Note: This is part one of a three-part series looking back at previous Spring Break camping trips that our family has taken. Short camping trips over Spring Break has become our go-to for a short recharge before finishing the rest of the semester. After writing about our most recent trip to Bastrop State Park and Austin, I thought it would be good to look back at the other places we have camped during the week-long break. All pieces are part of a bigger writing project I have been working on for the last year.
Our first spring in Indianapolis, Jeff and I hadn’t made any plans for a spring break trip and we weren’t looking forward to just staying at home. Set building for the spring production of Cinderella was on hold for the week, and so we looked for something that we could do that would be quick, relatively cheap, and new.
We discovered Mammoth Cave National Park.
We had actually been interested in Mammoth Cave since we had planned our honeymoon to Tennessee several years earlier. We were looking for things to do while we were in the Smoky Mountains and one of the things that came up on a search of things to do in Kentucky and Tennessee was Mammoth Cave. We quickly learned that the two national parks were nowhere near each other and scrapped the idea of heading there altogether.
But now a quick trip to Kentucky was only about three hours from central Indiana, the pictures of the region looked beautiful, and we were ready to do some cave exploring. So we packed up our camping gear, our dog Sierra, and headed down south. We had made reservations at the national park lodge for our first night and got a spot for Sierra in the kennel that is located right across the parking lot from the lodge.
The next day we pitched our tent in the National Park campground, perfectly content with our electric-free campsite, and set out to explore the national park. Mammoth Cave National Park encompasses the world’s longest known cave system, with a total of 400 explored miles. People have been exploring and taking the public on tours through the cave for over 200 years, and it became a national park in 1941. During the two full days we were there we took a couple of different tours, enjoyed the peaceful quiet of our off-the-grid campsite in the national park, and planned for which tours we would want to take the next time we came to visit, and we did return for another visit when it was still just the two of us. The following year we returned for a nearly identical spring break trip. The truth was, it gave us a quick getaway for part of our spring break and forced me to take a mini-vacation while I was in the midst of production for the spring musical.
While we always said we wanted to return to the national park once we had kids, when we quit camping it just didn’t seem like the ideal trip anymore. Besides, we wanted to see different places and the timing just never seemed right for a return. For the next couple of years, if we did take a spring break trip to escape the remnants of winter, we headed much further south to guaranteed warmer temperatures and sunshine. But as with most things in our lives, buying our second camper lead to a complete shift in the way we viewed vacations, and this was true of our last spring break up north.
While we didn’t know for certain that the spring of 2015 was our last spring up north, we could see the writing on the wall. In the time since we had purchased our new camper, we still had not made the trek back to Mammoth Cave National Park, this time with our kids. We had intended to take our kids down to one of our favorite National Parks for a long time, but something told us that it was now or never, and so we packed up for an early spring adventure six hours south of home.
Because our goal is to visit as many new places as possible, it is frequently difficult to pick favorite trips and locations, even though we do have them. But the fact that we returned to Mammoth Cave National Park twice in our childless years (and then once in our parenting years) is a pretty clear indicator that we have a deep appreciation for both the national park and the surrounding area. We were also absolutely certain that our kids would love their experience in the park as much as we had on our previous two visits.
It had been a miserably cold winter, following a miserably snowy winter the year before. We thought that the venture into Kentucky would give us a break from the severe northern cold that still lingered into late March, but we woke up on our first morning at a KOA only to discover a frozen water hose and a stream of water coming from the water spigot of the camping spot across from us, the result of the previous camper pulling off their equipment without a proper shut off, probably because their equipment was frozen as well. Reassured that the freeze had not damaged any of our equipment, we threw on layers to prepare for changing temperatures throughout the day, ready to show our kids why we had fallen in love with Mammoth in our mid-20s.
The temperatures slowly climbed throughout the morning, and we made our first stop at the sign leading into the park so we could get a picture with our kids, commemorating their first trip to Mammoth Cave. At that particular parking spot, there is also a short hiking trail to Sand Cave, part of the elaborate cave network in the region but still set apart from the main national park. We took pictures at the welcome sign and then hiked down to the cave, reading the signs as we went.
It had been years since Jeff and I had been to the park, so there was a lot about the park trails that we didn’t remember. And with this particular trail, we had either skipped it altogether on our previous two trips or we had blocked it from our memory. The kids asked what the cave was and I started reading the long story about Floyd Collins, the entrepreneur who spelunked his way into Sand Cave and got himself stuck after his foot dislodged a 27-pound rock that trapped his ankle. Before I completely registered that I was reading a story about the untimely demise of an early Mammoth Cave explorer, I had already informed my children that the man named Floyd Collins had died in the cave nearly 90 years before our trip to the national park. Our children were enthralled by the story. Our three-year-old son spent the next two days asking every park ranger who would stop to listen if they would comment on the fate of Floyd Collins, and most of the park rangers, trained to talk about the cave system and not the history of a man who died exploring a different cave, didn’t know how to respond to our inquisitive little boy.
Lesson learned? Perhaps read signs for ourselves before reading them to our children.
Naturally, our first stop after the Floyd Collins debacle was the visitors center, which was completely new to us. I remembered that when we had last visited, there had been signs all over showing the vision for what the center would be and it appeared that the dream had been fulfilled. The four of us walked around, the kids trying to decipher the visuals while we read as quickly as possible before they ran off to the next display to push more buttons. While Jeff and I were eager to get on the first tour, we gave both kids the time that they needed to learn and explore before we headed underground.
We started our exploration of the national park on the Historic Tour, a two-mile walk through the traditional historic spots on the tour. Our daughter made friends with another little girl on the tour and it took everything to keep her with us so we didn’t lose her to an unexplored passage in one of the largest cave systems in the world. The two-mile hike through the cave explores multiple formations, a huge, naturally created open room near the entrance of the cave, passages both narrow and wide, and the spot where one particularly creative minister led his congregation for weekly Sunday services. Our kids took everything in, discovering the beauty that exists below the surface as well as above it.
The next day we took the Domes and Dripstones Tour in another section of the park away from the visitor’s center. The tour required a bus tour and took us down 500 narrow, steep stairs and three-quarters of a mile of passageways, past domes and pits that demonstrated the awesome formations throughout the cave system.
While we didn’t do a lot of walking, it was a lot of climbing for our three and five-year-old, and they welcomed a picnic lunch in the sunshine once we were back on the surface. After two days of cave hiking and climbing and exploring, our exhausted kids gladly agreed to an afternoon of traveling in the truck as we headed to Abraham Lincoln’s Birthplace so all of us could get another National Parks Passport stamp. We had gotten both of the kids their own passport books on a previous trip to the Smoky Mountains and they had already learned the excitement of filling up their own books with new places and experiences.
We arrived at Lincoln’s Birthplace an hour before close. We hesitated to get copies of the Junior Ranger booklets for both kids, especially since we didn’t have much time, but we picked them up anyway, viewed the memorial with a replica of Abraham Lincoln’s cabin when he was a little boy, and stretched our legs around the grounds. We had also decided to take our new puppy, Bella, with us on the excursion so that she could be with the family and stretch her legs around the grounds, especially since we discovered that keeping her penned up in the camper was not going to work as well as we had hoped, especially since she had broken out of the nylon crate we had purchased specifically for the trip, twice.
The kids finished their Junior Ranger tasks just in time to get sworn in as Junior Rangers at Abraham Lincoln’s Birthplace and then we headed back towards our campsite. We wrapped up our trip to Mammoth enjoying the activities at the campground. We made dinner, Jeff broke out the fishing poles and took the kids fishing at the campground’s fishing pond, I walked Bella around the campground as many times as she would let me while the rest of the family fished, and we made the perfect s’more making campfire.
We headed home just in time, facing rain and high winds as we traveled back towards Fort Wayne. Jeff gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles and I repeatedly asked the kids to sit quietly while we worked through the nasty weather and the beginning of spring construction in southern Indiana. In many ways, we were still traveling rookies, and this was the longest trip we had ever attempted with our kids while hauling our camper. And during storms, high winds, traffic, and construction, my stress level raises to match my normally even-keeled husband, the two of us competing for who is more high strung at any given moment. Since I’m used to my husband being the less reactive parent, watching him nervously captain our truck sends my normally low blood pressure through the roof. It’s during these times that the rest and relaxation we have achieved from our time away suddenly goes out the window.
We finally got out of the rain and wind. As we approached our old exit in Indianapolis, we noticed smoke coming from the right side of our camper. We pulled off at the exit to investigate, only to discover that a piece of the brake had come loose while we were bouncing around the construction zones earlier in our trip. We were upset that a piece of our camper had gotten loose when it should have been secure and we were upset that it had seriously damaged a tire. We went to the closest RV dealer (thankfully there was one right off the of the exit) and they were able to get us a new tire to replace the shredded one. It appeared that even with the questionable brake situation we would be able to get home, but the tension inside the truck increased even more as we slowly made our way up the last 120 miles of our trip.
Within the next month, the repair was completed and we were ready to hit the road again. Despite the traveling issues that we had on our way home, we were happy we had opted for the quick spring break trip. After a long winter, we needed to be reminded why we loved being outside and we needed to do it together. Both kids returned with a new love for caves and our son, with as much articulation as a nearly four-year-old boy could muster, tried to explain the fate of Floyd Collins to his pre-school teacher, prompting to her ask us what exactly he was talking about. And while most of the memories of the trip began to fade for our kids, Jeff and I held on to the memories for the rest of the family, which made the trip, rain and wind and brake issues included, worth our time.
We Keep Returning to Mammoth Cave – Mission: Wanderlust
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