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From the Mississippi River to the Appalachian Mountains, Kentucky traverses a wide range of landforms, history, and beauty. We’ll take you from the Ohio River banks and the “Quilt capital” of Paducah to the stunning, extensive cave systems around the appropriately-named Cave City. Along the way: universities, Corvette heaven, tall monuments, Civil War history, outdoor recreation and underground adventures, and more. Let’s check out western and southern Kentucky on our Best Western “Quilts to Caves” Tour!
Start the tour in Paducah, where it made perfect sense to start a city given that the land is right at the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio rivers. Goods loaded onto boats in northern Alabama and Nashville, Tennessee can make their way past Paducah and head up to Pittsburgh via the Ohio, or south via the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.
Conversely, boats and ships heading south from Paducah can also use the Tennessee River, Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and the Tombigbee River to Mobile, Alabama to access the Gulf. Paducah is quite the crossroads, for river traffic as well as highways. I-24 and U.S. Highways 45, 60, and 62 all meet here. The Best Western Paducah Inn offers easy connections to downtown Paducah and other points in Kentucky right along I-24, across the highway from the Four Rivers Harley-Davidson dealership.
By the way, if you’re reaching Paducah via I-24 (as many people do), check out the Whitehaven Welcome Center at Exit 7, perhaps one of the most beautiful rest areas and welcome centers in the United States. That’s because Whitehaven isn’t a typical Interstate rest area; flowering trees front a graceful Victorian mansion built in the 1860s. Restored in the 1980s, tours of the mansion are offered daily between 1 and 4pm. Stained glass, authentic period furniture, mirrors creating an “infinity” effect, and more can be enjoyed on the tour while you can load up on pamphlets about local and state attractions in the Welcome Center on the first floor. The Whitehaven Welcome Center is on the southwest edge of town.
Paducah itself was actually laid out in 1827 by William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame, who inherited the deed for the land from his brother. For a $5 transfer fee, Lewis had himself a town which he named it after the local Native American tribe, the Padouca Indians. Boom and bust periods mirroring the ups-and-downs of river shipping and industry have had significant effects on Paducah; the city today has 25,000 residents and surrounding towns and counties make Paducah the center for about 100,000 people.
The Paducah Riverwalk is a pleasant path along the Ohio; views of the river, the city, and the colorful, creative Floodwall Murals give you a vivid look at the city’s past, present, and future – while providing major flood protection for downtown. The Riverwalk and murals run along Water Street – which runs along the banks of the Ohio – between Jefferson and Washington streets.
On the west edge of downtown is the city’s most-visited attraction: the National Quilt Museum. Opened in 1991, the museum lays claim to exhibiting the finest quilting and fiber art in the world; it’s definitely the largest. The Museum draws quilters and fans from across the nation and over 40 countries each year who enjoy its blend of permanent and temporary exhibits. You’ll probably never be cold in there, since there’s always something available to warm up with. We could say the National Quilt Museum is a real stitch, but jokes like that are just sew-sew. But seriously folks, even if you’re not a traditional fan of quilting the artful designs in this museum are truly impressive. In front of the museum, check out the Lewis & Clark statue in a salute to the city’s founding like we described earlier.
In the heart of downtown between the Floodwall Murals and the National Quilt Museum lies Old Paducah. Lined with beautiful buildings – most from the late 19th century – Old Paducah has been reborn as an arts and crafts center, along with many restaurants, boutiques, and museums. The River Discovery Center along Water Street sits inside the city’s oldest building, right across from the murals on Water Street. The Center vigorously explores the oft-overlooked inland waterways across the region and the nation, calling them “America’s Hidden Highways.” A number of interactive exhibits, including impressive replicas of riverboats and ships, will pique the interest of the whole family.
Plenty of shops and restaurants line the streets into Old Paducah, and tucked in the middle of all this is the William Clark Market House Museum, a bevy of exhibits and artifacts…much of which is on display within a re-creation of an 1870s drugstore. In the same building facing Broadway, you’ll find the cozy Yeiser Art Center, which mixes the city’s history with art, which of it fabric art. Lining the side streets are shops, restaurants, and the Glisson Vineyards & Winery (124 Market House Square, 270-495-9463), which offers wines from locally-grown grapes ranging from dry to semi-sweet.
On the other side, Kentucky Street features a real Mikado steam locomotive next to the Floodwall Murals at Water Street; you can access the Market House Museum along Kentucky Street as well as the Carson Four Rivers Center, Paducah’s main center for concerts, performing arts, and other events. A few blocks down, the Lloyd Tilghman House & Civil War Museum is – as you might guess – both the former house of a guy named Lloyd Tilghman (a Civil War general) and a museum focused on the complex role Paducah and western Kentucky played in the Civil War. The Greek Revival home was built in 1852 and was restored in 1998; the museum is open March-November, noon to 4 p.m. on Wednesday through Saturday.
For racing, the Paducah International Raceway's 3/8th Mile high banked dirt track hosts regular Friday night races featuring UMP Modifieds, Pro Late Models, Stock Cars, and Four Cylinder Warriors. Built in 1972, the track was purchased by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kenny Schrader, and Tony Stewart back in 2006; it lies just south of town. Also just south of town along old U.S. 45 is the Purple Toad Winery, located on vineyards in the gentle hills outside Paducah. They offer tours of the vine-growing area and then tastings of their wines, which range from sweet to dry.
From Paducah, head east on I-24 to the southbound Purchase Parkway, one of nine freeway-like parkways Kentucky built in the 1960s and 1970s to improve access throughout the state, and in the near future it will become part of I-69, which is being extended from Indianapolis southwest to Mexico. The Purchase Parkway was named for the Jackson Purchase, the 1818 transaction where President Andrew Jackson paid the native Chickasaw Indians for the land in western Kentucky bordered by the Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee Rivers, bringing it under definitive U.S. control. Now officially named the Julian Carroll Purchase Parkway after a former Kentucky governor who hailed from the region, it runs from U.S. 62 in Calvert City southwest towards Tennessee.
Fans of dams might want to dart north on the Purchase Parkway briefly to U.S. 62 and head east to check out Kentucky Dam. Completed in 1944, the dam impounds Kentucky Lake along the Tennessee River 22 miles from its mouth at the Ohio River near Paducah. Kentucky Lake is huge; it extends south 184 miles well into Tennessee and is the largest artificial lake by surface area in the eastern United States. Running parallel to the east is Lake Barkley, created from the Cumberland River. The area in between is called “Land Between the Lakes,” and we’ll explore it shortly. The Kentucky Dam itself is 206 feet high (the top half sticks above the water) and runs an impressive 8,422 feet long – that’s about 1.6 miles! Part of the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) system, there is a Visitor Center offering plenty of information about the dam and the lakes it created – call (270) 362-4221 for details.
For the Tour, follow the Purchase Parkway south from I-24 (U.S. 641 south is an alternate is you’re coming from the dam) into Benton, the seat of Marshall County and home to the famous Tater Day, one of the oldest festivals in Kentucky. Dating back to 1843, it’s also considered the oldest continuous “trade day” in the U.S., where people from around the area converge to trade goods. The festival adds rides, games, parades, and a contest for “largest potato” which draws taters from nationwide entrants. Another Benton tradition is Big Singing Day, an annual Memorial Day weekend event that has drawn in sharp-singers crooning from the Southern Harmony tunebook annually since 1884. Just north of Benton along U.S. 641 near U.S. 68 and the Purchase Parkway, you’ll find the Kentucky Opry Country Music Variety Show, a family entertainment venue that’s like a mix of Nashville and Branson.
Continue the Tour south from Benton by leaving the Purchase Parkway and following U.S. 641 and past the junction with KY Highway 80 southward into Murray. On the north end of town, “Circus Skate” and its old-school sign may catch your eye; the sign says it’s “largest in USA” although it’s likely just the largest in western Kentucky. This city of 17,000 is home to Murray State University, which was established in 1922 and enjoys consistent high rankings among top regional four-year public universities in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” listings. The student body of 11,000 carts books and laptops around a 260-acre campus with the Quadrangle on the south end, crowned by the original administration building, which is now the Wrather West Kentucky Museum. This free museum showcases the history and culture of western Kentucky and the Jackson Purchase region with a series of changing exhibits.
Near campus you’ll find The Arboretum, featuring two miles of walking trails through some of western Kentucky’s most diverse plant collections among woodlands, prairie, savannahs, and wetlands. Murray State cheers for its Racers in football at 17,000-seat Roy Stewart Stadium, one of the largest stadiums in the Ohio Valley Conference. Basketball and other sports and events are held at the CFSB Center, a state-of-the-art arena with 8,600 seats that is locally known as “The Bank.” Downtown Murray has a thriving Main Street district, thanks in large part to the University. On the north end of town along U.S. 641, the Best Western University Inn gives you a great place to stay after checking out the campus or enjoying a Racers game!
From Murray, head back north a few miles on U.S. 641 and then turn east on KY Highway 80, a major four-lane highway that runs across the southern length of the state. Highway 80 brings you back to the Tennessee River, which here is still Kentucky Lake – the same lake with Kentucky Dam and its northern end. Since 1932, Highway 80 has crossed the Tennessee River on the Eggner’s Ferry Bridge, which pre-dated Kentucky Lake’s planning and creation. The bridge had to be lifted and given new pilings to accommodate the new lake; it has been carrying traffic on its narrow two lanes ever since. A newer, wider, higher bridge is under construction to replace it, so if you like old bridges, enjoy this one while you can.
On the other side is Land Between the Lakes, and the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area(NRA). The formation of Kentucky and Barkley Lakes created the largest inland peninsula in the country; Kentucky Dam is to the north and the only land outlet is into Tennessee well to the south. Designated in 1963, the Land Between the Lakes NRA features over 200 miles of trails, great fishing, mountain biking, and hunting.
Highway 80 (which is coupled with U.S. 68 along this stretch) cuts through the area on a four-lane highway; the first exit is The Trace, a 45-mile road that runs much of the north-south length of the peninsula. At the junction you’ll find the Golden Pond Visitor Center & Planetarium, which provides a plethora of information about the area, an interesting interpretive center, and – for a small fee – a planetarium offering shows about space exploration and the sky, which at night around here is filled with stars. Further south about 11 miles on the Trace you’ll find The Homeplace, a living history farm depicting the 1850s complete with fields, blacksmithing, crops, cribs, a tobacco barn, horse and chicken barns, an orchard, and more; call (931) 232-6457 for hours and details.
Continuing east on U.S. 68/Highway 80 through Land Between the Lakes will take you to the other lake, Lake Barkley. While smaller than Kentucky Lake, it’s still 134 miles long with over 1,000 miles of shoreline. Barkley has more colorful banks though, since some of the rock quarry walls along its banks rise 50 feet and are covered with colorful spray paintings – some of which are quite artistic; others, not. The quarry rocks are also popular with people who live to jump or dive into the lake from atop the rocks, which admittedly isn’t for everybody!
Crossing Lake Barkley, we head through Canton and then eight miles into Cadiz, a small town noted for antique shops lining Main Street downtown (today’s U.S. 68/Hwy 80 functions as a bypass, so be sure to follow Business U.S. 68 into town if you want to check it out). Places like the Cadiz Antique Mall, Cherokee Antique Mall, Loose Treasures and more are all in town and draw visitors from a wide area.
East of Cadiz, we cross I-24 and continue east to Hopkinsville, a city of 31,000 wedged between I-24 and the Pennyrile Parkway, another one of Kentucky’s parkways. Heavy balls are big in Hopkinsville; it is home to Ebonite International, one of the first (and still one of the largest) bowling ball manufacturers in the United States. The downtown area lies at the junctions of U.S. 41 and 68 and Highway 80 and is filled with busy storefronts, craft shops, and eateries including Ferrell’s Snappy Service, a local institution dishing up burgers and chili since 1936. For a show, The Alhambra is a classic theatre venue that opened in 1928 and still shows classic films.
Downtown Hopkinsville offers several walking tours, including one tracing the roots and boyhood haunts of clairvoyant native son and “founder of holistic medicine” Edgar Cayce. There is also an African-American History Cell Phone Tour and a Downtown Walking Tour illustrating the history and architecture behind many of the buildings. Along these walks, or just driving around town, several museums beckon. Ninth Street in particular is chock full of them: the Pennyroyal Area Museum is housed in the former post office, showing more on Edgar Cayce, African American history, and featuring a safe inside the building with its original gold leaf U.S. seal.
Recognizable by its crowning clock tower, the Woody Winfree Fire-Transportation Museum offers classic cars as far back as 1909 and original fire engines and pumpers dating back to the 1920s. To hear a different honking of horns, Kentucky’s only circus museum next door on Ninth: the Charles Jackson Circus Museum. Filled with Ringling Brothers memorabilia and once-private collections of trains, antique toys, clowns, posters and more, the whole family can have fun checking out the exhibits or admiring themselves in the funhouse mirror.
Hopkinsville lies along the historic Trail of Tears; along Pembroke Road in town you’ll find the Trail of Tears Commemorative Park and Heritage Center. While the Trail of Tears was a long route, this park is one of the few documented sites featuring actual trail and campsites used during the forced removal of the Cherokees to "Indian Territory". It was used as an encampment in 1838 and 1839. An annual intertribal Powwow takes place at the park in September after the weekend after Labor Day.
Nature enthusiasts will enjoy the Jeffers Bend Environmental Center & Botanical Garden, which takes advantage of a spot along the Little River to combine grasslands, a lake, nearly three miles of walking trails and buildings that once housed the local water treatment plant all spread across 40 acres. Divers can take advantage of Pennyroyal Scuba at Blue Springs Resort, which uses a beautiful 22 acre rock quarry lake in town; they even offer scuba training at this facility you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in Kentucky. On the edge of town you’ll find Amazing Acres, a working farm – primarily tobacco – with heritage activities and events. You can churn butter, study a beehive, sew, enjoy a hayride, and just enjoy the countryside.
Along the Pennyrile Parkway you’ll find the Best Western Hopkinsville; a little further southeast from Hopkinsville you can enjoy true Kentucky wines at the Bravard Vineyards & Winery. The winery opened in 1992; their wines are available throughout the state but here you can check out everything at the source.
From Hopkinsville, continue east on U.S. 68/Highway 80. Right by the Christian-Todd County Line, you’ll see the Washington Monument’s doppelganger just to the south. What you’re gazing upon is the Jefferson Davis Monument, a 351-foot concrete obelisk that commemorates the only president of the Confederacy; he was born on this site in 1808. Construction of the impressive monument began back in 1917 with a base of Kentucky limestone; today, you can take an elevator to the top for a picturesque view of the Kentucky countryside. The Visitors Center offers plenty of information, including a movie, about Davis’ personal and political life – and of course they have a gift shop. A playground and picnic shelters are also on the grounds; overall, it’s a good place to stop, observe, and spend a little time.
Further east along U.S. 68/Highway 80 (which not coincidentally is also called the Jefferson Davis Highway here) is Russellville, a town of 7,000 at the intersection with U.S. 431. Originally named Logan Court House after the county of which it is the seat, this town has produced four Kentucky governors.
Trivia: During the Civil War Russellville and this area of Kentucky experienced a lot of political wrangling and even announced secession from the Union, despite the whole state (well, technically commonwealth) declining secession. This event, known as the Russellville Convention, established a “shadow government” that the Confederacy admitted; it was represented by the 13th star on the Confederate flag.
If you travel through downtown Russellville, check out the large mural on the city square depicting a bank robbery in 1868 that involved former Confederate guerillas and, legend has it, Jesse James. The robbery is reenacted each year during Russellville’s Tobacco and Heritage Festival. While there, you can tour the 1817 Saddle Factory, an original factory building (possibly the oldest one in Kentucky) where they made saddles, bridles, shoes, and other leather products. The weather vane featured in the museum sports bullet holes rumored to have come from Jesse James’ gang during the 1868 bank robbery.
The tour begins in the Historic Russellville Visitor Center at 280 East 4th Street, on the corner at Breathitt Street. Nearby on 6th Street is the West Kentucky African-American Heritage Center, a complex of older homes including the oldest brick house still standing the county (1810) and the former home of Logan County-born Alice Allison Dunnigan, who became the first African-American female member of the White House Press Corps. This and three other homes feature a series of exhibits, some rotating, showcasing the lives and heritage of African-Americans in the county and region. Further over along 8th Street, the Bibb House Museum was the home of Revolutionary War Major Richard Bibb, who freed his slaves in 1829, 1833, and 1839 (apparently he felt it should be done in stages) – a truly revolutionary thing to do there at the time. In the lovely Palladian-style home, built around 1820, you’ll find the “Slavery to Freedom” exhibit, authentic period furniture, and other antiques.
From Russellville, turn southeast by connecting to scenic KY Highway 100, ambling across the rolling countryside in Logan and Simpson counties. This leads you to Franklin, a city of 8,400 residents that serves as the Simpson County seat. The town was founded in 1820 and named for Benjamin Franklin, not an unusual activity at the time (hence, cities named “Franklin” in about 30 states).
The Historic Downtown features a series of popular antique shops and malls; try Bright’s Antique World, Heritage Antique Mall, or Strictly Country Antique Mall in and around town and you might unearth a nice old treasure. In the downtown district, the Old Stone Jail & Simpson County Archives and Museum offers a look at “pioneer justice,” as they describe it. Included in the museum along with archives and nicely preserved old court papers are three Confederate generals depicted in graffiti drawn on the wall by prisoners awaiting trial.
Franklin is where Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash got hitched in 1968, and where PGA golfer Kenny Perry was born and raised. Perry has since returned to Franklin where he designed and owns Kenny Perry’s Country Creek Golf Course, a popular course open to the public. The course is just off Exit 2 along I-65, just north of the Kentucky-Tennessee state line; bordering the line along U.S. 31W is the famous Kentucky Downs, home to the only European-style thoroughbred horse race course in the United States; it features three turns (including one to the right) along its 1.4-mile course. All turf, the track hosts races in September and otherwise periodically; Instant Racing terminals are also available for those who wish to place some bets. Nearby is an actual drive-in movie theater still showing first-run movies: the Franklin Drive-In is also along U.S. 31W right by the state line. Right by all of this at the junction of I-65 and U.S. 31W (Exit 2) is the Best Western Franklin Inn, conveniently located with easy access to everything.
From Franklin proper, head north on U.S. 31W; it follows the path of the historic old Nashville Road. A few miles north you’ll find the Octagon Hall Museum, consisting of an octagon-shaped home constructed during the 1850s when eight-sided homes were a popular style if you were going for something different at the time. While serving as a private home most of its existence, during the Civil War it served as a sanctuary and hospital. Today, the Octagon Hall Museum offers hands-on living history exhibits, tours of the interior and grounds, historic photographs (yes, there are rumors the place is haunted), and Civil War re-enactments.
The old Nashville Road – today’s U.S. 31W – heads up to Bowling Green. A growing burg with just over 60,000 residents, Bowling Green is the third largest city in Kentucky after Louisville and Lexington. This is a city that makes things, including underwear (Fruit of the Loom is based here) and Corvettes (more than that shortly.) Other major companies like Camping World and sports equipment manufacturer Russell Brands call Bowling Green home, too.
Trivia: Bowling Green was the provisional capital of Confederate Kentucky during the Civil War; it still has a government center, though; it’s the seat of Warren County.
Bowling Green contains Kentucky’s second-largest public university, Western Kentucky University (WKU). Their sports teams are known as the Hilltoppers, which makes sense given the campus is centered atop a hill overlooking the Barren River valley. WKU’s sizable campus, which spreads down the hill in all directions, hosts 21,000 students across a variety of colleges. Some live in the Pearce Ford Tower, a 27-story, 332-foot residence hall that is tallest in Kentucky and second tallest in the nation. The WKU Hilltoppers play football at 22,000-seat Houches Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium and the E.A. Diddle Arena hosts basketball as well as other sports, events, and concerts; both are along the Avenue of Champions on campus. The unmistakable mascot “Big Red,” essentially a big furry – but supposedly cuddly – blob is known nationwide and the first inductee to the Capital One Mascot Challenge Hall of Fame. You never know when Big Red is wandering around campus or at events.
Along with collegiate sports, Bowling Green enjoy pro baseball on the “A”-level in the Midwest League with the Bowling Green Hot Rods, an affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays. They play at Bowling Green Ballpark downtown, which has 4,600 seats and can crowd in additional spectators. The park opened in 2009 and features suites, a party deck, and more.
In Downtown Bowling Green, Fountain Square and some of the surrounding neighborhoods are filled with architecture and history; Fountain Square Park itself boasts a series of eclectic restaurants and shops, art galleries, and more. A walking tour of places like the ShakeRag Historic District provides insight into an early African-American neighborhood. Plenty of cultural facilities complement WKU’s offerings: the SKyPAC (Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center) is downtown on College Street.
By Fountain Square Park, the Capitol Arts Center serves as an 800-seat auditorium and art galleries in what was previously a performance house and theatre opened in 1890 and re-done in Art Deco style in 1930. On the same Main Street block, the Corsair Distillery offers locally-distilled beverages in the heart of the Kentucky and Tennessee “distillery country.” Along Kentucky Street on the WKU campus the 80,000 square foot Kentucky Museum has exhibits like “Instruments of American Excellence,” “A Star in Each Flag: Conflict in Kentucky” that showcases the Civil War, and “Recommended by Duncan Hines,” following the career of Bowling Green-born Duncan Hines to his famous role as king of cake mixes.
Also in the city the Historic Railpark & Train Museum features two stories of interactive exhibits, vintage railcars, and more in the former Louisville and Nashville Railroad Station, built in 1925. Further out in Basil Griffin Park, Aviation Heritage Park does a remarkable job showcasing aviation heritage and displaying five historically significant planes: an F-111 Aardvark, a Grumman Panther 9F, a Lockheed Shooting Star, NASA T-38 Talon, and a Phantom 550. Also affiliated with WKU is the Downing Museum at Baker Arboretum, which showcases a variety of artwork amidst an arboretum covering 15 acres along a ridge overlooking town and the campus. You’ll find everything from dogwoods to Japanese maples and a variety of flowering trees here.
On the south side of town is the first cave of many coming on the Tour: Lost River Cave, Kentucky’s only underground boat tour. The tour, which says that Ripley's Believe It or Not claims is the shortest and deepest in the world, offers natural wonders and stories of Native Americans, European settlers, Civil War troops, and more in a constant 57-degree environment. And more caves will follow on the Quilts to Caves Tour… so be ready! When it’s warmer outside, Beech Bend & Splash Lagoon Amusement Park offers waterpark and roller coaster fun with free parking and soft drinks (and they don’t gouge you on general admission, either.)
Bowling Green became the home for Corvette manufacturing when General Motors moved production from St. Louis in 1981. The massive GM Corvette Assembly Plant covers the equivalent of 17 football fields and is offering tours once again, where you cover a mile on foot. New tour times are Monday-Friday at 8:30am, 11:30am, and 1:00pm. Don’t forget Bowling Green is on Central time!
Across the street is the famous National Corvette Museum, a shrine to Corvettes that opened in 1994. Hundreds of Corvettes, exhibits and displays, and a Hall of Fame can be toured and enjoyed in the museum, which is open year-round except major holidays. The early morning of February 12, 2014, the Skydome area of the museum famously developed a sinkhole that swallowed up eight rare Corvettes; some are being restored and returned to display, while some that were totaled can be still be seen – it’s a quite a crazy sight. The National Corvette Museum is definitely worth a stop regardless of whether or not you’re a Corvette – or even a sports car – enthusiast. It is located right along I-65 at Exit 28, which provides quick access to our next destination: an area full of underground exploration.
From Bowling Green and all the Corvette love, hop on I-65 and head north 20 miles to Exit 48, which leads you to KY Highway and a slew of caves to finish our Tour. Basically this is Kentucky’s “Cave Country”; there is as much to do underground here as above ground. Plenty of lakes and rivers amidst the hilly setting makes for tremendous fishing, boating, canoeing, and water recreation but all the caves that truly set this area apart. I-65 is the main road through the area and three main exits lead to all the attractions: Exit 48 (Park City), Exit 53 (Cave City), and Exit 58 (Horse Cave.) Just off Exit 53 in Cave City you’ll find the Best Western Kentucky Inn, convenient to everything in the area.
Let’s start with everything off Exit 48. First up, just a few miles off the interstate via KY Highway 255 is Diamond Caverns, a place experienced with giving tours: they’ve been doing it since it was discovered back in 1859. Drapery deposits line the walls with thousands of stalactites, stalagmites and flowstone deposits throughout. A lighting system and modern concrete trails give this old cave newer dazzle and comfort as you do the one hour tour; their gift shop also has a pretty nice selection of rocks and minerals, fossils, and books.
From Diamond Caverns, continue north on KY 255 to KY 70 into the South Entrance of Mammoth Cave National Park. Home to the longest cave system in the world – nearly 400 miles total – it is a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve spreading across nearly 53,000 acres. The Visitor Center was redeveloped in 2012 and offers terrific exhibits on the cave system with the latest in environmentally-friendly construction including bamboo counters.
Mammoth Cave offers a number of tours through the complexity, including a "Wild Cave Tour" spelunking adventure through miles of tunnels (not recommended for claustrophobes.) Experience tours carrying a paraffin lamp, or bask in the glow of electric lights illuminating features with names like Grand Avenue, Frozen Niagara, and Fat Man’s Misery (yes, really.) Some tours even let you crawl through tight and muddy spaces, so there’s something for everyone.
Other caves and attractions abound. Once you’re finished ambling around Mammoth Cave National Park, head east on KY Highway 70 towards Cave City. You’ll find Dinosaur World, with 20 acres of life-sized dinosaurs, suitable for climbing, pictures, and selfies. They also have fossil digs as part of their “prehistoric museum.” Closer to I-65 Onyx Cave provides entertainment and exploration with a 30-minute underground cave tour. Across the road – with a very pretty view on the countryside – is Kentucky Action Park & the Jesse James Riding Stables with a plethora of things to do: bumper cars, go-karts, a chairlift, rock wall, mini-golf, zipline, alpine slide, and you can even ride horses on 500 acres of trails Jesse James once roamed (legend has it, anyway.)
What is now Cave City was acquired in 1853 by four men from Louisville who recognized the area’s potential due to proximity to Mammoth Cave. Today it has proximity to three Ziplines within five miles of town, making it the “Zip Line Capital of Kentucky” as well as its cave capital. Downtown has quite a few antique stores; other antique stores and rock and gem shops are scattered across the area.
Quirky places like Big Mike’s Mystery House, Rock & Gift Shop offer a variety of rocks and other gift shop items, but the “Mystery House” has things that – according to them – will baffle your mind, including a mosasaur fossil they call “Big Mo.” Also in Cave City along Happy Valley Street the Mammoth Cave Wildlife Museum specializes in showing rare and exotic animals from snow leopards to rare insects, aquatic life, and birds, all housed in as natural an environment as you can get when you’re not out in the wild.
Off I-65’s Exit 58 five miles north of Cave City into Horse Cave you can check out Kentucky Down Under, which brings you to Australia with interactive exhibits and live animals including kangaroos and lorikeets. Kentucky Caverns and historic Mammoth Onyx Cave (it was discovered in 1799 and is loaded with stalactites, stalagmites, and other formations) are also available for tours.
While you can mine for gems, Mammoth Onyx Cave is quite a gem in itself. Not to be outdone by the other caves, the Hidden River Cave & American Cave Museum offers several options for tours of this underground labyrinth featuring two subterranean rivers flowing over 100 feet below ground. Included is a turn-of-the-century hydroelectric generating system that once supplied the town above with water and power. Options include a guided cave tour, an "adventure tour", and a zip and rappel challenge – it all depends on how active you want to be.
What a way to explore western Kentucky! From the capital of quilts in Paducah along the Ohio River, through the Land Between the Lakes and Corvette central to Kentucky’s “Cave Country.” In other words, “From Quilts to Caves.” Enjoy this Tour, and take advantage of these Best Western locations in Paducah, Murray, Hopkinsville, Franklin, and Cave City – where you can stay with people who care!