Mammoth Cave, located in southwestern Kentucky, was officially designated as a national park in 1941. The park is approximately 53,000 acres (small by national park standards); its main focus is the cave system which lies under the surface.
Mam Cave, as it is called locally, is the longest cave known to exist in the world at just under 400 miles. The 400 miles of cavern are not linear, but exist on six levels which crisscross and extend out in multiple directions, fitting inside a seven square mile area under the park.
We took a ranger led tour during our visit, venturing down 250 feet below the surface and then through a series of rooms as we gradually climbed back towards the surface to exit the mine.
The park offers a wide range of tours differing in time and the level of physical activity required to complete the tour. We took the Domes and Drips Tour where you are brought through some of the largest domes in the cave system and also to a wetter area where stalactites and stalagmites are still forming.
The lower two levels of the cave are underground rivers – with water draining down from the Green River and the numerous sinkholes in and around the park. In the past visitors could tour the lower cavern by boat but the practice was stopped to protect the environment.
A brief History of mam cave
As we mentioned above, Mam Cave became a national park in 1941. What we did not realize until we visited the park and spent time touring the scenic backways of the park was how the park came into being.
The caves were originally mined for saltpeter which was used in the making of ammunition.The caves in the area were privately held and operated by the owners as tourist attractions from the early 1800s until the park became a national park.
There were many people in government, science and business who, for various reasons, wanted to see Mam Cave designated as a national park and thus be protected. The federal government would not buy land for the creation of a national park but would accept donated land for that purpose. As a result, a private organization was formed for the purpose of buying the privately owned land and donating the land to the federal government.
Over a period of several years the required amount of land was purchased (in some cases through eminent domain). There was also a land donation of 8,000 acres made by a single family.
The photographs above and below show the only remaining structures from three of the communities (Good Springs, Flint Ridge, Joppa Ridge) that ceased to exist as the residents moved to other towns outside of the park boundary. Some of the families and their descendants lived in theses communities for 200 years before they were displaced.
The park service has preserved these churches and the adjacent graveyards, providing a peak into life in early rural America. All other structures from these communities were razed when the National Park was established.
The families of the descendants are still able to use the churches for weddings, funerals and other special occasions. The cemetaries bear witness to this use as we observed newer monuments in each of the graveyards.
We enjoyed our two days at Mam Cave. The cave tour was well organized and interesting. We would have to say that from a persective of the cave only that Carlsbad (New Mexico) and Wind Cave (South Dakota) are more dramatic from a visual perspective.
Having said that, Mam Cave offers a number of hiking and mountain biking trails as well as a paved bike path. Additionally, the Green River which flows through the park provides the opportunity for kayaking and canoeing.
If you are a national park fan and have not yet visited, we recommend that you include Mam Cave in an upcoming park itinerary.
After camping in Chama, New Mexico, we followed Route 17 along the Colorado/New Mexico border to access the Carson NF for our trip south. Unfortunately, the heavy snow in the Colorado mountains had reached into northern New Mexico. After testing the road we decided that prudent risk taking required that we delay our start. As a result we traveled to Taos and spent several days exploring there (see posts Taos, The High Road to Taos and Taos is Art) while waiting for the roads to dry out and harden.
The above photo is from the KML file we overlaid on Google Earth to assist with navigation as we traveled through the forest and mountainous terrain.
Overlanding is currently defined as “self-reliant overland travel by vehicle where the journey is more important than the destination.” Overlanding has gained popularity in the United States over the last several years and particularly since the pandemic interrupted standard modes of travel.
Our trips over the last three plus years have been a mix of overland adventures and standard touring. Overlanding is not for everyone due to the risks and the need for specialized gear (high clearance, 4wd, skid plates, winch, extended range, etc.) Overlanding also requires patience – it is often very slow going on rough, narrow, rutted roads and trails.
Case in point – the photo above is Forest Road 45B – after driving a number of miles down this rough and narrow route the trail became impassable. We we forced to back up the hill until we could turn the vehicle while causing the least damage possible.
EL RITO (pop. 808)
After two days on the trail we came out of the forest at El Rito on a crisp Sunday morning. We were hoping to have breakfast burritos at El Farito Restaurant but alas the restaurant was closed. We cannot vouch for the reported census – we met one person and one dog during our brief stop. We were surprised to learn that the Mars Polar Lander was designed and built here in town by a local scientist/artist!!!
Abiqui and south
We stopped in the town of Abiqui for diesel fuel and refreshments. Abiqui is the town where Georgia O’Keefe lived for many years on her ranch north of town. Many of her paintings include the surrounding mountains.
After refueling we headed back up into the forest to continue our overlanding trip south for another day – leaving the route near Los Alamos and then traveling to Santa Fe for much needed high quality coffee and tea.
The snow of the prior week caused us to shorten our time overlanding through the Carson National Forest, but it was a good trade off as the weather and conditions were much improved by the time we started on our overlanding adventure.
Fika at Velodrome Coffee in Marquette was our first destination as we returned to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for the first time in over two years.
Pictured Rock National lakeshore
The Pictured Rock National Lakeshore (PRNL) was created in 1966 to protect a 42 mile section of coastline along Lake Superior. The 15 mile stretch of sandstone cliffs rising as high as 200 feet above the water is the real attraction here. The total protected area is around 71,000 acres which provides a buffer zone between the lakeshore and commercial logging.
We toured the lakeshore by boat. While there are a substantial amount of hiking trails throughout the park which lead to the cliffs the best views of the various formations are from the water. We would recommend a boat tour if you are going to be in the area but would not recommend PRNL as a multi-day destination unless you are going to camp in the park and kayak from the beach through the formations.
While iron ore mining and production is very often portrayed as nonexistent today in the United States, it is still quite active in parts of the Upper Peninsula and Minnesota. In fact iron ore mining has been ongoing here in the Marquette Iron Range since 1847.
The completion of the various shipping canals and locks throughout the Great Lakes facilitated the efficient movement of iron ore by lake freighters to ports further south-close to major manufacturing operations for steel and auto-making.
More to come on iron mining when we post from Minnesota where we will be traveling through the Iron Range.
Iron ore heritage trail
The Iron Ore Heritage Trail (IOHT) is a winding and hilly 47 mile trail that utilizes the former rail lines that were used to bring timber and iron ore to Lake Superior. The trail runs through many wetlands and wooded areas as well as a number of closed and abandoned mines.
We rode the trail from the west to east (from Ispheming towards Marquette) which means a long uphill climb as you return from Marquette to your starting point. One of our favorite trails to date because of the fast downhills and corners.
Keweenaw Peninsula (KP)
The Portage Lake Lift Bridge pictured above connects Houghton and Hancock, Michigan. The bridge is the widest and heaviest double deck lift bridge in the world. When the bridge is in position for automobile traffic it sits a mere four feet above the water. The bridge fully raised provides 100 feet of clearance allowing large lake freighters (lakers) to use the canal.
The canal itself came about as mining companies sought to decrease the time it took to haul copper from the copper-rich Keweenaw Peninsula to markets. Work on the canal began in the 1860’s with dredging and widening of several narrow riverways to Portage Lake thereby creating a east/west canal and shaving 100 miles off the trip.
When the canal was completed, the northern half of Keneewaw Peninsula technically became Copper Island. For a number of years all traffic had to go across the canal via ferry boats while winter allowed for crossing on ice roads. As the demand to cross the canal increased, a series of bridges were constructed to allow people, vehicles and trains to cross the canal. The current bridge is the fourth bridge to connect the southern and northern halves of the peninsula. The first three were swing bridges which were slow and unreliable. The second bridge was destroyed when a freighter collided with the bridge. The current bridge came into use in 1959.
Copper was first utilized on the peninsula by Native Americans long before the arrival of Euro-Americans. The Native Americans utilized copper for tools and jewelry. Copper had been separated from rock by retreating glaciers and was scattered around the surface in abundant quantities requiring no mining or excavating.
While the first copper mine in the Upper Peninsula began operation around 1771 it was not until around 1840 that large scale commercial extraction of copper (as well as iron and silver) commenced. The rush began in earnest when the the state’s first geologist, Douglass Houghton, released his report affirming the abundance of high grade copper on the Keweenaw Peninsula.
Copper was mined for the next 150 years on the Keweenaw Peninsula where a narrow seam of copper runs from the Wisconsin border to the tip of Keweenaw Peninsula (Copper Harbor). The mines in Michigan produced more than 14 billion pounds of copper during that period of time and during the late 1800s was the largest copper producer in the world.
The mines began to mature around 1900 as the depth of the shafts made the cost of extraction unviable. A number of mining operations closed down and the population of Keweenaw Penninsula declined for a number years.
War is good for business and the increased demand for copper during World War II brought prices to a level which made copper mining in the penisula viable again. Several mines continued operation until 1969 when a labor dispute triggered the closure of those mines. Today most of the copper production in the United States takes place in Arizona.
The legacy of the cooper mining industry is still highly visible on the Keweenaw Peninsula today. There are numerous mine-shaft rockhouses scattered along what is now Highway 41. The rockhouse stood over the mine shaft. The rock was brought up the shaft in train cars (skips) and dumped into rock crushers below, which then fed uniform sized pieces of rocks into rail cars below the crushing machines.
Another lasting legacy of the copper mining on the Keneewaw Peninsula is pollution. The good news in that regard is that because the copper here was native copper is it 99.99% pure and as such the slag, rock waste and tailings are much less toxic. Having said that, there was enough concern that an EPA Superfund Site was created to deal with the waste. The site has been removed from the Superfund list as a result of the remediation effort.
The Keweenaw Peninsula economy has transitioned to focus on tourism and timber as the main sources of employment. This area is a haven for boating, fishing, hunting, hiking, mountain biking and OHV riding.
Copper Harbor via the m26…but first, breakfast
WIth a day of exploration in front of us we have learned that is is essential to be well fortified. So we stopped at Slim’s Cafe in Mohawk. Slim’s Cafe has been serving breakfast to Yoopers and visitors for over 40 years. In addition to the massive and tasty breakfast it is mandatory to have their absolutely delicious cinnamon rolls. Do not leave without purchasing cinnamon rolls!
After fortification at Slim’s, we spent the day touring the KP from Houghton to land’s end at Copper Harbor. The M26 winds along the western coast of the peninsula providing wonderful views of Lake Superior and the coastline. Beautifully preserved lighthouses dot the coastline and provide excellent opportunities to learn about the history of the area.
We veered off the M26 a few miles south of Copper Harbor to take in the views from Brockway Mountain. The “mountain”is 720 feet above Lake Superior and on a clear day provides a panoramic view of the lake as well as Copper Harbor and several other lakes.
After descending Brockway Mountain we continued to Copper Harbor and followed US Highway 41 through the village where the highway terminates. This is one of those places where you feel as if you are at the top of the world.
On the day we visited the village, the sun was shining and the sky and lake were deep blue. We had a picnic lunch sitting at the waters edge. We could not, however, keep ourselves from envisioning being here in the dead of winter with the 85 brave souls that call this village home. The cold, the wind and prolonged darkness that occur at this parallel is requires a level of self-sufficiency we do not possess.
We decided to return to Houghton by a more rustic route. While Highway 41 ends in Copper Harbor you can continue on via the dirt roads used by loggers and eventually loop southward down the peninsula.
We had the opportunity to meet with many residents of the Upper Peninsula – known as Yoopers. Yoopers do not consider themselves as Michiganders. In fact, there have been numerous attempts in the past by Yoopers to form their own state – unsuccessfully, obviously.
Yoopers clearly see themselves as separate and distinct from the city folk downstate. This is outdoor country where sled racing, skating, ice fishing, snowshoeing are part of everyday life. Of course the most Yooper outdoor winter sport of all is probably outhouse racing (paint your own mental picture!)
Many of the Yoopers we met made it very clear that to be able to live here year round a person must be extremely self-reliant and self-sufficient and you better know how to drive in the snow! Yep!
After our visit to Pittsburgh we decided to head south to Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania to visit the Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece Fallingwater. Fallingwater was designed for the Kaufman family. Edgar and Liliane Kaufman were prominent members of Pittsburgh society and owners of the highly successful Kaufman’s Department Store.
The Kaufmans owned the property at Bear Run in the Laurel Highlands where they had a rustic weekend retreat. The met Frank Lloyd Wright through their son Edgar jr. The younger Edgar studied with Wright for a short time at Taliesin in Wisconsin.
Edgar jr sold the home and 1500 acres of land to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy with the proviso that the home be open to the public. The conservancy purchased another 3500 acres adjacent to the former Kaufman property to assure that the area remains unspoiled for future generations.
Wright designed the house in 1935 after visiting the site and integrated the house into the waterfall and landscape in brillant fashion. Wright practiced what he called “organic” architecture and Fallingwater is undoubtedly unparalled in that regard.
Wright also designed many innovative and one of a kind pieces of furniture which can be found throughout the main house and the guest house.
Wright designed over 1000 structures in a career that spanned 70 years. Just over half of his designs were constructed. He was a pioneer in many facets of design and was acknowldeged by the American Institute of Architects in 1991 as the greatest American architect of all time.
Wright’s designs were not limited to just his well known private residences. He designed churches, schools, museums, hotels and office buildings. Additionally, he designed one gas station (which we stumbled upon during our previous wanderings in Michigan.)
In addition to achieving phenomenal fame as an architect Wright also achieved significant noteriety in his personal life. During his life he was married and divorced several times in very public fashion and suffered the tragedy of having a lover and her children murdered at his studio while he was away on business. Recommended reading -The Fellowship:The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship.
Fallingwater is located near Ohiopyle, Pennsylavania. Ohiopyle State Park encompasses over 20,000 acres of beautiful scenery for hiking and camping. The Youghiogeheny (yawk) River runs though the middle of the park and provides serious whitewater rafting and kayaking opportunities. Additionally, the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail runs through the park with a trailhead in town for easy access to ride towards the Pittsburgh or Cumberland, Maryland terminus points.
The combination of outdoor activites and Fallingwater makes Ohiopyle a popular destination with many visitors. As we visited early in the season there were no crowds. We definitely recommend the Ohiopyle area as worth a several day visit.
Be seeing you!
P.S. There is a second Frank Lloyd Wright designed house (Kentuck Knob) close by which is open for tours. Kentuck Knob is an example of Wright’s Usonian (affordable) designs.
Howdy! After shortening our winter/spring roadtrip by about 50% we finally got back on the road for a short adventure. Based on the title above you have probably figured out that we journeyed up the road apiece from our home base in Connecticut to the Granite State, New Hampshire. This trip was intended to “test the waters” for travel conditions in the new normal of the forever pandemic. Our choice of New Hampshire reflected its proximity, the fact we had not visited the state in some time and the state is welcoming visitors from all of the other New England states.
We visited Nashua and Manchester briefly on our trip north to the White Mountains but our main focus in New Hampshire was on camping and hiking.
The White Mountain National Forest offers significant camping options as well as a seemingly infinite amount of hiking options. We were fortunate to have very comfortable and mostly sunny weather which made for some wonderful (and occasionally strenuous) hiking.
Hiking in New Hampshire is so rewarding with its abundance of streams, rivers, lakes and waterfalls to be found along the way not to mention the views from the ridgelines and summits.
Littleton, hard on the Ammonoosuc River, was one of our favorite small towns in the Franconia Notch area. It has a well preserved downtown with a variety of shops as well as a number of eateries right along the river. Of course, best of all there was an excellent coffee shop with ooutdoor seating on the riverbank (Inkwell Coffee & Tea).
We thoroughly enjoyed our time in New Hampshire and plan to explore all of northern New England on a more comprehensive basis at some point in the future. Next stop: a short swing into Maine to visit friends in Boothbay Harbor and then visit the beautiful city of Portland.
Be seeing you!
P.S. Don’t forget to check out the art and coffee photo galleries in the sidebar.
After our terrific stay in BBRSP we journeyed east on FM 170 (farm to market) alternatively known as Farm Road 170. The local folks just call it the River Road. It is also a segment of the Texas Mountain Trail. Regardless of what name you reference it by it is an absolutely stunning drive. The road is an undulating strip of asphalt winding its way between the mountains of BBRSP on one side and the Rio Grande and Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains on the other.
Big Bend National Park is an expansive park with remarkable diversity in regard to the terrain and species of wildlife and flora. While it is wild and rugged it is far more accessible than Big Bend Ranch State Park. There are visitor centers, a gas station, drinking water, paved scenic drives and more people. The one thing that both parks have in common is the spectacular scenery.
We would rate this park as a “must visit” national park. A couple things to keep in mind – this is not a summer park due to the South Texas location and it is a spring break destination for many Texas families (making mid-March the busiest time).
Re-assessing our itinerary based on developments with Covid-19.