SURROUNDING™ THE GREAT SALTPETRE CAVE
There is another way to penetrate the mountains of Kentucky and reach its river’s beginnings. A flank attack, rugged as all get-out, but a route that follows the path that the Long Hunters took to get in. The first was Skaggs Trace, and it was cut by the brothers who would explore the Upper Green River and the Barren Rivers below. So find your way to Stanford [a possible derivation of the phrase “Standing Fort,” a name given by Native Americans who besieged it unsuccessfully in the Revolutionary War].
Now follow the Dix River upstream [a major tributary of the Kentucky River] to “Crab Orchard.” Back in the day, if you were moving this way, you would know where you were when you were surrounded by a vegetable profusion of crabapple groupings. The sour type, I believe. Best to slake a hiking thirst. The native ones, placed there by nature.
Now on to Brodhead, the headwaters of the Dix River. I like nifty geographic junctions! What you are now looking up at is the great Cumberland Plateau of the Eastern Kentucky Mountains. Let us leave the Long Hunters trace here and head on over to Mt. Vernon. Then let’s “bushwhack” overland without any trails, and see if we can find that “Great Saltpetre Cave!” The one that holds the “Karst-O-Rama” annual caving convention and fundraiser in August of each year. I’m headed there, now, to set up and sell books at this fine festival of fit, courageous cavers!
Kentucky is a good place in which to get lost. You can find places that don’t want to be located. Mountain living as it ought to be. So set your smart phone app to “Hardest Route Possible,” and get going to find “Salt Peter Cave Road.”
The route may take you through Renfro Valley. Lots of music and history there. The Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum is well worth your visit. But head on, now, past Mt. Vernon. Then hopefully, since you have been routed to nowhere, you will be directed to Mullins Station Road [Forest Road 465]. A worthy journey in and of its own. One of those near the “Center of the Universe” kind of places. The railroads pass through here, reaching south for London through a tortuous route crossing over the rugged Rockcastle Hills.
How difficult? You will see as you keep crossing over those railroad tracks on a good gravel road. Why did they choose to build through such a location?
The railroad tracks come together at a place called “Sinks,” but there is nothing that I can see but a cave now owned and protected by the Rockcastle Karst Conservancy. Keep driving. Weird is about to be arriving.
You’re following Roundstone Creek, and that is a famous pioneer landmark. You would know it if you had migrated to Boonesborough with your best buddy, Daniel.
This is a land of increasing wonder and diversity. A vast range of level-like heights that extend before you like a great wall. The jagged, dissected, brain coral-like landscape of the Cumberland Plateau. Sandstone, limestone, shale, and coal. And the more of the latter, the more deeply you reach in.
Rockcastle County is one of those special places in Kentucky. A place where Kentucky’s sedimentary geology opens up for your inspection, moving along creeks, and exposing its cross sections.
And just as you think that you have made the climb in, you fall sharply down into the ruggedly beautiful Rockcastle River wilderness. You are headed somewhere protected by nature, intentionally made difficult to cross over and discover. And that was the last barrier that Daniel Boone and his axe men had to cut through to reach Boonesborough. You should see this land for yourself. Feel what they felt. It is important.
Two creeks lead the way out. Skaggs took the eastern one [Skegg Creek], and Boone took the one to the north [Roundstone Creek]. Go walk in their wake, slow down in your steps. Your breathing will become more regular, your pace, more steady. Get to know this land and the people that live here. The watersheds of those two creeks define the boundaries of Rockcastle County.
Many rugged fords cross over Roundstone Creek. Continue driving along Mullins Station Road. How beautiful. But where the creek turns back on itself, it appears that aliens have landed! Okay, you go there and judge for yourself.
Gigantic tunnels have been blasted into limestone rock, below a cap of solid sandstone. Spooky, and irregular. Strange shadows, jagged edges. Yikes! What is going on in there?
When the railroad came through here, they built a tunnel around it. Well, maybe the limestone was being mined for railroad construction further in. Or maybe those tunnels lead to outer space and freaky alien places. And why is that metal-covered bridge locked, if there isn’t something unusual going on over there? Huh? Yea gads, this is a strange land!
And now the prize to reward this curious exercise. The Great Saltpetre Cave! And it is only one of the great caves in this protected region. Protected by the Rockcastle Karst Conservancy and the Bluegrass Grotto, the Central Ohio Grotto, the Dayton Underground Grotto, and the Greater Cincinnati Grotto [all caving organizations that are affiliated with the National Speleological Society].
What a Kentucky story! This cave was early on “discovered” to be a large, long cavern with at least two entrances. And the saltpeter that could be processed from the bat droppings [guano] made the cave important in the production of gunpowder. During the War of 1812, more than 60 men were producing as much as 1,000 pounds of saltpeter each day.
Now, let’s get to the story of entertainer and impresario, John Lair, who was responsible for building the Renfro Valley Music Venue. By the early 1960s, after also staging many shows in the Great Saltpetre Cave, Lair became its sole owner. In 1989, it was purchased by a foundation, and is now owned by the Rockcastle Karst Conservancy. A pure Kentucky story with a lot of Ohio loving! If the cave is open when you come by, you won’t believe what you will see inside!
Many pioneers climbed up the length of Roundstone Creek, crossing through Boone Gap, hiking past what would become Berea, and traveling down Otter Creek to reach Boonesborough at the Kentucky River.
An excellent resource for explaining Boone’s route is the “Friends of Boone’s Trace (1775)” website[www.boonetrace1775.com]. They have printed directions, an auto tour, bicycle route, and hiking trails. What a great way to experience the wilds of Kentucky the way Daniel Boone’s family did!
Head down Highway 25 to Livingston, at the mouth of Roundstone Creek on the Rockcastle River. A place of geographic beauty where the Rockcastle turns in on itself and will, soon enough [in geologic time], create an island out of a lobe of Wildcat Mountain. Wasn’t a Civil War battle fought over there? And doesn’t the Sheltowee Trace cross over here? And isn’t that famous pioneer meeting place, Hazel Patch, just to the southeast, in Laurel County?
But this is just a reconnaissance. We could head back north, between Roundstone Creek and the refuge of biodiversity on Horse Lick Creek to the east. And then wind our way back to Berea, over Big Hill, and past that famous forested archeological fort there!
But, instead, let us continue our quest to travel into the land of the Three Forks of the Kentucky River! I open my smart phone terrain map. The South Fork of the Kentucky River is east of me, but there are lots of mountains in between. If I reach it, I should be able to pick up my earlier trail between Manchester and Booneville, prominent places for those living along the South Fork Kentucky River.
I must be fooling myself! There is no easy route directly there from here. Time to go bushwhacking again.
I set my GPS to Gray Hawk in the upper reaches of these rivers and creeks. The Warrior’s Path came through this region. Did it come through Clay Gap to the east? If so, that is the route I will seek. Time to go against the grain. Toward a crossing of the South Fork of the Kentucky River on a funky bridge, to another interesting part of “nowhere” hiding out there!
So now I travel down Sextons Creek and cross over Clay Gap to Island City and Conkling. Magical places. That will get us where we’re going. Highway 11, between Booneville and Oneida.
Happy travels again!