By Marty Rosen
For many of us, the lure of caverns is their remote, otherworldly beauty. We plunge deep beneath the earth and find glistening chambers and colorful columns of stone completely alien to the world above.
But explorers who find their way to the caves of Hart County, Kentucky will discover a distinctly different cave culture. In this special place, geology, commerce and ecology come together to create a unique interaction between folks who live on the surface and the caverns below.
Historic Main Street
A traveler who walks Horse Cave’s historic Main Street will find a streetscape lined with lovingly preserved Victorian buildings, colorful awnings, wrought iron fences and comfortable benches where visitors can while away a quiet hour.
But glance down at the sidewalk or across the street, and you’ll imagine the serpentine outlines of Hidden River Cave – eight miles of subterranean majesty that naturalist John Muir once described as “a noble gateway to the birthplace of springs and fountains and the dark treasures of the mineral kingdom.”
Walk these streets and you’ll find the Horse Cave Stories Cell Phone Tour. One of the best high-tech, self-guided walking tours in America, this series of plaques features scannable QR codes that link your smartphone or tablet to history and legends, facts and fiction, about the area.
You'll learn about the storied basketball legacy of four state championships and two players who became Harlem Globetrotters. You’ll learn that schools in this area were among the first in the state to become racially integrated. You’ll get tips about cave photography while learning about the various species of bats that are perched inside. And you’ll learn that nowhere else on the planet will you find a place where community and cave are so closely connected.
Deep Cave History
In the late 1800s, an underground stream here supplied hydroelectric power to the town above, making Horse Cave one of the first towns in Kentucky to have electric lights. Early in the 1900s, the cave entrance was used to create the world’s first “air-conditioned” outdoor tennis courts.
By then, cave-related tourism had exploded in Kentucky, and Horse Cave became a battlefield in the so-called Cave Wars. During this tumultuous time, ingenious (and often unscrupulous) cave entrepreneurs employed every ploy imaginable to lure tourist dollars away from nearby Mammoth Cave, which was becoming increasingly famous and, at the time, was still privately owned.
The Cave War stories are fascinating, and you can learn about many of them by dropping in at The Bookstore, a Horse Cave institution where local historian Tom Chaney can usually be found talking history – or perhaps presiding over a meeting of the local “Liar’s Club.” And if you’re in town on a Thursday night, drop by the Historic Thomas House, where musicians gather for a long-running acoustic jam session.
American Cave Museum
The walking tour (or Tom Chaney) will tell you that by mid-century, Hidden River Cave had been damaged by industrial and domestic pollution, a crisis that ultimately resulted in a great environmental clean-up project spearheaded by the American Cave Conservation Association, which has been headquartered in Horse Cave since 1987.
Today, Horse Cave is a true center for cave-related education, research and tourism. For a great introduction to the subject, visit the beautifully curated American Cave Museum, with vivid exhibits dealing with every aspect of caves, from preservation to groundwater to bats.
Or go beyond the exhibits in search of adventure!
Professional guides lead tours of the cavern that are geared toward visitors, no matter their fitness level. If you’re ready for anything, consider the three- and five-hour “Wild Cave” tours, which will have you crawling, wading and squeezing your way through tight passages and underwater pools. And if the thought of taking a staircase or walking through a gate isn’t exciting enough for you, keep in mind you can also rappel down to the Hidden Cave entrance – or ride the zip-line that runs high above the cool chamber below.
Beyond Horse Cave
Your time in Horse Cave is only the start of your adventure. Driving the back roads of Hart County is a pleasure in itself.
To put it in context, Horse Cave’s population of just under 2,500 makes it the largest town in the county. That means there’s plenty of rural countryside, with relatively quiet roads and rolling contours that are perfect for relaxing road trips – by car, motorcycle or bicycle. (And don’t miss the Hart County Barn Quilt Trail, featuring more than 60 stops along these scenic roads!)
Hart County boasts five of the state’s 10 largest springs, including 300 Springs and Gorin Mill Spring, the state’s largest. Speaking of water, Big Buffalo Crossing Canoe & Kayak offers multiple options, including trips inside Mammoth Cave National Park. And in nearby Munfordville, you can browse exhibits at the Hart County Historical Museum or take a new cell phone tour highlighting the town’s Civil War-era buildings and occupation.
From Horse Cave or Munfordville (home to the Country Girl at Heart Farm Bed & Breakfast, which offers a two-hour tour in which you can gather eggs and feed goats, ducks and horses) find your way to US 31E, a north-south route about 7-8 miles east of I-65. Follow it from tiny Hardyville down to Uno, where you’ll find Mama Lou’s, about as sweet a little barbecue joint as you could hope for. (Dig into some ribs, but don’t neglect the pie!)
Keep south and you’ll come to Dennison’s Roadside Market, where you’ll find all sorts of produce, crafts and hospitality. Then swing west back to Horse Cave and drop in at several great family attractions.
More to See & Do
Just seconds from the interstate, Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo mixes two different “down-under” adventures. Above ground it’s a celebration of culture and wildlife from Kentucky, Australia and around the world, complete with kangaroos, emus and colorful lorikeets, one of the brightest exotic birds you’ll ever see. Underground, it is home to Mammoth Onyx Cave, with frequent and very accessible cave tours.
Another option – and a grand choice for those who like to stroll off the beaten path – is to tour the northern and western reaches of Hart County.
From Bonnieville head west toward Nolin Lake, one of Kentucky’s great fishing, boating and recreational destinations. Then travel south to Cub Run, where Detweiler’s Country Store will fix you up with Amish clothing, hats, baskets and a great old-fashioned sandwich on homemade bread. While you’re in town here check out Cub Run Cave, where an elevated walkway makes for a delightful, accessible route through the beautiful cavern.
And if you keep going south, you can make your visit to Mammoth Cave National Park especially dramatic by crossing the Green River on either the Green River Ferry or the Houchin Ferry. (Call Mammoth Cave’s Ferry Hot Line at 270-758-2166 to make sure water levels are suitable for crossing.)
Can’t wait to get here? Start planning your getaway by calling 270-218-0386 or visiting www.kygetaway.com. Once in the area, plenty of brochures are available at the I-65/Mile Marker 60 rest stops (both north and southbound) with staff on hand from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily from March through December, and Friday-Sunday in January and February.
If You Go
Horse Cave/Hart County Tourist Commission
Hidden River Cave/American Cave Museum
Horse Cave Stories Cell Phone Tour
Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo/Mammoth Onyx Cave
Cub Run Cave
Mama Lou’s Barbecue
Big Buffalo Crossing Canoe & Kayak
Hart County Historical Museum
Munfordville Cell Phone Tour
Country Girl at Heart Bed & Breakfast Farm Tour