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A Not So Mammoth Day Hike
Mammoth Cave National Park


-Scott Duvall

The wind was cold and the sky was cloudy on Sunday afternoon. I had been cooped up in my office for weeks on end and I wasn't going to let a little foul weather get me down. My friend Brad and I both have office jobs and endless hours of balking under fluorescent lights, staring at computer monitors can get to you.

I decided our destination would be nearby Mammoth Cave NP. I grew up 30 minutes away from Mammoth but strangely enough the amount of hiking trips I've been on there number on my fingers. For those of you who don't know Mammoth Cave National Park is a 51,000+ acre National park in Edmonson county, Kentucky. Mammoth's hiking opportunities tend to be overshadowed by its monster cave. The venerable Mammoth Cave is a 365+ mile giant that twists and curves through the limestone underneath the rolling hills and valleys. The tourist trips the National Park Service conducts takes you through a measly 11 miles of that. Regional cavers know the truth behind Mammoth though, it is at least 145 miles longer than the current statistic, but no one has made the required connections needed to affirm that (but many know they exist). Renowned caver Roger Brucker believes that someday, the Mammoth Cave system will exceed 1000 miles in length.

Wow, its easy to see how some could get fixated on the cave isn't it? But our focus was to be on hiking this afternoon. Mammoth's trails tend to be overlooked by most hikers for some reason. Since Mammoth is a NP the trails tend to be very well maintained (clean as well), there are over 60 miles total of trails, many interesting geologic features abound and two beautiful rivers run through the park.

We decided that we would hike a small portion of the Sal Hollow Trail and try our best to get as far as we could before having to turn around. We hoped to reach Turnhole Bend Trail before having to turn back. We started at about 2:30 so I knew this probably wouldn't be a reality. After crossing the ferry on the rain-swollen Green River we drove to the Maple Springs Trailhead. The National Park service must have run into some money in the last couple of months because they have put in a brand new road, a wonderful trailhead parking area, some new trail entrances and new signs. It really made me happy to see some care being put into Mammoth's north-side hiking trails that tend to be forgotten. Last time I was on the North side, all the park service had was a chip and seal road going by the trailheads. I remember another time that my wife and I tried to go hiking there we couldn't find a particular trailhead we were looking for!

There was no problem parking or finding the trailhead today. My friend Brad and I got on the way as soon as we parked. About 5 minutes into the hike I spotted two whitetail deer to the right of the trail. We began descending into "Sal Hollow" shortly after passing a sign that said "No Horses". Interestingly enough we saw several "signs" that told us horseback riders don't pay too much attention to those signs. I also noticed bike tracks on the trail. This is the typical grievance that most people have with hiking at Mammoth; horse tracks, mud, horse apples and tire tracks. I've found that a nice pair of Gore-Tex hiking boots and possibly some gaiters fix the problem.

About 15 minutes into the hike we came to a large creek valley bisecting the trail, and I heard the music of falling water. There was a small step waterfall to the left below the trail. We snapped a few pictures and I explained to Brad how seeing water in the park above ground was kind of an irregularity (especially in winter). From my understanding (and experience elsewhere in the park) you have to come during the rainy season to ever see flowing creeks in the Park. All the ground-water in the Park eventually makes it into some sink, crevice, flows into the groundwater system and eventually discharges into Green River. I know that from my canoing trips on Green River that there is an immeasurable number of springs bubbling into Green River, and all these springs collect their water from directly on the ridges above or are carried there from up to 60 miles away in natural underground drainage systems.

The foliage in the Park was very nice. Mammoth is considered to be an old growth forest in some parts. On Sal Hollow trail it seemed that the timber was getting back to the way it should be. I saw numerous huge Poplars, White Oaks and many other beautiful, large hardwoods.

We eventually passed by two different springs coming straight out of the hillside. One had a waterfall at its exit from the rock. Personally I thought the trip was worth it to see any of these peculiarities. There is something timeless about a waterfall (no matter how small) and to see it exit directly out of a hillside is an added bonus. Brad commented that he would like to come back after a very hard rain to see all these creeks and waterfalls in full force.

With about an hour of daylight left we came to our turnaround point. We didn't make it to the Turnhole Bend trail, but we did make it to a large ridge with a view of the valley below. Large limestone rocks lay on the hillside and the trail meandered off out of sight. After a brief snack we turned back. On the way back we noticed many things we didn't see coming in, an old iron kettle and some busted crock fragments, a sink that had nearly become a cave opening, an old iron wagon-wheel cog. These natural and man-made things added to the experience. Some might consider some of this stuff junk, but in actuality before the park was formed people lived in the the area. The National Park houses numerous old churches, homesites and cemeteries. Much of the stuff you'll see in the park points to a time when life was simpler and harder. This stuff was not brought in (thus not junk), it's part of the park's history.

About 5 minutes from the trailhead coming back I heard a snort in the woods and there were our two whitetail friends saying "bye" to us. I was surprised that we hadn't seen any turkey (they abound in the park). The hike was a stress-reliever but as always left a feeling of wanting more. I'll definitely be back to Mammoth in the coming weeks. To have such a resource nearby is a blessing indeed.

How to Get There:

From Lexington: (137 miles)
Take Bluegrass Parkway West to I-65 South.
I-65 South to Exit 53 (Cave City).

From Louisville: (99 miles)
I-65 South to Exit 53 (Cave City).

More Information:

By Mail
Mammoth Cave NP
P.O. Box 7
Mammoth Cave, KY 42259

By Phone
Park Information


Location: Sal Hollow Trail, Mammoth Cave NP
Date: 1/19/2004
Time: 2:30-5:00PM
Temperature: 32 degrees
Conditions: Overcast
Wind speed: 3 mph


The Trail



Small Waterfall




Near Sunset

All photos 2004 Scott Duvall

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