SURROUNDING™ DISMAL ROCK
Mammoth Cave is a world-class attraction, worthy of your immediate visit. May you soon enough wander within its dark passage! But we are headed aboveground today. Into Edmonson County, to the wonders that you missed driving through it to reach the Cave!
Let us enter from the north, leaving the Freeway [I-65] at Munfordville, Kentucky. A good place to begin a journey. Along the Green River of Kentucky!
Wind your way through that old town’s history. To the railway station [now gone] through which you could once reach and travel the world. You can still see the Amish traveling in the old horse and buggy. Give them a wide berth and wave!
In the early days, to reach the “Forks” [the land between the Junction of the Nolin and Green Rivers], you would have to mount a horse to explore further within. But only by climbing down the high rock faces, and around giant sandstone boulders, would you be granted an audience with the other creatures that lived there.
You can still do that. Climb and explore, I mean. But first I want to introduce you to this country by traversing infrequently traveled roads and then finding a convenient spot as your base of operations.
So up onto the Dripping Springs Escarpment you ride. Toward Cub Run, a crossroads community. Turn south on Highway 1827, and swing within the rocks. The old map shows a “Demunbruns Store” at the Junction with Highway 728, coming round from the north. And there was a store, of sorts, there, when I was doing my research in those hollows in the 1970s. Take that highway back and you will cross Dog Creek and rise to ride over fertile crest ridge tops. It is a wonderful country to explore. I found the Filmy Fern [Trichomanes boschianum] hidden in there.
And now a historical mystery. There are trails, outfitters, fire stations, and even a school road named “Lincoln.” Abraham Lincoln? No, I think it is in reference to his father, Thomas, who was a cabinetmaker, at one time, in Hodgenville and Elizabethtown. Those two towns are on the upper reaches of the Nolin River. Would he not have been attracted to the deep, dark forests found in the canyons downstream? With exotic timbers? Local lore says he might have had a farm here. No reference seems to support such an assertion. But if I were a woodworker, working upstream, I would certainly be drawn deep down into these recesses!
The area was first settled by colonists around 1804. I am certain that they were astonished by the massive forests, rock formations, and wild things found living in this region. But they were not the first to reach them. Native Americans, for thousands of years, traveled into this place of wonder. See this glory through their eyes, as well as the eyes of the first colonists, and you will realize what a special place they have taken you.
Head south into the northern reaches of Mammoth Cave National Park [the best part, I think], once reached by crossing the Green River at Houchin Ferry. But no more. The Lock and Dam at Brownsville [No. 6] has been removed, and the pool, dropped to natural flows, is too shallow for the ferryboat to cross [here the ripple-living, freshwater mussels of Kentucky now applaud].
But regardless, drive down to the river and the abandoned ferry crossing. Not many tourists will follow, for there is no way to circle out. To your right, beckoning your hiking and solitude, is Bylew Hollow, Cubby Cove, Second Creek, and First Creek, all flowing west into the Nolin River. Eastern Hemlocks [Tsuga canadensis] hide in these places!
There are trails and campgrounds in the mountainous shadows of those ridges [check with the Park for proper camping permits]. First Creek Trail [6.3 miles in], Second Creek camps [3 miles in], First Creek Camp 1 [4.2 miles in], First Creek Camp 2 [5.1 miles in], McCoy Hollow [6.3 miles in], and the Blair Spring Trail [1.4 miles in]. Hikers, campers, and horse riders in the jungles of Kentucky. How delightful!
Just past the junction of Routes 1827 and 728, turn onto Ollie Road. Follow it along the northern park boundary. It is a wonderful view of mountaintop living. It leads to the Great Onyx Job Corps, nestled in tightly next to Cubby Cove and the Nolin River.
Along Ollie Road, you will find private campgrounds, large horse stables, and even off-road vehicle rental establishments. But at the mouth of Bylew Hollow, below Whistle Mountain, you are back in the Park land proper!
Continue west on Highway 728, past the Blue Holler Cafe [“German-American home-cooked food”] and the Webb Mart [“A little bit of everything”]. A short ride off to your right will lead you to your night’s rest. Follow the signs to the Nolin River State Park Campground and Beach! A perfect place to camp the night and write up your notes, like these!
The next morning, take a refreshing swim, and then pull your teardrop trailer back onto Highway 728, toward the Nolin River Dam. Turn left immediately, down to its tailwater section. There is a Recreation Area splendidly maintained by the Corps of Engineers. You will find yourself staring up at massive Dismal Rock and staring down the Nolin River as it enters into the dark canopy of the Western Mixed Mesophytic Forest!
Now, let’s head for Brownsville, our ultimate destination for ice cream [Bertie’s] and dinner [your choice, take a look at the Edmonson County Tourism Commission website (www.cavesandlakes.com)]. But first turn left onto Kyrock Road and loop through some nifty industrial geology. Drive carefully, and not like the Indy cars racing on the first asphalt roadway laid down for the Indianapolis 500. That road surface was made from Kentucky rock asphalt [Kyrock], mined right here and barged down the Nolin River.
“Rock Asphalt,” sometimes called “Tar Sands.” Sandstone impregnated with heavy oils [bitumen], seeping up the side of the vast Illinois Basin [great geology there!]. Read up about the “Kentucky Rock Asphalt Company” and its history. Gone now, but it once employed 2,000 people!
Drive slowly, but race your imagination! That is the Nolin River you see on your left, just downstream from Dismal Rock, and just upstream from Bylew Hollow and the one-time settlement at Whistle Mountain. You see Pigeon Creek to your left as the road bottoms out. It was once enlarged as a harbor for the barge boats of rock asphalt!
You will come back out to the main road at Sweeden [Nordic settlers]. Now cross to Route 1365 headed west, and map yourself to “Mouth of Bear Creek Road.” At Segal, head down to the Green River.
This land, west of the Nolin River, is defined by three long creeks flowing south to the Green River. Independent Duchies set up by nature next to the adjacent Nolin River Kingdom. Bear Creek is exceptionally long, its waters having carved deep, tight passageways into the interior. Big Reedy Creek is different. Long, but with wide, flat floodplains. This is the best route up from the Green River to Caneyville and Leitchfield and that next northern watershed, the Rough River. The third is Little Reedy Creek, [were the reeds Kentucky’s native giant cane, Arundinaria gigantea?].
You are driving on Blackgold Road [rock asphalt], traveling down to Beaver Dam Creek [the eastern limb of Bear Creek]. This is rich, moist rock. Cross the bridge and you are on Grassland Road!
At Segal, continue on the Mouth of Bear Creek Road [what a great name!]. Down a high, thin ridge past horse farms on an old, wide asphalt road. It must have once gone somewhere important. Honaker’s Ferry [later Bear Creek Ferry] operated here from the 1920s to the 1960s in the pool created by Lock and Dam No. 5 on the Green River just downstream.
This is a magnificent piece of geography. You can see the ramp on the other side of the river at Glenmore. It is the point where three counties come together [Edmonson, Warren, and Butler]. How many people far back in antiquity have stood here in wonder at such natural beauty?
Another auspicious movement of history is now occurring. Green River Lock and Dam No. 6, at Brownsville, has been removed and the Lock and Dam No. 5, at Glenmore just downstream, is next. I can hear Green River tumble and foam over the dam. But I also hear jackhammers. The dam is doomed. The river will soon have its room, free again, to come and leave as it will. Bear Creek will be flooded no more, except by the hand of weather.
Jerusalem Artichoke [Helianthus tuberosus, a native sunflower with a buttery-tasting tuber (not an artichoke)] is in yellow flower. And standing tall on the slopes down low [almost hiding from man’s activity], is a stand of Kentucky’s Giant Cane, ready to return as conqueror when the lake water is drained and vanquished.
This is the mighty Green River. One of the centers of freshwater mussel evolution. Mark this spot, complete with ramp, as a place to take out your canoe after researching the river. There is an excellent put-in under the bridge at Brownsville.
Now ride that old road back through Asphalt [another one-time tar sands town] into Brownsville. There are road signs that tell you to watch out for: “Amish Buggies,” “Tractors” and “Horses.” I saw no “Logging Truck” signs, but as I follow this one, I look at the ends of its fallen timber. Is it wrong to count rings and wonder of that life form’s time in the forest?
Have your ice cream in Brownsville first, then dinner. And, having made your reservation with the Park officials, pull into the Campground at Houchin Ferry, pitch your tent [tent camping only], and look across to the lonely ramp on the other side of the river. You will sleep well now, knowing that you have already been there!