Getting to the Trailhead & a History Lesson
I knew my planned backpacking trip at Mammoth Cave National Park over Thanksgiving Weekend with my friend Matt, an enthusiastic caver and amateur speleologist, was likely to be an extensive learning experience about the history of the Mammoth Cave area and the geology of caves, as well as a great hike. The trip lived up to its potential on all counts.
We left my house in South-Central IN at about 8:30 Friday morning about half an hour behind schedule. I assumed we would grab our back country permits and hit the trail as soon as possible. When Matt gets close to cave country, however, all bets are off. He has spent much of his adult life surveying caves in Southern Indiana and has studied under some of the more legendary speleologists at the Maple Springs Institute at MCNP, and the closer he gets to the park, the more excited he becomes. Once entering the park, our first detour was a brief stop at Sand Cave where Floyd Collins, “the most famous and important caver in history” according to Matt, became trapped when his foot became stuck between two rocks and he lost his life in 1925. Apparently Collns was attempting to survey the cave to determine if it could be exploited commercially. Matt explained that if Collins knew anything about geology, he wouldn't have bothered since sandstone caves are generally not very deep and usually quite dangerous. Next came a required stop at the Mammoth Cave Baptist Church –a nineteenth century chapel and small cemetery where Floyd Collins is buried. His grave site has become a shrine the likes of which is normally associated with saints and celebrities. Cavers from around the world stop by and leave small gifts and trinkets. These included a couple of poems, thank you notes, a lighter, a buckeye, a Rice Crispy treat, a plastic puppy and a stick of gum. Then it was on to the Visitor’s Center to get our permits. We worked our way through the huge horde of tourists to the backcountry office and settled on our itinerary without incident. The atmosphere at the visitor’s center was more like a carnival than a National Park and normally I would have been a little put off by the whole scene. This day, however, it occurred to me that everyone was there to see a true natural wonder, as opposed to stampeding each other in a Black Friday rampage at Wal-Mart. Next, after a stop at the historical entrance to Mammoth cave and a brief lecture (from Matt) on the formation of cave entrances, we headed to the First Creek Trailhead.
Day One --First Creek Trail
It was a beautiful day –sunny with the temperature in the low fifties— and the first few miles were a pleasant woods walk. After the first half mile, we realized we had left our permit in the car and decided we better return for it. It was such a nice day, the detour didn’t faze us. Just prior the cut-off for the Second Creek campsite, the terrain became more interesting with views of the next ridge and some cool sandstone outcroppings. We expected some difficult footing because of the heavy horse use on the trails in the park, but other than a few muddy patches and some loose rocks, the trail was well maintained. We saw a couple of people getting set up at the First Creek 1 campsite and they told us to watch for a bald eagle that nests at First Creek Lake and tends to check out campers. We hiked on to the First Creek #2 site and got set up.
The site was pretty nice –plenty of level ground and a clear view of the lake. “Lake” is a generous description, the water level was quite low and it was more of a marsh with a small pond in the middle. Nonetheless, it was a nice spot. The spring near the campsite was dry, but the small creek draining into the lake offered a palatable water source. We never saw the eagle, but were entertained by a screech owl and barred owl throughout the evening. It was getting dark and the temperature was dropping quickly by the time we were set up and filtered our water. We cooked dinner and after a futile attempt to start a fire with nothing but wet wood, we settled for a candle lantern and had a nice evening listening to the owls and three separate groups of coyotes. After going into our tents, one of the coyote packs moved in close to our camp and spent most of the night yipping and carrying on down by the water.
Day Two-The Above-ground "Rinky Dink"
The temperature had fallen into the upper twenties by morning, but we both slept comfortably. I as up in time to enjoy the sunrise but Matt slept until around 7:30, so we didn’t start hiking until about 9:30 AM. It was another fine day and our planned destination was the campsite on Collie Ridge –about 9 miles away according to the most recently revised map. The hiking was magnificent on Saturday, high ridges with views across the Green River, interesting rock outcroppings and nice forest. As we had been warned, we did encounter some trash along the trails but not as much as we expected. The trails were nicely constructed seemingly built for their scenic value as much as to enable people to get from one part of the park to another.
We stopped for a lunch break above the McCoy Hollow campsite and then things began to get interesting. First we encountered a party of ten horse riders on a steep side hill traverse. The trail was narrow but we were able to step off below and they were able to get by without too much trouble.
The park service has begun to do a lot of re-routing of the trails in the park, so most maps are not completely accurate. A couple of miles past McCoy Hollow we encountered what appeared to be a trail intersection. One plastic sign pointed toward the Wet Prong Trail and another pointed toward McCoy Hollow. A large wood sign pointed toward Collie Ridge in one direction and McCoy Hollow in the other. According to all of our maps, this was the trail intersection we were looking for. The Wet Prong Trail was easily visible and marked with blazes as was the path back to McCoy Hollow. We could not see any blazes going toward our destination on Collie Ridge despite the signs and spent nearly an hour looking for a sign of the trail. The wood sign was not actually in the ground –it was leaning against a tree. As near as we could tell, someone must have moved it there. Whether this was done maliciously or it just needed to be moved as part of the re-routing, we will never know for sure. We consulted the map and it appeared that if we back tracked to the last creek crossing, we could reach our designated campsite with a fairly straightforward climb up the ridge, so we hiked back a half mile or so and Matt began climbing the hill to check things out. The face of the ridge was considerably steeper than it looked on the map in a couple places and we determined that to get to the top, we would need to scramble up a class 4 cliff of crumbly sandstone. We decided it wasn’t worth the risk and began hiking back toward the Wet Prong Trail. We followed the Wet Pong trail for another half mile or so past the “intersection” and came to what may have been the re-routed Collie Ridge Trail. When the leader of a cave trip takes people on a rapid route which goes in circles and winds up at numerous dead ends for no apparent reason, cavers refer to the trip as a "run around" or "rinky dink". We both agreed we had been subjected to an above-ground version of a classic rinky dink.
It was getting fairly late in the afternoon and we needed to make a decision. If the map was to be believed, it was going to be at least 2.5 more miles to the campsite –if in fact it was the correct trail— and our recon of the ridge did not show any sign of the spring promised by the guidebook and the rangers. We decided that “stealth camping” along the Wet Prong would be our best alternative. I do not like to break the rules in our National Parks because I believe they are generally made in the best interest of preserving the natural beauty of the park. Since, however, there was some question whether we would even be able to find our assigned campsite, and we might end up needing to camp in an unauthorized area anyway, staying near water seemed like a reasonable idea. We set up a couple hundred feet from the trail and the stream, didn’t build a fire and were sure to leave the area exactly as we found it. It was considerably warmer Saturday evening so dinner and hanging our near the creek was particularly pleasant. We heard lots of wildlife coming down to the water but were not close enough to see anything. Through the course of the trip we saw a few deer, some turkeys, a couple of flocks of sand hill cranes and a peregrine falcon. A light rain began falling during the night but the temperature stayed in the low to mid forties and we slept comfortably.
Day Three --A Wet Hike Out
We got some practice breaking camp in the rain Sunday morning and had a very peaceful solitary hike out. The rain made some of the horse damage to the trails more apparent, but it was a fairly easy hike out with no problems. All in all it was a great weekend in the woods. The scenery was great, we only encountered four groups of people in three days and the weather cooperated. You can’t ask for more! We will definitely go back –although probably only in the late fall or early spring. Some of the trails would be pretty dicey if they were overrun with horses (and their riders).