Kick Back in Cave City
This 2,200-person town is the official tourist hub for Mammothwhich means it's heavy on go-cart tracks, stressed-out families, and chain restaurants. Just this once, embrace the kitsch: You'll find gems of cave-country authenticity like the Floyd Collins Museum, celebrating "America's Greatest Cave Explorer," a man who got wedged in nearby Sand Cave in 1925 and slowly starved to death during an 18-day rescue attempt and media circus. The museum is housed at the Wayfarer Bed and Breakfast ($125; 270-773-3366), five miles outside of town, where you'll avoid Floyd's fate with daily breakfasts of country ham, biscuits, cheese grits, and fried apples.
One Fine Day: Roll out on the little-known Sal Hollow trail. A former four-wheelers' road recently converted to a mountain-...
national park: Mammoth Cave National Park
Darkness Illuminated: Shedding light on Mammoth Cave National Park
Acres: 52,830 Contact: 270-758-2180
YOU PROBABLY KNOW MAMMOTH CAVE for what lies beneath. This park, tucked away in the hills and hollows of central Kentucky, protects the longest cave system in the world, a five-level labyrinth with more than 365 miles of tunnels. Up where the sun shines, the park is home to a 70-mile network of hiking trails, biking paths, camping spots, and 27 miles of prime canoeing river.
Begin your four-day Mammoth marathon with the ranger-led Wild Cave Tour. This six-hour, five-mile crawl is not for the claustrophobicor anyone with a chest or hip measurement greater than 42 inches. You'll free-climb cave walls and shine your headlamp on bizarre limestone formations like Rainbow Dome and Cathedral Dome.Take it up top the next morning, renting a canoe and paddling the gentle, scenic Green River. Put in at Dennison Ferry, on the park's eastern boundary, and snake your way ten miles past forested bluffs, islands, and sandbars to circuitous Turnhole Bend. There's good backcountry beach camping along the north bank and easy access to the park's most isolated hiking paths via Turnhole Bend Trail.
Start day three with a ramble through terrain that hasn't changed much since it was first seen by American explorers in the 18th century. Then paddle nine miles to Houchins Ferry, just inside the park's western boundary, your take-out spot and campground for the night. The next morning, give your legs a workout with a ten-mile hike on the hilly, oak-forested McCoy Hollow loop.
GETTING THERE: The Wild Cave Tour costs $45; reserve through the park. For canoe rentals, contact Green River Canoeing (800-651-9909, www.mammothcavecanoe.com) or Mammoth Cave Canoe and Kayak (877-592-2663, www.mammothcavecanoe-k.com).
WHEN TO GO: March through November.