Next stop was Montgomery Bell State Park in Burns, Kentucky. However, before we got to our destination, in the spirit of adventure, we made a decision to take an excursion. The day before, while we were hiking at Smoky Bridge at Carter Caves State Resort Park, we met a couple that entered the basin after us. As most people do while crossing paths at parks, we spoke and began talking. These nice people were at Carter Caves after a long journey themselves. Their children were back at the lodge in the bed and they were upset that the kids were missing so much. They were from Florida and had made a lot of stops before Smoky Bridge. The last stop was Mammoth Cave National Park. It was highly recommended by them.
Next stop, now Mammoth Cave National Park, now that we saw the sign for it fast approaching while driving to Tennessee. It was a hard call to make sitting in the gas station parking lot. Let’s go for it. We made it in time for the 3:15 pm tour (central time saved us an hour). I purchased the tickets while Thomas got the gear ready. The list of items that visitors can now take into the caves is very limited. Both Carter Caves and Mammoth Caves have identified that their bat population has possibly been contaminated by White Nose Syndrome (WNS). WNS is a disease that can kill up to 100% of hibernating bats in infected caves. Many precautions are taken such as not allowing people to carry items like bags, and camera cases into the caves. Also, there is a decontamination process that is required where you have to walk through a mixture on a mat to help prevent the spread of the spores.
Ok, the cave. I know you are wondering about this Mammoth cave. There was a meeting spot identified for the individual tours. At ours for Dome and Dripstones we met our guide, Chris McDowell (Park Ranger). He went through his list of what we can and can’t do, wear and touch. He also described the cave tour and made recommendations for those who may have concerns to reconsider now if they were going to go through with the tour. For one second I had to do a personal inventory, but I was pretty sure I had never had a problem with high or tight places.
The bus ride was humorous. Two small boys accompanied by grandparents had somehow made themselves the center of attention by challenging Chris. But he was very well prepared for them. The entrance of the cave was unassuming, at the end of a cement path that casually led to a wooded area. The door is opened, chickens be damned. Thank goodness I am not claustrophobic. Nothing Chris said was an exaggeration. Even I looked down the over the rail and pulled my head quickly back like a turtle. There were a total of 280 steps on the initial staircase descent 250 feet down. There was a handrail but you also had to squeeze, duck and contort and not touch the walls. Do not touch the walls or you can destroy this amazing natural undisturbed process. It was like playing a human sized game of Operation.
I apologize, but this saying will get old. You would have to see it to believe.
There were many nooks and crannies and vast landscapes of the tall and the deep. This cave was humongous compared to Cascade Cave at Carter Caves. Mammoth Caves has over 365 miles of surveyed caves. On this tour, there were many areas that the sandstone slab formed a solid sheet of rock ceiling as far the eye could see. Perhaps the most unique thing about this cave system is its history. Stephen Bishop, who was a slave owned and leased by the cave’s owner, was the first person to explore many miles of Mammoth Cave in 1938. At 17 years old, he was a cave guide and explorer and would guide visitors.
We got back in the car and hit the road for Montgomery Bell State Park. Our accommodations were at the Inn and Conference Center on Lake Acorn. We met the setting sun at the back of the Inn and Conference Center. It was slowly falling into a cloud of cotton candy and lavender. After we checked in, we made our way to the long walkway overlooking the lake and took photos and soaked it all in. The inn and conference center itself was beautiful. Everything was open and airy with a wall of windows and a large fireplace dissecting the lobby from the restaurant.
All the rooms have a balcony with a view facing the lake. It had been a long day, so we unpacked what little we needed and debriefed. The plan of action was to hit the paddleboat in the am. Morning time and we did just that after a quiet breakfast in the restaurant. I met with Pat Wright, the Park Manager who would make a call to the boathouse for us. We decided to meet with him again after our paddleboat ride to take a look at some images he had from their archives. The ride was fun. Something about the mix of human power adds a little excitement to a trip. It was a morning mix of hot blazing sun and cloud and we saw some turtles, fish flopping out of the water, and a home made by some animal (I’m guessing a beaver) that must have painstakingly collected sticks and branches into a perfect teepee shaped home. Oh and we also saw a lizard on the walkway that we also saw in Kentucky. This lizard has this iridescent blue tail that sparkles.
On our way out of the park, we met with Pat Wright again. While we waited, there was a video being played in the lobby of the park about the history of the park. What caught our eyes were the black members of the Civilian Conservation Corp (C.C.C). In 1935 the Public Works Administration, the Works Progress Administration and the C.C.C began construction of the park under the National Park Associations supervision. The C.C.C was designed to create jobs for young men and relieve families during the great depression. Many things that one can see now in the park have been a result of a conscious effort to keep the parks beautiful and help employ those at a time when there was little opportunity.
When Pat Wright arrived, he kindly let us back to his office and shared the archive photos and some history about the park. I asked him about the park and about attendance. He stated that they could get an average of a million visitors a year and that fall is the busiest time when the leaves change color. I can imagine just how beautiful it would be too. We finished a nice conversation with him and we wished each other well.
Thanks to Montgomery Bell State Park and Pat Wright for hosting us. I know we only saw a small part of the park. But I am happy to visit another place the Grahams have seen amongst their travels (August 12, 1982). Aww no! We just missed the Arkansas State sign on the bridge. I should have been prepared. The sign the Grahams took was that exact sign on that SAME bridge. Last but not least, as we took a last lap to check out the camping loop before exiting, in the friendly camper tradition of waving to everyone, we drove past a young boy and his bike on the side. Somehow he simultaneously waved and picked his nose (with both hands of course and a smile on his face).
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