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Cave City, Kentucky: Caves, Camping, Antiques, Nature May Add Up to Your Perfect Relaxing Low Budget Vacation

Updated on July 16, 2011

This summer we wanted to take a relaxing family vacation that was also low cost, or at least not high cost. The desire to keep our getaway relaxing and affordable pretty much ruled out most places further than a day's drive away from our Midwest home--in other words, no planes for us. After much debating, we settled on Cave City, Kentucky.

Quite honestly, Cave City isn't much to look at. Driving around you know you aren't in a particularly prosperous area, but we actually liked that. I grew up in a region not all that different from Cave City and I like the idea of spending my tourist dollars where people can use them. Cave City fits that bill.

But Cave City offers more than that, a lot more.

First there is Mammoth Cave National Park. Mammoth Cave is the obvious reason to visit Cave City. This cave is known as the longest cave in the world and at 350 miles long and 379 feet deep, it is huge. We took the Historic Tour of the cave which covers two miles in two hours. The description warns of confining spaces and heights and I was a bit worried about that, both for my mother and my eight-year-old child, but it was an easy walk for both of them. My son did not enjoy the demonstration of how dark the cave is when the lights are off, but we all survived.

My personal favorite part of the tour was Fat Man's Misery. I've been through these type of tight squeeze formations before, but Fat Man's Misery was unique. It was both longer than any type of squeeze I'd been through before and the formation was unique. You walk through a path of rock formation that reaches to around waist level and the passage is so narrow and twisting you can't see your feet.

Mammoth Cave Historic Tour

Sign for Fat Man's Misery, my personal favorite.
Sign for Fat Man's Misery, my personal favorite.
One of two "pits" you will encounter on the Historic Tour.
One of two "pits" you will encounter on the Historic Tour.
Pipelines from saltpeter mining that occurred in the cave during the War of 1812. They are made of hollowed out logs.
Pipelines from saltpeter mining that occurred in the cave during the War of 1812. They are made of hollowed out logs.

The heights section was a walk over the bottomless pit. There is a metal bridge you walk over and if you choose you can stop and stare down into the abyss. But you can just as easily scurry on by.

I had also worried with kids about the lack of bathrooms, but there is an actual bathroom stop with real flushing toilets, at least on the Historic Tour. You need to check the information for each tour. Some don't have bathroom access.

My other advice for those taking one of these tours is to consider what you are wearing carefully. You will definitely want a jacket, and perhaps long pants. The day we went it was around 98 degrees outside, but in the 50's in the cave. This is a bit of a shock to the body at first. I was fine with a jacket and shorts, but my mother wore pants and seemed happy with her choice. You also might consider a water-repellant jacket. Most parts of the Historic Tour are dry, but we did encounter some dripping water. Also, parts can be slippery, so I wouldn't recommend flip flops or slick-soled sandals. Wear something with good treads.

After our tour, we stepped back out into the steam of the 98 degree day, took a few minutes to acclimate and then had lunch at one of the three dining choices just a short walk from the cave. The food was fine and the prices reasonable.

In addition to the cave tours the Park offers some above ground tours and programs. With the heat, we didn't choose to stay around for those, but they did look interesting and are worth checking out.

We also hit the gift shop. Little tip, things like the caving helmets with the lights attached (for kids) were cheaper here than in town.

After the cave, if you still want to spend more time with nature, check out floating the Green River. We rented a canoe at Green River Canoe, part of Kentucky Action Park. There was a coupon that gave us five dollars off a rental which was nice. With the kids we chose the Dennison Ferry to Green River Ferry route. It's 8 miles and billed as taking three to three and a half hours. It is also touted as being great for beginners and for viewing wildlife.

Here's the real story. It is slow, very little current. This is great if you are worried about tipping over, but it also means if you have two kids in the canoe with you who you know have a maybe two hour time limit before the whining begins, you are going to have to paddle a lot. We did and we made the trip in two and half hours, about twenty minutes after the first whines began. This was with one stop on an island/sand barge. Another thing, about the wildlife, we saw two turtles. They were nice turtles, but that along with some dragon flies was it. I wouldn't take this tour with the idea I was going to see a ton of wildlife. And I wouldn't take it if I wanted excitement. This is a float and tan kind of trip--or paddle.

Continuing our theme of outdoorsy activities, we rented horses at Barren River Lake State Resort Park which is about a forty minute drive from Cave City. Warning, the trail ride was a cash only operation and the nearest ATM is about ten miles away. Because our son was new to riding and the horse he was on was new to lakes, we took a trail through the woods. The people who ran the concession were very friendly, although I have to admit I encountered a bit of a language/accent barrier and probably only understood about eighty percent of what they said. This added to the charm, of course. What didn't was the smoking. Our guide chose to pull out a cigarette toward the end. It was in open air and wasn’t horrendous, but it also detracted from the experience. That would be my one mark against this choice. But it was also something we encountered quite a bit during the vacation, a kind of 70's attitude toward smoking. If you come from a region where smoking is banned from public places or have lung issues, this may be disturbing. (But considering that you are driving pasts fields of tobacco, not exactly shocking.)

We also visited the Lodge where I bought a piece of folk art pottery and had some very good catfish. Again, the people were exceptionally warm and welcoming, and even made my son pancakes for lunch. Then we drove to the lake where you can rent boats (speed, fishing and pontoon) for a day.

Our other activities though are what really surprised me. We spent one day at Dinosaur World and another at Kentucky Down Under. I was skeptical of both of these, but did them to please the kids. I was pleasantly shocked at how nice both were. Look for my articles dedicated to each for more details.

And do visit downtown while you are there. There are a number of antique shops downtown and at least the couple we went in were good antique shops, versus the "junk we pass off as antiques" variety. There was also a really nice café called Cream & Sugar Café. The food was excellent (and way more than your traditional hamburger and fry fare) and our waiter was adorable. Definitely worth searching out when you visit Cave City.

And finally, where to stay? As I said at the beginning we were looking for relaxing and affordable, so we chose the Cave City Jellystone Park. They have a wide selection of cabins with air conditioning, which with day temps passing 98 was a requirement. They also have a lot of organized, free activities, a pool, a water slide, a putt-putt golf course and a game room. This made for a great way to spend our afternoons after whatever morning activity we'd enjoyed.

There are things I would change about this Jellystone Park, simple things like putting extra trash bags at the bottom of the trash cans, and having people drive around and pick up trash once a day from the cabins, but it was obvious they were trying. They also had a huge number of people working for them, which meant it was easy to find someone to answer a question or give you an extra key when you locked yourself out of your cabin. This also meant at times these employees made strange choices, like running the weed-eater ten feet from you during the dinner hour while you were trying to relax and bar-be-cue. But, overall, if we were to return to Cave City, we would also return to Jellystone Campground.

That sums up our trip to Cave City, Kentucky. As I mentioned before it was hot while we were there, crazy hot, but it was also relaxing and a lot of fun. It's definitely somewhere to consider for your next vacation.

Nature Conservancy Video on the Green River


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    • TimArends profile image

      Timothy Arends 3 years ago from Chicago Region

      One nice thing about Mammoth Cave is that it is a totally safe cave to explore, with plenty of tour guides and even a modern cafeteria right there within the cave itself!

    • Matt Wells profile image

      Matt Wells 6 years ago

      I recently went on the historic tour. It was my first time and I will be going back for sure!

    • profile image

      Mammoth Caves 7 years ago

      This vast cave system holds the world's most diverse cave ecosystem. Approximately 130 forms of life can be found in Mammoth Cave. Most are quite small. Some use the cave as only as a haven, while others are such specialized cave dwellers that they can live nowhere else. All are dependent on energy from the surface. Life in the cave is not separate from the rest of the natural communities found in Mammoth Cave National Park.

    • Lori Devoti profile image

      Lori Devoti 7 years ago from Wisconsin

      It was nice, Irene...but HOT! Husband complained a lot. Only Fat Man's Misery gave much risk of bringing on the claustrophobia. Mammoth Cave is truly mammoth!

    • profile image

      Irene 7 years ago

      Claustrophobic me has a really tough time in caves! But the above ground stuff sounded pleasurable, especially the antique shops. As long as there is a/c, I can survive. Sounds like you had a great time, though. Nice!