Skip to site content
Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader

Enjoy the Elements in Kentucky

Caving in Mammoth Cave

Guides have been leading tours of Mammoth Cave since 1816, when Kentucky was the leading edge of the western frontier. “I’ve heard it [Mammoth Cave] called the Granddaddy of Tourism,” said Vickie Carson, public information officer for Mammoth Cave National Park near Cave City.

Two centuries of tours have paid off for visitors to the national park, which has carved out cave tours for people of all abilities and interests. Those who are fit, flexible and not claustrophobic can spend six hours crawling through narrow passageways. Tours by lamplight are a flashback to the 19th century. And, starting in October, those who can’t climb stairs will once again be able to tour the cave, thanks to the $2.3 million repair and restructuring of an elevator that descends 267 feet to a paved accessible trail through a section of trail that sparkles with gypsum.

Carson is thrilled that the Mammoth Cave Accessibility Tour is returning. She has spent the past 14 years answering letters and emails from people who were disappointed that they could not see the cave.

In the meantime, one of the best tours for a general audience is the Frozen Niagara. “It is sort of the everyperson’s tour,” said Carson. “The walking is mostly level, and it lasts an hour and 15 minutes, but it is limited to 38 people.”

From the fall until Memorial Day, the park’s Historic Cave Tour will be on hiatus because of improvements being made to that trail; as a substitute, the hardy might try the Domes and Dolomites trip, which requires climbing 500 steps.

Carson said although fewer tours are offered in the fall, winter and spring, the offseason is a nice time to visit because crowds are smaller. The park also has lodging options once again following renovations of cottages and guest rooms at the Mammoth Cave Hotel.

Canoeing at Tradewater River

A quiet paddle in a canoe or kayak is one way to see abundant wildlife along a stretch of the Tradewater River, between Pennyrile Forest State Park Resort and Dawson Springs.

Hank Mills, who runs outfitter Tradewater Canoes and Kayaks, saw a deer and two fawns on a recent paddle. “You come up on them before they even realize you are there. I have seen beaver and otters, all kinds of birds — eagles, blue heron, ducks, geese — fox and even a couple of mink.”

The Tradewater, a tributary of the Ohio River, is slow and calm, sheltered by a canopy of trees, sometimes bordered by limestone bluffs. Mills offers two-mile and five-mile trips from April to mid-September in canoes and kayaks. Typically, trips are self-guided.

“I usually let them be on their own; they are not going to run into anything or get lost on the river. As long as they stay on the river, they will get at the end,” Mills said.

Mills also leads hikes in the area, and the trails are steep and rugged. Compared to those, river trips on the tranquil Tradewater are easy. “Anybody can do the five-mile paddle, but not everyone can do a 10-mile hike up and down the hills,” he said.

“The Tradewater would be perfect for your very first paddle,” said Mills. “You are not going to run into any rapids. It is very forgiving. There are not a whole lot of dangers out there that you typically run into on a river.”

Rock Climbing at Red River Gorge

Kentucky’s Red River Gorge is home to the country’s first, and still one of its few, via ferratas, a man-made climbing experience in a natural setting.

The via ferrata operated by Torrent Falls Climbing Adventures opened in a horseshoe-shaped canyon near Natural Bridge State Park in eastern Kentucky in 2001.

Iron handholds and footholds are embedded in the canyon’s rock walls; cables follow the handholds and footholds, creating pathways that allow climbers in harnesses to stay hooked in so they can climb safely, without fear of falls and without having extensive rock-climbing training.

“In Italian, ‘via’ is ‘the way,’ and ‘ferrata’ is ‘iron,’” said Nicole Meyer, manager of the family-owned business, which also offers guided rock-climbing trips.

The via ferrata works well for group outings, as the canyon climbing area is large enough to handle many climbers simultaneously and has enough levels of difficulty to suit different skill levels. The via ferrata is open from March to December, and reservations are required.

During 45 minutes of instruction on a training wall, climbers are fitted into harnesses and learn how to clip in so they are safely attached to the safety cable at all times.

“The cables are not holding weight; they are just there to catch you if you slip,” said Meyer.

It typically takes from four to five hours to complete the route, but six exit points allow climbers to quit sooner or to take breaks and head back to a deck near the office, where they can sit, have snacks or lunch, and watch their fellow climbers.

During the spring or in times of heavy rain, climbers can climb behind the 165-foot-high Torrent Falls.