The Magic and Mystery of Mammoth
Two years after the end of the Civil War, naturalist John Muir set out on what he called his “thousand-mile walk” from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico, finding along his route Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave.
He was, simply, awed.
More than 150 years since Muir noted its grandeur, Mammoth Cave continues to inspire, educate and even empower the two million visitors the U.S. Department of the Interior estimates visit the park each year.
“What makes the cave so special? Well, everything,” said Amber Flowers with a laugh.
Flowers grew up near the cave and now serves as a board member with the Friends of Mammoth Cave, a nonprofit, volunteer organization that provides everything from time for outreach and educational efforts, to monetary donations.
As one of the country’s few designated UNESCO Heritage sites, and the closest one to Indiana, the cave boasts more than 400 miles of explored and mapped routes. It’s the longest-known cave system in the world, and according to the National Park Service, is also home to more than 130 animal species — 70 of which are threatened or endangered.
“I’ve always had a love for Mammoth Cave. There’s so much beauty there, above ground and below,” Flowers said.
Visitors to Mammoth Cave, named a national park in 1941, can take a self-guided historic tour, or guided tours that range from easy to strenuously challenging. While COVID-19 restrictions have somewhat limited what is available, rangers are providing tours. Visitors should plan ahead before making a visit to reserve the option best for them.
“Every tour is worth the trip,” Flowers said. “There’s always something new to see. And other than the sound of water dropping, it’s completely silent. It’s surreal. So peaceful. It’s a whole other world underground.”
Beauty and barbeque
Though she’s been there more times than she can recall, the cave is a world wonder that native Kentuckian and local businesswoman Tina Walden never tires of.
“It truly is breathtaking.”
As a teenager, Walden had a part-time job at the park and grew up in the shadow of the cave. But as an adult she moved away from the region to make a home in Indianapolis. After several years of running a successful food truck concession that was popular on the county fair and motocross racing circuit, Tina and her husband Jason started a catering company.
“We always cooked for our church,” Tina Walden said. “It was actually people from our church who encouraged us.”
In 2015, the family had a chance to move back to Kentucky to be near Tina’s mom. They soon decided to make their mobile operation from Indiana a permanent commitment once they got back home.
“On Nov. 10, 2015, we opened our doors to Brownsville,” said Walden. “At first we thought, ‘Hey, we bit off more than we could chew.’ It took us awhile to get the hang of it.”
But if online ratings from customers are any indication, Walden’s Barbeque has moved beyond the jitters of those early days to become a destination eatery for locals and visitors alike.
“Everything is homemade,” Walden said. “We smoke our own meat and make all our own sides.”
The nearness of not only Mammoth Cave, but other outdoor recreational opportunities like Nolin Lake State Park mean there’s no shortage of guests. The challenges of COVID-19 have boosted the family’s already-high carryout traffic, but when the food is gone for the day, it’s gone.
“It’s humbling to hear people and read the reviews,” Walden said. “We never thought, ever, that we would see that.”
Go for the cave, stay for the quiet
The Waldens aren’t alone in finding themselves in an unexpected reality.
Tina Burr said she and her husband Bill “fell into” running Serenity Hill, the bed and breakfast they bought in 2018. The pair went looking for a home that would provide them a quiet place to make the most of all the natural beauty that surrounds the area. The found it in Serenity Hill.
“I fell in love with the place as soon as I was driving up, and even more so when I entered the home,” Burr said. “I absolutely loved everything about this place.”
Though they hadn’t planned on buying a business, the couple nevertheless began welcoming guests from all over the world to their home which is minutes from the park, or about a half hour from shopping, antiquing and dining options in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
It’s also a great place, Burr said, to just “sit on the porch or by the firepit.”
Although the couple had never owned or operated a bed and breakfast before, Burr said now she can’t imagine any other life.
“Getting to speak with guests, I get to know more about their culture, as well as they get to know a little bit of our culture,” she said. “I wish that I would have done this sooner because I love it so much.”
That’s a feeling echoed by Tina Walden, especially when she thinks about how — and where — her family is building a legacy.
“When I brought my kids back to Mammoth, they were just in awe when they got to go through it and see it,” she said. “It’s an amazing place, and it’s an honor to live by it and to have a business by it.”
If you go:
Mammoth Cave National Park
The park is open all year, but due to COVID-19, tour times are limited. There are no fees to enter the park, but tour prices vary. To schedule a guided tour of the cave, visit https://www.nps.gov/maca or call (270) 758-2180.
Nolin Lake State Park
The park is open all year, including for camping though some amenities may be limited due to the weather. The park features a 9-mile hiking trail, mountain biking and birding among other activities.
The restaurant is open Tuesdays through Saturdays. For times, prices and additional information about Walden’s Barbeque, call (270) 597-2001.
For information about Serenity Hill, visit www.serenityhillbedandbreakfast.com or call (270) 597-9647.