Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Mammoth Cave: SO Mammoth!

Morning of Day 4: We're packing up our Mammoth Cave motel room and heading to Gatlinburg and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but James is taking a few minutes to catch up on swim school emails, so I'm going to try to catch up on blogging. Shockingly, the cell service in the middle of a National Park is not the best, so I haven't been able to do my usual late night wrap-up-blogging. Instead I've drunk wine from a paper coffee cup while we threaten the children with dismemberment if they talk again in bed. Sweet dreams for all!

Let's go back to Day 2. We woke up in Little Rock, Arkansas and ate a tasty hotel breakfast before piling in the car for a 6.5 hour drive to Mammoth Cave, with stops planned along the way. We usually NEVER stop once we're in the car, so the "drive 2 hours and stop" itinerary was disconcerting for all of us (my kids have a car ride mode; once they're in, we can drive forever, which is exactly what we usually do), but we wanted to see some new cities and eat delicious foods. Cora insisted on wearing her Hot Springs ranger badge, and paired it with a large tiara I didn't even notice she was wearing until after I looked at our lunch pictures. It's really just another Monday outfit.

We got to Memphis around 11, drove around a bit, decided we weren't up for any of the music tours, but asked the internet where should we have lunch. It answered resoundingly that Central BBQ and so it was. It was charming and local and DELICIOUS.

I'm not usually a big bbq person or a big pork person, but the Food Network told me to eat their BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich and it was amazing. I might have also ordered a large and very unnecessary bbq pulled pork nachos. I have no regrets.

We loved every bite, stopped at a park by the amazing-looking zoo we wished we had time for to let the kids run around, and then piled back in the car for a 3 hour drive to Nashville. In Nashville we found parking downtown and wandered around Broadway, walking past the Country Music Hall of Fame, one million bars playing live music (and we'd thought Austin had a lot of that!), and many other famous music-related buildings. It was great to stretch our legs and hear some music. We were still full of pulled pork, so we continued on to Mammoth Cave another 90 minutes away.


Along the way we decided we'd just stop somewhere for a salad to-go (thank you Yelp, Google Maps, and Saladworks in Bowling Green for making that happen) for James and I and then feed the kids the easy mac I'd packed in the car once we got to our cabin at Mammoth Cave. Except when got to our room - a very tiny motel room and not the roomy, new two-bedroom cabin we were supposed to have, the cabin that started this whole itinerary because I was so excited about a cabin INSIDE a national park and decided it was calling for us to stay there, because a pipe burst and all the cabins flooded a couple weeks before we left - and discovered we did not have a microwave. It was now 8 p.m., we'd been in the car off and on since 8 a.m. and we were NOT GOING BACK IN. We made a picnic dinner on the floor with leftover healthy car snacks, granola bars, and a few packets of peanut butter. The kids thought it was the greatest thing ever.

And once I got James to yank out my wine cork through brute force, I did too. I also immediately ordered a new travel wine opener. That was almost an emergency.

This should really be my new profile picture

We woke up on Day 3 to chilly temps and views of the national park around us. It had been pitch black and snowy when we'd arrived the night before so we really had no idea what it looked like. We walked to the Lodge for a tasty breakfast and then to the Visitor's Center to pick up our tour tickets (so glad I booked online a few weeks ago; both of our tours were sold out when we arrived) and get the kids' Junior Ranger packets!

We toured the Visitor's Center, wandering through the museum, watching the movie (narrated by Mike Rowe, which made me laugh), and filling out their Ranger packets. At 9:55 it was time to line up for our first tour! Mammoth Cave offers a lot of tours with varying lengths and difficulties. I highly recommend the two tours we did: Domes & Dripstones and the Historical Tour. Both were 2 hours long (D&D was about 3/4 mile of walking; Historical was 2 miles), both showed very different parts of the cave with very different stories, history, and facts surrounding them, and the kids handled both of them beautifully.

Domes and Dripstones requires a 10 minute bus ride from the Visitor's Center to get to the entrance. It's a man-made entrance built from a sinkhole in the ground. You feel like you're walking into a bunker when you go in, and it's immediately clear that if you're claustrophobic, this is not for you.

We walked down one million stairs to get to a large opening where we all sat on benches to wait for the full group to gather and the rangers to talk. The rangers were all great- full of facts and stories and seemed to be able to answer any question thrown at them. I'd wondered how the tour could accommodate 100 people at once, but you basically just amble along in a single file line, bending and stooping and pausing for pictures as needed, and then stop at 2-3 large gathering places, usually with installed benches, along the way to learn about what you're going to see next. It worked great and let you move at your own pace while also not missing anything the ranger said.

Claire was always ready to point me the way

We learned so much! Did you know the cave only had 44 miles mapped when it was dedicated as a national park in 1941 and now it has more than 412 miles mapped as of last year? And the cave explorers still haven't found the end so every year it gets bigger. It's the longest cave in the world by more than double and its rock is 100 million years older than the dinosaurs (which is why any fossils found inside are of prehistoric ocean animals and not dinosaurs; they got stuck in that rock long before North America existed).

Towards the end of the tour we got to the really incredible formations. They're in a newer, higher, and more active part of the cave where water is currently dripping.

We descended a bunch of tiny stairs to get to Frozen Niagara, admired it, took a picture, and climbed all the way back up. As Cora exclaimed throughout the day, "This is SO NEAT MAMA!!"

We climbed a bunch of more steps to get out, now in a totally new location from where we started, and a bus was there to pick us up and take us back to the Visitor's Center where the kids turned in their now completed Ranger packets and got their next badge. It was great. I didn't even cry this time! Mostly because I was distracted a Cave Research Foundation exhibit on the wall.

It was now lunchtime, so we walked back to our room and ate a chilly picnic lunch on the tables outside the motel rooms.

(For those who like logistics: I knew we wouldn't have access to a kitchen at any of our stops on this trip, so we'd have to eat out more than we prefer (both because we're very expensive at restaurants and also because we just get so sick of them; I hate eating and paying for food I'm not excited about). To avoid doing that too much, I just packed a bunch of lunch type stuff to keep in the car: bread, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, cheese sticks, carrot sticks, sliced cucumber, sliced apples, cutie oranges, and individual bags of chips to keep in a big car cooler to pull out when needed. I've made sandwiches while we drive and we've had them on our picnics. It's worked great and meant we can really enjoy a big hot meal somewhere yummy for dinner each night. Except Day 2 night when we had lunch for dinner on the hotel floor because we weren't driving anywhere, though we did eat out lunch that day.)

Our little trooper, walked all the miles in all the caves, and made everyone smile while doing it.

We planned to do some topside hiking before our next tour at 3:30, though we probably should have made everyone lay down. I think the giggling finally stopped at 10 p.m. the night before and we were all up at 7. But when I glanced at our bed I found that James was the only one worn out.

So I took the kids, still FULL of energy, out to explore the trails that ran by our room. Kentucky, even post-winter, is lovely.

James roused himself and we all did some exploring on the trails, finding Dixon Cave and other points of interest. Eventually is was time to get to the Visitor's Center for our 3:30 Historic Tour.

And it was AMAZING. Highly highly recommend. I'm so glad we also did Domes & Dripstones because it was awesome to see the formations and how different different areas of the cave could be, but the Historic Tour was definitely more fun and adventurous. It was quite a bit longer- 2 miles instead of the 3/4 mile - and you were able to just walk to the Natural Entrance from the Visitor's Center instead of taking a bus. This is the only natural entrance to the whole 400+ mile cave system.

This tour was much darker, so I didn't bother attempting many pictures, but it was really wonderful. Because this is the natural entrance, it has all the history of human's discovery and use of the cave. Native American symbols and scratchings from at least 5,000 years ago. The salt petre mining operations from more than 200 years ago (did you know 1 in every 7 bullets in the War of 1812 was made from Mammoth Cave Salt Petre? We do now!). We learned so much about the early explorers and mappers. The ranger even turned off the guiding lights so we could see the pitch black and incredible silence deep in the cave. She lit a small gas lantern that the early mappers would have used and you could see how INSANE it was that the cave was mapped at all.

We continued on until the path got narrower and the ceiling got lower and we entered Fat Man's Misery. This was by far our favorite part - tiny winding paths with tall sides you had to contort yourself around to get through. The kids loved it.

Then Tall Man's Misery where even Cora had to hunch a little and James and I were basically bent in half. It was SO fun. I was beaming. Exploring things makes me SO HAPPY. I realized later I was still proudly wearing Landon's junior ranger badge (he didn't want to put a whole in his favorite shirt) and that felt appropriate.

You exit into a large cavern again where you can stretch and then climb 260 stairs up a tall, winding tower to get out. "Intermediate" level tour indeed.

It was the best. We got in our car to drive to the nearest restaurant for dinner- a very cute but expectedly mediocre Mexican place in Cave City. It was snowing as we drove back to the park to get back in our room. We got everyone showered and brushed and changed and instituted "quite time" with kindles and headphones and movies for all. It was lovely. James and I lay on our bed, feeling like we should be productive, but just scanning the news on our phones and talking about the PA-18 race instead. (Woot!) Cora made sure her unicorn was as cozy as could be and it cracked me up every time I caught a glimpse of him all wrapped up.

Going to sleep went mildly better, but when you have 5 people in less than 200 square feet of space, it's never going to be great. I think they were all asleep around 9:30? I've flagrantly violated my "no sleeping with my children" rule, but it was supposed to be a cabin and for National Parks I can endure. Our hotel room tonight in Gatlinburg is a suite and it will be very nice to have a little more space.

And maybe a more inspiring shower? The yellow was adorable but I haven't washed my hair since we woke up in Fort Worth. Shh, don't tell anyone.

And now we're 30 miles out from Gatlinburg, Park #3 here we come!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Hot Springs! So Hot Right Now

I'm the only person awake in our Little Rock hotel room (I assume; James is definitely asleep next to me and I'm sure if a kid was awake they'd have told me by now). I don't sleep well in hotels, so I've found it's best to not really even try. So blogging it is! Plus I love reading back over our trips and I've found if I don't stay on top of things it's REALLY hard to go back later and fill in the travelogue. Life picks right back up when you're home, usually even faster than before, and it's hard to blog backwards when you're drowning in laundry and grocery shopping lists.

So, today was Hot Springs! We left one hour later than we planned, but it was daylight savings time, so I feel like that counts as right on time. The drive was easy and the kids were delighted when we hit our first new state only 3 hours into the trip.

Rub-a-Dub-Dub, Three Kids in a Tub!

We pulled up to a free Sunday meter spot on Central Parkway in the heart of downtown historical Hot Springs right at 2 p.m. Unsure of what to expect in this preserved, antique version of a national park, I'd just turned to the kids and said, "now this won't be a trip where you just get to run around and climb on stuff."

Five seconds later they had run across the park by our car and climbed up this giant boulder. Of course.

And then right next to the boulder was a hot spring! Just right there for you to touch it!

Touch it and then yank your hand back because it's 143 degrees and that's really hot after about 2 seconds. Even for someone who takes scalding hot baths like I do.

And right next door to that was our fist historic bath house, now turned brewery where we stopped for snacks and beer later in the day. We continued down Bath House Row - they're all so different and look so well preserved. Most were built in the late 1800's and early 1900's and you can just picture people strolling up and down the sidewalk between treatments.

The Fordyce Bath House, built in 1915, now serves as the National Park's Visitor's Center. The park is free, so you can just walk in.

It is incredibly well preserved and you can roam through treatment rooms, changing rooms, salons, galleries, spa rooms, and even a gymnasium. It was wonderful and the kids loved it.

We watched the short film in the ground floor which gave them a lot of context for what they were seeing and then they got their Junior Ranger packets and got to work.

I really couldn't get over how amazing everything looked - the NPS has done an incredible job and there's just enough information presented about each room as you roam through the 4-story house.

James got a big kick out of the gym while I fell in love with the stained glass.

We finally emerged to roam more of the Row, stopping to admire the houses, read their information plaques, and fill out whatever was needed in the kids' ranger packets. We also found the gift shop, located in another historic Bath House, and so obviously the kids had to touch every single thing in there.

Lady Cora will take her bath now

We stopped at a hot springs fed fountain for a drink and James forgot the water comes out of the tap at 143 degrees.

... and that's a little hot to splash from your hands straight into your mouth. Luckily we had my Yeti to fill and we all got a sip. It's delicious. We filled all our water bottles on the way out for the car ride tomorrow.

At the end of the row there's an entrance into the Promenade that was built over the river for the fancy men and women to stroll between their treatments. The kids ran, we strolled, the weather was perfection, and I wished there was a bath treatment somewhere in my future. We saw several of the 47 separate hot springs along the way. Most are now covered to preserve them and keep them clean and uncontaminated, but some of it seeps out and you can feel the warm puddles.

We looped back to the Fordyce so the kids could turn in their packets and take the vows as a Junior Ranger. I adore Park Rangers and this one was perfection.

Obviously I cried during the pledge. I do it every time. I just take these words very seriously, "I promise to teach others about what I learned today, explore other parks and historic sites, and help preserve and protect these places so future generations can enjoy them"

That's literally what we're trying to do with our kids, and what we hope they do with their next generation. These parks are a legacy.

We roamed back towards the park and the Bath House turned Brewery, stopping in for a flight of beer and a delicious giant pretzel and boursin/pesto/tomato appetizer I'm determined to recreate at home. The kids got to climb their boulder one (six) more times and then we piled back in to drive to our hotel in Little Rock, putting us one hour closer to our Mammoth Cave adventures tomorrow and right next door to a tasty pizza place we stopped for dinner tonight.


It was a great day. Three hours in Hot Springs was perfect and I highly recommend it if you're ever driving through (or anywhere near! Lake Ouachita and a million other gorgeous Ozarks destinations are over here, just head to any one of them!). One park checked, three to go - we're so excited to be on our way!