Saturday, October 23, 2021

Caves and Stuff

Guest Post by the Editor

Day 0

The trip started with a flight to Nashville that landed just before midnight. The flight arrived after the rental car counter had closed for the night, so I took a Lyft to a hotel that was about a 4 minute drive from the airport (although the Lyft driver made it in 3 minutes).

Day 1

The first order of business for today was to pick up the rental car. So after a quick trip back to the airport in the hotel shuttle, I got started with my day. The only planned things for this day were a drive to Mammoth Cave National Park and the Extended Historic Tour at 2:45. I arrived at my next hotel at around 11:30 and unsurprisingly, my room wasn't ready yet. On my way in, there were a couple of billboards for other caves in the area, so I decided to go over to Hidden River Cave which was about 5 minutes from the hotel. The tour is an hour and the cave has a couple large rooms connected by longer passageways, and includes the longest suspension bridge inside of a cave. It was a fun tour and had a really good guide with a super dry sense of humor.

Entrance to Hidden River Cave

Longest suspension bridge in a cave

After the Hidden River Cave, I had about an hour before I needed to leave for Mammoth Cave NP. My room was ready at this point, so I hung out in the room for a bit before the 22 minute drive to the visitor's center. I had 3 different tours scheduled at Mammoth Cave, on 3 different days. Below is an overview of the parts of Mammoth Cave that are usually included in tours. (Tours cover about 13-14 miles of passages out of about 450 miles of known cave.)

You probably want to click on the map to view it enlarged.

This day was my shortest tour at just over 2 hours. It was the Extended Historic Tour, which is the same as the regular Historic Tour, but takes a short detour into a part of the cave where a doctor brought tuberculosis patients in the 1800s to see if the cave air would heal them (it didn't). The tour enters the cave at the "Historic Entrance" of the cave, and is in large passageways for the first half of the tour. The second half of the tour has stairs and narrow passages (but mostly paved walkways the whole way)
The parts of the cave covered by the Extended Historic Tour.

The Historic Entrance

The only bat seen all week

The Star Chamber

The stairs leading deeper into the cave

Fat Man's Misery

The stairs leading back up

After the tour it was time to find food. (Side note: We've been doing intermittent fasting for the last year+ and I generally do at least a daily 19 hour fast. On this trip, I tended to do longer fasts and would eat during a 1-2 hour period on most days.) When I travel by myself, I find that I often gravitate toward places that are common in the area I'm visiting, but don't exist at home. Today that meant Waffle House. I don't know if I'd ever actually eaten at a Waffle House before, but after touring the cave some eggs, hash browns, and a waffle sounded awesome. And it was... After I finally found an open one. There are three in Bowling Green, KY, but due to labor shortages, the "24 hour" Waffle Houses were less than 24 hours... The first one I went to looked very closed, so I checked the next one which was just on the other side of the highway. I walked up to that one to find a sign on the door that said that they were closed between 2:00PM and 9:00PM. I drove 15 minutes to the 3rd one in the town and they had a sign that said that they were closing at 9:00PM that day. After eating there, I headed back to my hotel which was 40 minutes away, but I decided that I was still a bit hungry. So, continuing the tradition of common places that aren't generally available to me, on the way back to the hotel, I got a sandwich from Schlotzsky's. That was a good choice.

Day 2

On this day I had another tour scheduled at Mammoth Cave. It was the Grand Avenue Tour. The Grand Avenue Tour is the longest tour at Mammoth Cave. It is 4 hours long and is essentially a 4 mile underground hike. The first part is a fairly wide passage, the next part is a slot canyon and the last half is several large rooms, with multiple hills.
The path of the Grand Avenue Tour

Large tubular passage (Cleaveland Avenue)

Gypsum Crystals

Through the slot canyon

In this picture, you can see a part of the old path.
It's in the very center of the picture.
(The flat area along the wall with the little posts)

The tour ends near the Frozen Niagara formation. This is the underside.

This is the face of Frozen Niagara

After the tour, I drove to Chattanooga, TN, which is about a 3.5 hour drive, plus an hour time zone difference. (Mammoth Cave is in the Central time zone while Chattanooga is in the Eastern time zone.)

So, the afternoon/evening was driving, checking into my hotel and finding food. Food this evening was at a place in downtown Chattanooga called "Community Pie" where I had pizza. It was really good and I would recommend it if you find yourself in Chattanooga, TN.

Pizza from Community Pie

Day 3

I stayed in Chattanooga for 2 nights (the only place I stayed more than a single night on this trip), so the plan was to visit Ruby Falls followed by the Tennessee Aquarium.

Ruby Falls was the most "touristy" of the caves I visited on this trip. There is an elevator down and then it's about a half mile walk through the cave to the falls, then it's a half mile walk back. There are a couple places where you take a different path back, but for the most part it's the same path.

Ruby Falls

After Ruby Falls, I visited the Tennessee Aquarium. The aquarium is in two separate buildings, one called "River Journey" and one called "Ocean Journey". Essentially, one building has freshwater creatures and the other has saltwater creatures. Both buildings are 4 stories tall and you take an escalator (or a couple escalators) to the fourth floor and work your way down.

I went and found food again after visiting the aquarium. I went to a place called Taco Mamacita. It has the same owners as Community Pie from the previous night and had good reviews. I think it's considered Tex-Mex. Here are the things that I will say about it: It was only barely related to anything that one would consider to be Mexican food. It was also really good, and I would definitely eat there again if I had the chance.

Black Bean Taco & Street Corn

Day 4

I left Chattanooga in the morning and drove about an hour and a half to The Lost Sea Adventure, which is another cave, but at the bottom of this one is the largest underground lake in the US. The tour is about an hour and 15 minutes and includes about 3/4 of a mile walking through the cave and a boat ride on the lake.
Large room in the cave

The Lost Sea

The fish weren't natural, but were introduced as an experiment.
Apparently, they thrive in the cave, but due to what the bottom of the lake is like, they don't really reproduce.

The Lost Sea is about halfway between Chattanooga and Pigeon Forge, and that was where I was headed this afternoon. We have been to Dollywood before, and when I was planning this trip, I decided to add a day at Dollywood to get in some rollercoaster time. When I was buying the ticket, it was only about $15 more for a two-day pass than a one-day pass, so I got the two-day and decided to spend this afternoon/evening in the park. I drove to Pigeon Forge, checked into my hotel and then headed over to the park. I rode 13 rides (it was 6 times on 1 ride (Wild Eagle), 3 times on another (Thunderhead), 2 times on a third and then 1 time each on two other rides). Side note: I haven't figured out the best way to say that. Maybe "I rode a total of 13 times on 5 different rides". Not sure.

I found food at the park and got a cupcake and then I passed by the line for Cinnamon Bread...

See that person in the distance in the bright red shirt?
They are almost inside the building. There's probably another 20 people in line in front of them.

After seeing what people were walking out of there with, I decided that there was no way that I handle Cinnamon Bread this particular evening and that I would plan on breaking my fast with it the next day. So I decided to do something a little smaller and lighter: a funnel cake. (Now you're probably super curious about what could make a funnel cake seem like the lighter option. Stay tuned.)

Funnel cake with strawberries

For Fall, Dollywood had this thing called "Great Pumpkin LumiNights". I guess it's kind of Halloween themed, but it's more specifically Jack-o-lantern themed.

Day 5

Today was my full day at Dollywood. The park opened at 10:00 and I arrived a few minutes after that. The crowds were light. (One thing I noticed the night before was that it seemed like a lot of people came for the lights so the park felt much more crowded in the evening than in the morning.) I decided to work my way around the park and ride each ride 5 times before moving on. I started with five rides on Thunderhead (wooden coaster), and got 4 rides on Dropline (drop tower) before it started raining really hard. I checked the weather radar and it looked like the storm would pass in 30-45 minutes so I decided to just wait it out. After that, I finished my 5th ride on Dropline and then went on to do 5 rides on Mystery Mine. Next was 5 rides each on Wild Eagle and FireChaser Express. My last set of 5 was on Tennessee Tornado. That was the bulk of my riding for the day, and now it was time for Cinnamon Bread.

It's like a huge cinnamon roll, but in loaf form

This is the inside. And yes, I ate the whole thing by myself.

After the Cinnamon Bread, I decided that I should probably get some real food, but I decided that I should walk around the park once first. So, I started walking. While I was walking, I walked past Dollywood's main show theater where the band Shenandoah was playing. The show was just beginning and the doors were still open, so I figured "Hey, what could be a better way to truly experience Dollywood than a Country concert?" (also a good way to recover from the Cinnamon Bread). After spending an hour there, I did decide to find some real food and then I went and rode a couple of rides that I hadn't done yet. So, in total I rode 32 times on 8 different rides.

I had a 2.5 hour drive to my next hotel, so I decided to head out around 6:30 or so.

My 2.5 hour drive ended up being longer than expected.

About 30 minutes north of Knoxville on I-75, traffic stopped. I still don't know exactly why, but I-75 Northbound was closed. I sat completely stopped for 3 hours before I was able to be directed off of the freeway and to a side road detour. It took another hour to make it through the detour. I got to my hotel in Somerset, KY at about 1:30AM.

Day 6

I decided to sleep in a bit and I ended up checking out of my hotel just before 11:00AM. I had an hour and a half drive back to Mammoth Cave for my tour at 2:15PM. However, I woke up in the Eastern time zone and was driving back to the Central time zone. So, I arrived in the Mammoth Cave area by around 11:30AM. I had some time to kill, so I decided to visit Diamond Caverns which is just outside of the National Park. It was a 1 hour tour that left at noon.

The entrance to Diamond Caverns

Diamond Caverns is a wet cave (unlike most of Mammoth, which is dry and no longer growing formations). It is a nice cave and was worth the visit.

Next up was the Violet City Lantern Tour at Mammoth Cave. This tour entered at the Historic entrance and went 3 miles to the Violet City entrance. The first mile or so of the tour covered a part of the cave that was on the Historic tour that I did on the first day, but that worked out well because it allowed me to get a different perspective of that part of the cave in the dark. The tour was a group of 24 people with 12 kerosene lanterns. I really enjoyed this tour and the perspective you got from what the cave would have looked like before there were lights everywhere.

The part of the cave covered by the Violet City Lantern Tour.

Getting ready for the tour

This is the same Star Chamber as above on the Historic Tour, but lit by lanterns.

Walking with lanterns.
Due to the way my phone takes low light photos,
this photo makes it look like the lanterns are a lot brighter than they actually were.

This short clip gives a better impression of the actual light level.

My lantern for a few hours.

Toward the end of the tour, one of the guides put a flashlight at the bottom of this waterfall.

Our bus back to the visitor's center.

After the tour, I drove about 2.5 hours to a hotel south of Nashville. On the way, I decided to stop by Schlotzsky's and got a giant sandwich. I also got some Carvel ice cream that they had there.

Schlotzsky's Giant size

Day 7

For my last day of the trip, I had plans to go to Cumberland Caverns and do their "Rocky Topper" tour. This was a different type of tour than my previous ones on this trip because this one didn't have walking paths. This tour required climbing up and down ladders, crawling through muddy passages, squeezing through tight parts of the cave and wearing a helmet and headlamp.

As it turned out, I was the only one on the tour for the day, so it was just me with my guide, Sebastian, who is 19 and in better shape than me... (There was another couple that was considering it, but after looking at the box that they ask you to crawl through, I overheard them say: "Yeah, that's not happening...") When I got there in the morning, they told me that it was a 1.5 to 2.5 hour tour depending on the speed of your group. Since it was only the two of us, we finished in a little over an hour.

It was a super fun, but also very tiring tour. I got pretty muddy, but had clothes and shoes to change into afterward and trash bags to pack my dirty clothes in for the flight home. More comments in the pictures below.

This is the box you needed to crawl though to confirm that you would be able to make it through the cave. There was another box similar to this one inside the cave that you needed to go through after you had your helmet on but before you actually started the tour for real. The box inside the cave was slightly larger than this one, by maybe an inch.

In the cave that day, there was a Youth Rally for various "Church of Christ" churches in the area.

Some of the easy parts.

A relatively narrow passage

One of the places we needed to crawl through.

A tighter crawl

After some of the previous crawls, this seemed super easy.

Dragon's back. This was a bit of a challenge to navigate, since you needed to walk along the ridge.

After the tour, I changed clothes, repacked everything and headed back toward Nashville to go to the airport. My flight wasn't until around 6:00PM and I would have been able to get there before 2:00PM, so I had some time to kill. I decided to find some food and found Sami's Brick Oven Pizzeria. They had a buffet with Pizza, Pasta and Salad. The salad was a basic salad bar. The pasta was nothing to write about, so I won't. The pizza, however, was really good. After that, I went to Culver's and had some ice cream (actually frozen custard).

The drive back to the airport, the rental car return and the flight home were all uneventful.

Overall it was an amazing trip. 

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