Trail of the Month: August 2012
Kentucky is perhaps best known for its horses, bluegrass and bourbon, but beneath the rolling hills of the state's Green River valley lies a natural treasure unmatched in the world: Mammoth Cave. With 390 miles of passages, it's the world's longest cave, more than double the length of its closest competitor. And now, thanks to the nine-mile Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike & Hike Trail, this geologic wonder is accessible by rail-trail.
Named for its massive size (and not wooly mammoth fossils, which have not been found there), the cave is one of the oldest tourist attractions in the country. It was so successful in the 1920s, in fact, that a number of brazen opportunists used underhanded methods—such as misleading road signs and tour hecklers—to lure tourists to other lesser-known caves in the vicinity. This bitter competition for tourism dollars was known as the "Cave Wars."
But long before tourists arrived in their Model Ts, the cave was accessible by stagecoach. That wagon route, stretching from the cave's gateway to Park City in south-central Kentucky, eventually became the basis for the Mammoth Cave Railroad, which branched off the Louisville and Nashville Railroad.
The Mammoth Cave Railroad was privately owned by entrepreneurs who also owned lodging along the way. Its railroad ties were put in place during the summer of 1886 and, by that fall, two- and three-car trains were barreling down the corridor. Mail was also carried by the train, and the Chaumont Post Office was included among the many stops during the short, 25-minute journey between Park City and the cave.
"The train was very precise; you knew within two to three minutes of when that train would be stopping," says Norman Warnell, a local historian who researched the trail's railroad past for several exhibits. "Old timers would swear that you could set your clock by it."
Trains continued on the line—two trips daily (except in winter)—for more than 40 years before service finally ended, largely pushed out by the rise of the automobile. In 1936, the rails were removed, but one of the last engines, dubbed Hercules for its pulling power, can still be seen today just south of the park's visitor center. Formally a streetcar, Hercules was converted for use on the narrow-gauge railroad and is shown pulling a train car in the line's hallmark red color.
The route's new life as a rail-trail has been considerably shorter, but the pathway has been an incredible asset to the thousands of cyclists and hikers that visit the park each year. The first five miles of the trail opened in 2005, beginning at the northern outskirts of Park City (known as Glasgow Junction in the railroad's heyday), where you can explore the old stone structure of the stagecoach stop at Bell's Tavern, built in the early 1800s. At Sloan's Crossing, the trail ended; here, a wooden trestle once stood, but now a wooden boardwalk circles a small scenic pond. Two years later in 2007, four more miles were added, completing the trail and taking travelers deeper into the forests of Mammoth Cave National Park.
"It's not your typical rail-trail," says Keith Lovan, chairman of the Kentucky Rails to Trails Council's board of directors. "It's quite hilly, so it's a different experience. I went with my daughter and the trail made the whole week enjoyable. It's a great family outing because there are lots of things to do."
At nine miles, it's currently the longest rail-trail in Kentucky. That may not seem like too much, but a new surge of trail development is under way across the state.
"We're building on the successes of the trails in Lexington and Louisville," says Lovan. "There's more interest in trails now than there's ever been in the last 30 years."
Currently, the state has just more than 50 miles of rail-trail. So when the proposed 36-mile Dawkins Line, announced by Governor Steve Beshear last summer, is completed, it will be a significant addition. The trail, running through three counties in eastern Kentucky, is expected to provide a sizeable economic boost to the region. With 35 trestles and two railroad tunnels, there is much to do to get the rail-trail ready for public use, but an engineering firm has been contracted and the design work is in progress.
"The Dawkins Line is a demonstration project," says Russell Clark, a community planner with the National Park Service's Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program. "It will serve as a model for other rail-trail projects."
With recent reports showing Kentucky with one the highest rates of obesity in the nation, the push for more active lifestyles and healthier communities in the state is growing. For the first time, a statewide bike and pedestrian summit is in the works. Planned for the spring of 2013, the multi-day conference will offer technical workshops, expert speakers and networking opportunities for professionals, advocates and government officials on relevant topics, such as trail development.
Luckily, conference-goers won't have to look far for success stories, as the rail-trail at Mammoth Cave is seen as a recreational gem for the state. The trail and its immediate surroundings are rich with opportunities to hike, bike, ride horseback, canoe, fish, camp and go cave exploring.
"The trail is an asset to the area," says Warnell, "but the people on it aren't just going to visit the cave. They're locals, just enjoying being out."
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