It’s funny how sometimes the best parts of a motorcycle trip have nothing to do with the destination or even the motorcycle. One such moment on a recent Kentucky motorcycle ride involved me relaxing in a hammock under the shade of a tarp, a little sunburnt and a lot exhausted, dozing off for a much-needed nap.
Why was I so exhausted? Hours of walking – first through the woods amidst sinkholes and springs, then deep underground at Mammoth Cave National Park.
The Ride Down
From my home in northern Kentucky, I rode south to Frankfort, the state capital, which has a historic downtown reminiscent of many of the small Kentucky cities that punctuate the farmland and curvy roads in this area.
To fortify myself for the ride to Mammoth Cave, I stopped at Main Street Diner, a ’50s-themed restaurant with checkered floors, colorful decor, and vinyl records in the jukebox. It serves a tasty and satisfying plate of biscuits and gravy, one of my favorite road foods. With historic buildings, colorful murals, and interesting shops and restaurants, Frankfort’s well-preserved downtown area is attractive and vibrant.
An hour and a half of riding through rolling hills landed me in Campbellsville. The day was quickly warming up, so I stopped at Harden Coffee to cool off with an iced chai latte and relax in the calm, quiet cafe.
After another hour of riding, I arrived at Mammoth Cave National Park’s visitor center – always my first stop on trips like this. I can’t count how many interesting trails, roads, and sightseeing opportunities I’ve discovered by speaking to the knowledgeable rangers at visitor centers in state and national parks. They know more than the internet and the brochures combined, and they’re more than happy to share their insights with curious travelers.
With a marked-up map of treasures in hand, I arrived at my campsite and set up camp. My neighbor and his young daughter expressed their awe of how much gear I had fit in the 170-plus liters of storage space on my Kawasaki Versys-X 300. In campgrounds, people may stare, but they rarely talk to the odd solo woman on her motorcycle, so the conversation was welcome.
After the ride and setting up camp, I was too tired to venture far to find actual firewood. I purchased some compressed sawdust “logs” at the cute and convenient camp store nearby, allowing me to enjoy a campfire before bedtime.
Hiking Through the Forest and Touring Underground
First on my agenda was to hike some of the trails in Mammoth Cave National Park. While the park is best known for its extensive underground cave system, I had to give the trails aboveground a chance too.
With names like Sinkhole, Green River Bluffs, and Echo Springs, I was looking forward to seeing what unique features would exist on the trails in this area. Most of them were paved or gravel, which aren’t my favorite surfaces to hike on, but they’re accessible to most walkers – a benefit to anyone looking for an easy hike. I was able to view rock formations, sinkholes, and a spring that arises from within the cave system itself. I saw wildflowers exploding in bloom and several different vantage points of the Green River, which runs into the cave system (and whose eroding properties ultimately created the cave itself).
Soon after, I had the opportunity to take one of the many options for cave tours offered by the park. I chose the Extended Historic tour, a 2.25-hour hike through 2 miles of the main parts of Mammoth Cave. I’m glad I booked in advance because when I arrived, almost every tour for the day was sold out.
A blissful 54 degrees underground felt great after my sweaty, sunny hike to the visitor center, where the cave tours begin. Learning about the cave was fascinating. Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system in the world, with over 400 miles mapped and possibly more than 600 miles yet to be explored. Scientists and researchers uncover new passages nearly every day. Over thousands of years, the cave has been used by Native Americans, soldiers in the War of 1812, slaves, and even a failed tuberculosis clinic. Now its main purpose is to entertain and educate tourists who travel through its dark recesses.
After the tour, I rode into nearby Cave City, past dozens of billboards for other caves and attractions in the area. There were many options to choose from, but I was hungry, so I stopped at a restaurant called 5 Broke Girls. I am not exaggerating that they make the best onion rings I’ve ever tasted – and a mean patty melt too. I’ll stop there again when I’m in the area.
My next stop was Market KY, a bright and colorful shop with a fun assortment of candies and treats, as well as a wall of stickers and a myriad of T-shirt options. A few boutique sweets might have found their way into my saddlebag.
Overburdened on My Kentucky Motorcycle Ride
Back at camp, I was struggling. I was once told that every item you bring on a motorcycle camping trip is a burden. I never really understood this. If the item is useful and offers you shelter or sleep or sustenance, how could it be a burden?
I learned my lesson on this trip. With my new Givi luggage, it was easy to pack my bike to the gills. This exhausted me in two ways. For one, my kit was heavy, and this meant all my low-speed maneuvers felt sluggish and I was easily thrown off-balance. I hate dreading the process of parking or making a U-turn, preferring to be as nimble and light as possible.
Secondly, unpacking and sorting through a pile of gadgets and trinkets to find that one spatula I brought or that collapsible bowl that I ended up forgetting to use when I simply ate out of the dehydrated food package was frustrating and time-consuming.
Finally, I was tired of zippers! Moving my wallet or keys from a zippered pocket of a jacket to a different zippered pocket of my tankbag and back again was tiresome, and I had to repeatedly double check where things were. I hate that panicked moment when you reach into a pocket and the item isn’t there, only to find it in a different pocket moments later.
I ended up going through the trusty things I always use and setting them out front and center, while putting superfluous items aside. This helped ease my frustration, and now that I understand the idea of items burdening us more than I did before, I will be packing much lighter next time.
Back on the Road
It had been a minute since I had ridden more than just to a restaurant and back, and this was a Kentucky motorcycle ride after all. At the visitor center the day before, the ranger had shown me various roads on the map, so I set off to ride one of them: Mammoth Cave Parkway. The speed limit was only 35 mph, so there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to enthusiastically traverse the many curves. One thing I did enjoy, however, was the lovely drop in temperature in this area. It was a welcome reprieve from the hotter conditions elsewhere.
The next day, I rode to Bowling Green, a bustling small city about 30 miles from Mammoth Cave National Park. I stopped in the historic downtown and enjoyed views of Fountain Square Park, which was surrounded by boutiques, a theater, and the Meltdown ice cream shop. Resistance to frozen treats is futile.
Meltdown offers house-made ice cream in unique flavors like brown sugar chocolate chip and dump cake (a Southern amalgamation of pineapple, cherries, yellow cake mix, and butter). I’ve had dump cake many times, and putting it in ice cream elevated it to new heights. I savored a sweet scoop on a bench near buzzing bumblebees that were enjoying their own treat of some purple flowers.
Bowling Green is where Chevrolet Corvettes are produced, and it’s home to the National Corvette Museum. Although I had been to the NCM Motorsports Park racetrack, which is located across Interstate 65 from the museum, for motorcycle track days, I had never been inside the museum. I spent over an hour looking at exhibits, such as a cross-section of the third Corvette ever created, powerful racecars, the iconic Batmobile, and even the remnants of a sinkhole that happened at the museum in 2014.
This natural disaster damaged eight Corvettes, one of which was estimated to be worth $750,000. While the damage had been cleaned up, markings on the floor showed the vast size of the sinkhole – over 40 feet wide – and a plexiglass panel on the floor showed the bottom of the sinkhole, 30 feet below my feet. Standing there was both eerie and exhilarating.
Before leaving, I ate at the museum’s restaurant, the Stingray Grill. It wasn’t your usual cafeteria-style grill but rather a swanky eatery with nice decor and even better food. I can add “blackberry bacon grilled cheese” to the list of delicious foods I’ve tried.
Finding a Lost River
The final thing on my list for Bowling Green was what initially drew me to this area in the first place: the Lost River Cave. Although much smaller than Mammoth Cave, as its name implies, Lost River Cave has a river leading into it, and the owners run an underground boat tour.
A lost river is a waterway that flows into a cave or underground passageway. I was fascinated by the idea of floating into a cave, so I hopped into the small pontoon boat and listened to my charming tour guide tell the history of this cave.
Having changed hands many times over the years, the cave’s worst fate was when it was filled with trash, and perhaps its best was when it was a secret nightclub during Prohibition. I was content with its current life as a touristy but fun and engaging tour. It was thrilling to duck under the low ceiling at the entrance to the cave and float along the dam inside that was built to keep the water in.
The next day, it was that bittersweet time to pack up and leave, thus ending this particular Kentucky motorcycle ride. I had a great experience at the national park and exploring Cave City and Bowling Green. I also enjoyed the downtime, especially that nap in my hammock on the day I ventured into Mammoth Cave. Over the short span of just a few days, I had hiked at ground level in forests and museums, walked underground in cool and dark caves, floated along a lost river, and even hovered 30 feet above a sinkhole. This trip had a little bit of everything, and I look forward to coming back.