Biologist on a Bike

Day 54: Mammoth Cave National Park, KY to Horse Cave, KY


Distance: 15.97 mi
Average Speed: 11.7 mph; Max Speed: 31.2 mph
Elevation Gain: 362 ft
Average Temp: 86.2 F; Temp Range: 82.4-89.6 F

First thing’s first: if you are considering riding the TransAmerica Bike Trail, or if you are going to be near this area in Kentucky, and are wondering whether Mammoth Cave is worth the detour, it is. Unless you’re claustrophobic or nyctophobic. It’s the largest (known) cave in the world at over 412 mapped miles of tunnels, and they haven’t finished mapping it yet. Book your tours at least a few days in advance, because they fill up quickly.

But we’ll get to that in a bit.

My tour today wasn’t until 12:45 and I didn’t have to wake up early, but I woke up around 5:30 anyway. I had plans, you see. The lodge near the campground has a breakfast buffet, and that seemed like a spectacular location to sit, eat, and catch up on some blog posts since I’ve been falling behind a bit. Packing up is made much simpler when you don’t have to prepare breakfast, and I was off in good time. I couldn’t remember when breakfast started, though, and I arrived about 15 minutes too early. That was fine, since there was a small alcove in one area containing three desks: one open and two with computers on them. I plugged in some of my electronics to charge, wrote out a postcard or two, and waited for 7AM to roll around.

Where I woke up, Day 54

Breakfast was good. Besides the requisite coffee, they had a waffle and omelet bar, eggs, potatoes, biscuits, cereal, yogurt, fresh fruit, muffins, and assorted danishes. (For the omnivores among us who are wondering, there were also things I couldn’t eat like sausages, sausage gravy for the biscuits, and bacon.)

I ate and updated for several hours, but the fun part of breakfast was the several people who had spotted my loaded bike outside and pegged me as its owner, maybe because I had the handlebar bag to match the panniers, maybe because I was one of the only people seated alone in the restaurant. I had a few good discussions of my trip with one couple who are cyclists themselves and a man who recently returned from a few weeks in Europe touring with a friend (who is still there).

After breakfast, I retreated to the alcove again for a while, and then went to get ready for my tour. I walked over to the visitor center and pulled up the reservation on my phone. It was then that I noticed the small print that said all tickets had to be picked up 15 minutes before the tour started. I had about 35 minutes to my tour, but I hadn’t realized there was that kind of time limit and I was grateful that chance and my hating being late led me to get there on time. Then I walked back to my bike to grab some long pants and my rain jacket. The cave was going to be much cooler than the air outside.

I had signed up for the historic tour, so the narration I got was on the history of the rediscovery and use of the cave. It was rediscovered, supposedly, in the 1700s by a man out in the woods who shot a bear and then tracked it into the cave. Re-discovered because it was clear that several hundred years prior, the Native Americans had been harvesting gypsum from the cave walls. It is unknown why they stopped doing so.

The entrance to the cave

During the early 1800s, the soil in the cave was used in the manufacture of saltpeter. When that was no longer profitable, the cave became a tourist destination for the rich. In all their splendid Victorian era attire (dapper, close-fitting suits for the men, corsets and hoop skirts for the women) they would descend with smoky oil lanterns that have left their mark on some parts of the cave ceiling. The tours were 8 or 16 hours long, and included meals set out on flat rocks using fine china brought down for that purpose. The rich really know how to throw a casual picnic, don’t they? Maybe that’s not fair; I imagine the ground was too dirty to sit on, and hoop skirts are difficult to sit in anyway.

Cave walls

A chamber next to the path we were on

There was graffiti everywhere, but probably not in the way you think. This is 150+ year-old graffiti from those early tours. People would scratch or carve their name into the rock, some in thin scraggly lines, some in large letters that looked like they were cut by a professional. Or they would use the smoke from a tallow candle to write on the walls.

A tag on a structure known as the giant’s tomb

A lot of names on the ceiling

I wonder if August carved his S backwards on purpose

A few dates. 1839 and 1869

This is part of a 200 ft vertical shaft. It’s much more impressive in person.

The deepest we went was approximately 410 feet below the surface. And then we had to climb out…

It looks a bit melted, doesn’t it?

Stone column.

After the tour, I stopped in the ice cream parlor. Not for ice cream, I had eaten some earlier in the day (toasted coconut, which was wonderful), but for coffee and some food. Then I headed out to my bike, intending to leave for horse cave. Instead I found a note tucked into my gear from the couple I met at breakfast, Gene and Stephanie. They told me what cabin they were in and said I should join them for a drink. So I did.

Gene and Stephanie with Eddy Merckx

I’ve said it before and it’s no less true now on Day 54 than it was at those times: one of the best parts of this trip is the people. We talked for well over an hour about cycling in general, the tours we had each taken of the cave (they went on a longer one than I did), other trips taken, bicycle injuries, and much more. It was a great way to relax on this almost-but-not-quite rest day.

Even the local wildlife cooperated; a woodpecker and a wild turkey both made an appearance.


Alas, the afternoon couldn’t last forever, and I set out for the short ride to Horse Cave. It was hot, but not as hot as it had been earlier, so the ride wasn’t that bad. There also isn’t that much to say about it, since it was only 12 miles long. I left the park and forest and reentered the meadows and fields of developed land. Cave City had an amusing touristy area filled with rock shops, mini golf, bumper cars, and similar attractions. It also had a non-touristy area a few miles further down the road. Horse Cave seems to be quieter, thank goodness.

This is a different wild turkey than the one I saw earlier.

I stopped for some food for dinner and because I was running out of a few things. One customer saw my bike outside and asked me about my ride. Then the cashier said “I heard you’ve been on the road for 54 days.” I told her a bit about the trip and gave her a card. She asked if she could get a photo with me and post it to Facebook. I replied yes, but that I would need a similar photo.

Becka and I

Then I rolled over to the hotel. The room is large and comfortable. Not their cheapest (those were sold out for the night) but not expensive either. I’ve had a nice shower, a filling dinner, and am about ready to stretch out in a huge bed for a solid night of sleep.

Roadkill: none

Map day 54


15 thoughts on “Day 54: Mammoth Cave National Park, KY to Horse Cave, KY

  1. Flashen

    Yay. You went to Mammoth Cave. When I checked out the map of the TransAmerica Trail early on in your trip, I noticed the optional loop and I’ve been hoping you would take it. I remember visiting it decades ago with my family. I’d seen caves before and I’ve seen them since, and they are still the benchmark. Photos don’t do them justice. Glad you found them worth the trip.

    1. Spin Doctor Post author

      I wish I could go back and spend a few days, taking one or two different tours each day to see as much of the caves as I could. Maybe some day I will!

  2. Connie Joki

    I would love to tour Mammoth Cave sometime. In Oregon we have lava tube caves, which are pretty cool but looks like they wouldn’t compare to Mammoth.

    I’m glad you are spending some money to spread out on a comfy bed, your tired legs and back will thank you in the morning.

    Also I’m really glad you posted and caught us up. I was starting to worry when you were 7 days behind.

    Keep peddling!

    1. Spin Doctor Post author

      I’m getting more tired and ending later, meaning less energy for posting. I’d say I’ll try to be better as I enter final days, but it really all depends. I’m still here, though. And still pedaling along.

  3. Leslie A Raich

    Yeah for bacon!! …. Can’t wait to see more of your pictures 🙂 ….. I am so in awe of you and your conquest. I also can’t wait until you are home. (Me and Suzie need you – we both sang different verses at the same time and there was no one to fix us.)

  4. Marian Smith

    I guess your tour didn’t take you to the snowball room to have lunch. There is so much more to see and do. Camped there many years ago with the kids (van and pop-up tent) and it was so hot we spent a lot of time in the visitor center (naturally airs-conditioned by the cave.) Glad you enjoyed it.)

    1. Spin Doctor Post author

      I’m not often certain of when I’ll arrive somewhere until a day or so before. By the time I could book a tour with certainty, there weren’t many left to choose from. No lunch on this one, but it was awe-inspiring all the same.

  5. Bruce Thompson

    Hi Cindy — Your posts are always entertaining and informative but this one had an added benefit — now I know what “nyctophobic” means! It’s probably safe to say that I will never hear that word again but if I do I’m ready for it. How is the repaired tire rolling? As I recall, the mechanic indicated that it was still slightly out of round. Good luck on the rest of the tour. My wife and I will be following along.

    1. Spin Doctor Post author

      Two days ago another spoke popped. I managed to keep the wheel true enough that I didn’t lose a 4th and I got it fixed in Damascus today. So far so good. And fewer than 500 miles left to ride!

  6. Leslie Diamond

    Sounds like a great rest day and a really interesting tour. The claustrophobic in me isn’t too sure about going in the cave (even if I can go through the Chunnel without difficulty!). Stay safe!

    1. Spin Doctor Post author

      There were more large open spaces than there were small enclosed ones, but you might not have liked “Fat Man’s Misery” very much. Narrow and short at the same time.

  7. Suzan Lauder

    Wow, what an amazing tour that must have been! The history must have been fascinating, never mind the geology.

    I wonder if you counted the steps up you had to take to get out? Whenever I’m faced with big climbs I do so to compare to the other ones I’ve had to do. At least it would have been cool in the caves!

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