When you think of Kentucky, you probably think of bourbon or horses; but, did you know Kentucky is home to some of the most incredible caves in the world? The south-central Kentucky region has so many caves worth exploring, but my favorite is Hidden River Cave in Hart County. Hidden River Cave is a river cave (bet you could guess that one by the name!), which means there’s a river actively running through it. Active water means flooding, so the cave doesn’t have any stalagmites or stalactites. It does, though, have several large domes, caverns, and rooms that are well worth exploring and lots of historical ties to the city, county, and region it sits in! That not enough to convince you? Hidden River Cave also has a zip line, rappelling, and a fun museum! Y’all, I loved visiting and cannot believe more people don’t know about this hidden gem in the heart of the Bluegrass.
Special thanks to Hidden River Cave for hosting us for the day and to David Foster for taking us off trail!
A Little Background on Hidden River Cave
Hidden River Cave doesn’t have any sort of grand “this is how it was discovered” story; in fact, we don’t even know the exact year it was found! We do know, though, that people were exploring the cave by the late 1800s and that it was the towns main water source through the 1900s.
Dr. Thomas, a local dentist, purchased the home and opera house above the cave, and thus the cave itself, in 1908. Over the next few years, Dr. Thomas rigged up a large water pump to send water from the cave up to the town above – you can still see this pumping mechanism in the cave today! This mechanism also helped get Horse Cave, Kentucky on the grid and they became one of the first Kentucky cities to have electric lights.
The cave acted as sort of a natural air conditioner in the hot summer months, as the temperature at the entrance was significantly lower than the humid heat of Kentucky. Women of the town sat a tennis course up on the green space near the mouth of the cave where they’d play while the men worked pumping water and giving tours. The cave became a popular spot for locals and tourists alike.
Hidden River Cave is in the heart of Cave Country, so tours of the cave became a great next step. The first commercial tour of Hidden River Cave occurred in the 1910s. Tourism was a difficult task, though, and the cave found itself caught up in the middle of the Cave Wars.
Hidden River Cave, Mammoth Cave, Great Onyx Cave, Crystal Cave, and more all occupied the same region in south-central Kentucky. This lead to major competition between the cave owners to get tourists into their caves (and keep them from others). Cave owners would send cappers, named for the capped uniforms they wore, out on the main roads to lead tourists to their caves. Cappers would sometimes sit in small buildings on the side of the road, stand in yards holding signs to get people to stop, or even hop on to tourist transports! They’d have pamphlets or brochures advertising their cave, or multiple caves owned by the same conglomerate, that they’d give to tourists passing through. They’d also use some sneaky tactics to get tourists to come to their caves; often, they’d tell them that “Oh the cave your going to is closed/flooded/caved in/quarantined/unaccessible today, why not come to this better/prettier/bigger cave instead?” Total lies, but effective.
The Cave Wars are said to have ended in the 1940s, but some argue that they’re still going on today. The caves in the region are still actively recruiting tourists – just look at the amount of advertisements you see while driving down the interstate – only without the cappers.
Remember how I said that Dr. Thomas installed that pumping mechanism to use the cave as a water source? As well as pumping things out of the cave, they were throwing things in. Sewage, old cars, refrigerators, you name it and it was probably thrown in; out of sight, out of mind – except for the smell. The pollution got so bad that the cave closed touring operations in the 1940s.
Over the next few decades, the sewage from Hidden River Cave seeped into other area caves and it really became a regional problem! The government started fining Horse Cave several thousand dollars a day for pollution. Thankfully, they built a new sewage treatment plant in 1989, which started cleaning things right up.
The American Cave Conservation Association moved their headquarters to Horse Cave in 1987 with the aim of restoring the cave. Hidden River Cave went from being one of the most polluted caves on the continent to one of the most pristine within a few years. The Association decided to stay, opening the American Cave Museum in the 1990s and have been getting visitors excited about the cave ever since.
Zip Lining and Rappelling
Hidden River Cave was the first cave in south-central Kentucky to have its own zip line and rappelling course. The cave sits in a sink, going deep into the earth from there. This location makes it the perfect place for some above ground adventure!
The zip line is the highest in the region and flies visitors over 70 feet at 30 MPH. The zip is quick, but gives you a major burst of adrenaline. Visitors can also rappel into the mouth of the cave, which is insanely cool! You’re strapped in, guided through walking backwards on a little platform and some limestone, and then BOOM! you’re rappelling down 75 feet into the mouth of the cave. Y’all, I was shaking like a leaf when I started, but the guide was amazing at keeping me calm and I ended up loving every single second of it!
Zip lining costs $22 and rappelling is $27. Long haired people should wear their hair back and away from their face so it doesn’t get stuck in the line (aka my worst nightmare). I wore two braids and tucked them into my helmet. You should wear closed toe shoes and dress for the weather.
Obviously you can’t go to Hidden River Cave without going on a cave tour. Luckily, they have tons each day! There are two types of cave tours: public and adventure.
Public Cave Tours
Public cave tours last about an hour, don’t require advanced reservations, and take place as needed from open to close each day. This tour walks visitors down the 230ish steps, along the subterranean hidden river, over the world’s longest underground suspension bridge, and through one dome and gallery of the cave. If the timing is right, you’ll even hear the train passing above you. If that wasn’t enough, the public tour also shows off some of the old water pumping systems from the historic period. It’s seriously cool! The tour costs $22 for adults and $12 for children.
Cave Adventure Tour
As cool as the public tour was, the cave adventure tour was even greater. For the adventure tour, you’ll strap on a head lamp and go off trail into parts of the cave that the public tour doesn’t get to see – well, unless they’ve seen Mike Rowe get stuck in the passage on Dirty Jobs. This tour lasts 3-4 hours and all I can say is WOW is it incredible.
We started our tour by following the river back to the left. After about half an hour, we came to a larger room and navigated through some small-ish crevices (but not too small cause ya girl is claustrophobic). We even sat for a few minutes in total darkness, which was a surprisingly calming experience. Then, we headed back towards the front entrance, through the public tour route, and then up “peanut butter mountain” (as our public tour guide called it), through the second dome, and into the picturesque Sunset Dome. Sunset Dome is absolutely massive and so humbling to sit in.
If you’re wanting to do the adventure tour, you have to let Hidden River Cave know at least 2 days in advance. Wear old clothes and shoes with a good tread, because it is muddy. You’ll get covered in mud and water, especially if you’re like me and fall down…a lot. The tour guides are amazing, so full of humor, and go at your pace (thanks, David!). I am already itching to get back to the cave to experience this tour again! Adventure tours run about $53 per person.
A Few Need to Knows
Horse Cave, Kentucky is conveniently located about 5 minutes off I-65, making it a perfect road trip stop. Hidden River Cave/American Cave Museum is open daily from 8AM-6PM. There is plenty of cave parking, just pass the cave and take the first right turn and you’ll see a lot on the left (plus, it’s free to park!).
Tours happen as long as the cave isn’t flooded, so I suggest calling ahead if it’s been raining a lot. The temperature inside the cave feels around 60ish degrees year round, so dress appropriately; you will have to walk a little ways outside to get to the cave, though. Also, the cave is not accessible, so know you’re going to have to walk down and up around 230 stairs.
I had the greatest day at Hidden River Cave. I’d never done anything like it before, and feel I’ll never find anything quite like it elsewhere. Hidden River Cave is a truly special place that everyone with an adventurous spirit should visit. I’m already planning on going back for another trek through the cave soon.