). All cave tours begin at the visitor center, with as many as 40 tours offered per day in the summer. Be sure to call ahead to reserve a spot--the tours vary in length and difficulty and some are seasonal. Certain routes even have age or size requirements. We opted for the two-hour Frozen Niagara tour, which snaked through the maze of caverns for nearly a mile. It offered a wide variety of huge pits and domes to explore, and a chance to ooh and ahh at spectacular stalactites and stalagmites 300 feet underground. The namesake stalactite formation is especially impressive, so named because of its massive, liquid appearance. But tight passages in the cave demand alertness--it's easy to miss a step on the rocky paths and narrow staircases, and artificial lighting lends a sufficiently creepy air to the proceedings. Leaving the park isn't a straightforward affair because you're presented with several different temptations--the Cordell Hull Scenic Byway begins at the south entrance as Route 70 and jogs south 50 miles all the way to the Tennessee state line. We chose to follow SR 255 out of the park, however, completing our loop by joining 31W farther south and following it back to Bowling Green.

Give yourself a day or two in Bowling Green to see the sights--on the outskirts of town squats the Lost River Cave, claimed in Ripley's Believe It or Not to contain the world's deepest and shortest river. This historic city is also home to the National Corvette Museum--an obtrusive, conical-shaped monstrosity with 68,000 square feet of memorabilia dedicated to the history and heritage of the Chevrolet Corvette sports car.

Now, if anyone tells me Kentucky is only about fried chicken, I can tell them a thing or two. I'd love to travel there again someday, in fact, to explore more of its scenic roads and the natural history that lies both above and below ground. Kentucky reveals beauty that is definitely more than skin-deep.

WHEREWITHAL

Don't miss: Mammoth Cave Tours; National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green; an authentic, homegrown mint julep (after the ride, of course).

Season: All year-round, but Kentucky can be hot and sticky in the summer, with sporadic seasonal thunderstorms. Cave temperatures in interior passages hover around 55 to 65 degrees F.

Road notes: The back roads rarely have shoulders, so watch your corner speeds--there's not a lot of room for mistakes. Kentucky has a right-turn-on-red law, unless an intersection sign states otherwise.

Contact: Mammoth Cave National Park, (270)758-2251, www.nps.gov/maca; www.kentucky tourism.com; Bowling Green Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.visitbgky.com, (270) 782-0800; National Corvette Museum, (800) 53VETTE or www.corvettemuseum.com

For more descriptions of our favorite motorcycle rides and destinations, visit the Rides and Destinations section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.

Photo courtesy www.Kentucky Tourism.com.
Map by Eiko Friedman (email Eikof@earthlink.net)
Photo courtesy www.KentuckyTourism.com.
Photo courtesy www.Kentucky Tourism.com.