Above-ground Adventures at Mammoth Cave National Park
by Guest Contributor Matt McClintock
On Saturday, January 30, I led a group of hikers into the backwoods of Mammoth Cave National Park for an off-trail excursion that was sure to be an epic adventure. Most of us know Mammoth Cave for it's 400+ miles of passages, but few know of the treasures that are hidden above the ground.
The plan for our trip was to visit the northern side of the park, near the Nolin River in an area called First Creek Hollow. We departed the parking area around about 8 a.m. EST and began hiking into the beginning of First Creek Watershed, a large swath of land that drains First Creek. This would be a recommended "winter only" hike as you have to contend with nests of snakes in this remote area few ever visit.
We began our hike into the beautiful hardwood forest, trodding over ground covered in a melting veil of snow. With blue skies overhead, we knew the day would be a great one.
After plunging deeper into the watershed area, our little group encountered a gorgeous rock shelter with lots of ice and snow adorning it. The weather forecast showed a high of 70 degrees, and that was evident as the icicles were already beginning to show signs of weakening.
After we departed our first rock shelter, we walked to a waterfall and unique geological area just below that reminded me of the landscape of eastern Kentucky. Just in front of the waterfall sits a small arch, just large enough to walk through. It's actually a triple arch, but the smaller ones, which are located within the larger one, are extremely small.
Continuing on from this spot would take us further into the First Creek watershed, which would prove to be more beautiful than we could have imagined. The next stop was jaw-dropping. One of the first things we came across was Eye Socket Arch/Indian Cave - a very beautiful sandstone formation right in the creek.
Our friends Sue Milburn and Susan Wilkinson sat within the cave for a break. The entrance seen here goes in to the left and back out into the creek after about 150 feet. At one time, the creek itself likely went through this small cave.
This unique area also holds two more treasures along with some old growth hemlock trees that are rival to the ones found throughout the Red River Gorge. The rock shelter here is also a very large one.
Here is Chelsea Ballard, who works for Mammoth Cave National Park, standing in the right side of the shelter, showing the scale of this enormous shelter.
Just below Eye Socket Arch and the rock shelter is a beautiful waterfall in which the pool disappeared and reappeared a 150' downstream.
Here is a the waterfall with Eye Socket Arch just above it.
And the resurgence of the the water from the waterfall, also the seen is the large rock shelter pictured above:
After we left this area feeling euphoric from the beauty, we continued on down the the First Creek Watershed. The valley widened and the beauty of the snow hike came into play. We creek walked for a few miles enjoying the warm air blowing in our faces while the snow was deep under our feet.
Our final destination in the watershed would be First Creek Lake. The lake is also a back country camping area so this was the first encounter with people on the hole trip. A very picturesque lake to see complete with a beaver dam. First Creek Lake is right next to the Nolin River and is accessible to walk right over to the rivers edge.
After leaving the lake (now on a park trail), we ascend to the First Creek trailhead to our waiting car as this was a through hike. My adventures aren't over in the First Creek area as we saw only a small portion on this hike.
After being a volunteer inside Mammoth Cave National Park for the last 6 years, I've finally started exploring everything above. My current photography project is to hike and document unique places within the park. This is a winter-only project. The snakes and bugs are too much for me in the summer.
If you'd like to follow my adventures: