November 2016: Mammoth Cave National Park Backpacking Trip

On a long weekend to Kentucky to visit my father in law, I managed to squeeze in an overnight trip to test some gear while my wife had some family time. I thought about heading to a small wilderness area about 20 minutes from his house, but that weekend was the first day of deer season and the area was listed as one of the top 5 hunting areas in KY! Caution got the best of me, and I decided to head an hour west and have an unusual experience for me….sign posted trails and designated campsites with reservations at Mammoth Cave National Park.

A lot of folks go to Mammoth Cave but as you would expect only a few hike or camp on top – the vast majority head underground which is not to be missed – an amazing experience!  I have been to Mammoth three times before…once in the early 90s to hike, camp, and go on a cave tour, and twice with the family to go on cave tours (2 hours and half day).

Despite my concerns about being constrained to trails and campsites, and not really getting any mountain views, I had a fantastic little hike.  As expected, the geology was interesting.  The trails were empty with everyone else underground – something I discovered coming through this area 20 years ago but I haven’t taken advantage of it.

Spending a lot of time in wilderness areas, it was wierd to walk along a trail with markings like this…

on a trail with printed signs every 1/4 of a mile…not much chance to get lost unless you really try hard!

The mature hardwood forest was open and allowed for easy walking.

It was a short hike – only around 15 miles round trip – including a detour for lunch at Turnhole Bend Campsite which sits on a neat little knob adjacent to the Green River.  I definitely would have liked to camp at this one, but they were surprisingly full on an off-season Friday night.

So I ended up heading down the trail to Sal Hollow Campsite, after passing a few more interesting views and rock formations.  The combination of man-made and natural work here was interesting – not sure why it is walled off halfway.  The drought and wildfires in the southeast were still in high gear this month, and even a dependable stream crossing before Sal Hollow was dry.  I bushwacked a 1/4 mile to the Green River to pick up water for the night.  It was definitely green!  Seems to be a little slow moving possibly due to a dam downstream?

Sal Hollow campsite wasn’t quite as nice as Turnhole Bend, but it served my purpose for the right amount of mileage for the loop while the others were taken. It looks like the tent pad has been shifted from an earlier location to reduce impact, but was on a slight incline.  Easily fixed by sliding my (empty) backpack under the lower half of the sleeping pad.

This was really a gear test trip as well as a chance to hang out in camp and get things organized from a quick packing job earlier in the week.

Gear testing was primarily focused on different firestarters…not the best timing with a campfire ban in place, but the rangers OK’d my wood stove and I used extreme caution at all times with the flames contained within the Caldera Ti Tri cone and base plate.

I kept the tent wide open as the threat of rain had diminished (unfortunately for the fires) and enjoyed a bright full moonlit night.  The picture above doesn’t do the size of the moon justice – it seemed really large and it was one of those nights where a headlamp wasn’t really needed most of the time.

I think one of the main reasons I enjoy backpacking so much is waking up and having a hot cup of coffee on a cold morning.  This night was pretty mild – it got just below freezing.  After two cups of coffee…

a hot breakfast of PackIt Gourmet’s Santa Fe Breakfast Corn Pudding was an excellent start to the day.

Views were limited to through the winter trees but relatively good for the low hill country I was traversing.  The trail was in excellent shape and an easy walk.  I was a little concerned that the combined horse-hiker use of the trails in Mammoth would make for a muddy (and more!) mess on the trail, but the drought seemed to have cured that at least.  Just a few horse pies to deal with here and there.

That changed however as I got further north in my loop, and more evidence of horse usage was visible.  I decided to cut the mileage down from 19 to 15 or so and hike out along the Buffalo Creek Trail to the Maple Springs parking lot where I started.

Despite that, I had a wonderful little break in the woods without the fear of overzealous hunters on day 1 of deer season.  There were a lot of deer in the park…honestly they could probably do with a controlled hunt in there as well.

I would recommend a night or two in the backcountry of Mammoth, not as a destination trip but as part of a visit involving the underground as well.

Backpacking reviews, trips, and random thoughts