Under the historic town of Horse Cave, Kentucky
By Hope S. Philbrick
Featured on Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” series, this eight-mile underground maze was carved by a subterranean river. In 1867, famed naturalist John Muir called Hidden River Cave “a noble gateway to the birthplace of springs and fountains and the dark treasures of the mineral kingdom.”
Today, Hidden River Cave boasts the largest cave entrance in the region. It’s visible from Main Street in the middle of Horse Cave, Kentucky’s commercial district, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can stand on the sidewalk and look over a railing at the cave entrance. But why walk down when you can rappel 70 feet down into the mouth of the cave or zip-line across its face?
“We’re the only attraction in this area with a rappel,” boasts Dave Foster, geologist and executive director of Hidden River Cave and the American Cave Museum.
Why does this scientist get as excited about the new rappel as he does when talking about how Hidden River Cave was once lost to pollution but is now considered the world’s best cave restoration?
Because any tourist destination is only as good as the number of folks it can lure to visit: “We’re in the shadow of Mammoth Cave National Park,” explains Foster of the marketing challenge Hidden River Cave faces. And while the American Cave Museum, which is located on the street level above the cave, impressively documents cave ecology and economy, it really only draws people who are eager to learn—“We’ve been recognized as a leader nationally in education,” says Foster. “Even the National Park has picked up some of what we’ve done and has tried to imitate it. Our big focus is on history.” But the rappel and zip-line expand the potential audience to include thrill seekers who maybe aren’t too fascinated by the role the cave played in bringing electricity to the state.
Different tour options inside Hidden River Cave also appeal to different folks: Keep clean on the underground walking tour that takes an easy route on a footpath, or get down and dirty on the wild cave adventure tour.
So whether or not you’re an active grownup, whether you like history, adventure or small town anomalies, this cave has something for you.
One exhibit in the American Cave Museum details the “cave wars”—marketing tricks use(d) to lure tourists to visit one particular cave (to that cave owner’s financial benefit) rather than surrounding caves.
Do yourself a favor and visit several Kentucky caves because they’re all different.
What Distinguishes This Cave…
Hidden River Cave dips deep into the earth, is wet with lots of dripping and flowing water, is very accessible (enter with just your eyes or your whole self, take just one step into it or descend deep), offers easy and active tours, and has rich educational opportunities.
The river is deep down inside the cave; descend or ascend the stairs too fast and you may get dizzy.
What To Do…
Above ground and adjacent to Hidden River Cave, the American Cave Museum offers an educational look at caves and caving. It’s also the national headquarters for the American Cave Conservation Association.
Explore Hidden River Cave with a guided tour on elevated walkways, zip-line over the cave, rappel 70 feet down into it, or opt for the adventurous off-trail Wild Cave Tour. It’s all offered year-round: “The only thing that stops us is lightening,” says Foster.
Trace the pathway of the cave that runs under the streets and sidewalks and learn about how a town developed on top of a cave by dialing up the award-winning Horse Cave Stories Cell Phone Walking Tour. (There’s an above ground trail, below ground trail and a historic building trail.)
Odds of Encountering Children…
It’s a gamble. I saw no children during my visit on a rainy day in mid July, but that is not guaranteed—depending on when you visit, you might easily encounter a family or two, a scout troop or school group. Youngsters are less likely to do the more adventurous activities, however. For the best odds, visit when school is in session.
Exit 58 off Interstate 65 and follow the signs to Horse Cave.
Hidden River Cave & American Cave Museum
119 E. Main St.
Horse Cave, KY 42749
Horse Cave/Hart County Tourist Commission
Read More about the subterranean world “Under Kentucky”
– Photos 1, 3 & 4 © Horse Cave Hart County Tourism; photo 2 © HSP Media LLC; ‘wild cave tours’ brochure courtesy Hidden River Cave & American Cave Museum
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