We left Atlanta on December 27th and headed north, stopping for soul food at Southern Star in Chattanooga, our borrowed Kia Sedona packed for 1,000 miles of exploration across the Bluegrass State. A couple hours later, we were peeing at the Kentucky Welcome Center off I-65, and 45 minutes after that, pulling up to Mammoth Cave National Park.
Here’s what’s ridiculous about Mammoth Cave–it’s 80 miles from where I grew up in Hendersonville, TN. I loved exploring caves as a kid; we had a few within biking distance, and we had a couple more within short driving distance that we explored as high schoolers or college students, but we never went to the national park just over an hour to the north (despite visiting the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, etc. in the ’80s). I’ve wanted to visit it for 30 years. This was the year to do it. We even primed the spelunking pump a bit by visiting Russell Cave National Monument a few days before Christmas while in north Alabama to see my parents:
The Mammoth Cave visitor center was only open until 4:30pm, but we had enough time to peruse the exhibits, let the children get their junior ranger workbooks, explore the gift shop, eat some fried chicken, and check into our little cabin/hotel room thing.
The next morning (the 28th), we were up early to begin our 2-hour/2-mile guided tour of the cave. It was freezing outside, which meant the deeper inside the cave we went, the warmer it felt, and the more clothes I was carrying instead of wearing. Once we’d looped back out, we walked down to the Green River, where we saw ice formations on the surrounding rock and at least 10 fairly tame deer (a couple of shy bucks and many less shy does).
We boarded the minivan and headed north to Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace in Hodgenville, where the children secured yet another junior ranger badge, and we learned where our 16th President spent his first 7 years.
That night, we ate at the Merrick Inn, a suggestion from my friend Jim Bob’s father-in-law who’s lived in Lexington for several decades. I had some fried chicken, and it was excellent (way better than the fried chicken I had at the cafe at Mammoth Cave, or anywhere we stopped subsequent to this dinner, including the original KFC). Because it was fancy pants and we’d been hiking in or around a cave most of the day, we drove past valet to a dark area of the parking lot, parked the car, and then dropped trou to put on nicer clothes in the freezing darkness before pulling back around to valet and entering. The food was worth it.
We woke early on the 29th for our Thoroughbred Heritage Horse Farm Tour, which meant climbing into a van with some strangers and heading to Keeneland. We learned about horse racing and betting and jockeys. We visited horse farms like Donamire, Hill ‘n’ Dale, and McPeek; we learned about horse breeding and stud fees. We petted horses worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and saw some worth tens of millions. It was crazy.
After our time with the horses, we toured Town Branch Bourbon (part of the famous Bourbon Trail) and Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company and sampled many delicious beers and bourbons and whiskeys. Then, we checked into the Beaumont Inn, an old finishing school built in 1845 that’s a B&B now (we learned about it from the 1000 Places book I consult before any trip).
Dinner was exceptional, and we enjoyed walking about the inn, looking at old photographs on the wall and playing checkers in the lounge. And, they have lots of good bourbons, because Kentucky.
On the morning of the 30th, we enjoyed a large Southern breakfast and packed up for the Ark Encounter, a life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark in Williamstown, KY. We arrived about noon. It was freezing outside…like single digits cold (plus wind)…maybe the coldest temperatures I’ve experienced in 30-something years, including hunting and ski trips. But, the ark was warm and had tons of exhibits and information showing where the animals rode and how the process “worked” so many thousands of years ago. We also rode camels and petted goats.
We stayed for the evening lights show on the side of the ark, huddling around a miniature bonfire the facility built for spectators. That night, we stayed in Georgetown before heading back to Atlanta on the 31st.
We pulled over in Corbin, KY at the Colonel Sanders Cafe and Museum (birthplace of KFC) on our way to meet my folks in Chattanooga for a 3pm “Sunday brunch” at Easy Bistro and reclaim our dog Winnie from her week of spoiled adulation. We got home about 5pm, and I put a pork shoulder on the smoker and (with significant help from my bride) prepared for 20-30 friends to come visit for the bowl games in our newly finished basement the next day.
All in all, a fun winter roadtrip, and the Sedona made for a wonderfully roomy, safe, and comfortable ride. I’d love to go back and see Louisville (and attend a horse race!) and more of the Bourbon Trail establishments when it’s warmer and we have more time, but I’m glad we could have some time together exploring a new state (for the children), getting 2 more NPS junior ranger badges, and enjoying some fine fried chicken to close out 2017, the best travel year we’ve had as a family, from starting on Jan 1 at the Grand Canyon to waking up on Dec 31 near Noah’s Ark in snow-covered Kentucky.
Happy New Year, everyone. Time to start planning 2018’s national park adventures!