If the Gatlinburg/ Pigeon Forge area is Tennessee's Capital of Kitsch, that honor in Kentucky must go to the Cave Area in the western part of the state.
A veritable kingdom of recreational opportunities lures visitors — from go-karts to gunfights, and dinosaurs to Down Under, Southern style. What has given rise to these man-made attractions is proximity to one of the nation's greatest natural attractions.
Mammoth Cave National Park (visitors center on Mammoth Cave Parkway, Mammoth Cave; (270) 758-2180) is the most extensive cave system in the world, with more than 350 miles of mapped passageways. The cave's natural wonders — including places called Roosevelt's Dome, Giant's Coffin, the Snowball Room and the Star Chamber — are vast formations of stalactites, stalagmites and columns, carved from stone and eroded by water into eerie shapes. Mammoth Cave, one of the nation's first major tourist attractions, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, offering tours for beginners to expert cavers.
Mammoth Cave, though the largest and most famous, is far from the only cavern in this part of Kentucky. While in the area, visitors can also descend into Diamond Caverns (1900 Mammoth Cave Parkway, Park City; (270) 749-2233), which bills itself as "Kentucky's most beautiful cave"; Onyx Cave (near Guntown Mountain Amusement Park, Cave City; (270) 773-3530), whose breathtaking cave formations are known as "cave bacon"; and Lost River Cave (2818 Nashville Road, Bowling Green; (270) 393-0077), which claims to have Kentucky's only underground boat tour on a river listed by Ripley's Believe It or Not! as "the shortest and deepest in the world."
Once you are caved out, you can turn your attention to some of the area's other attractions. There's Kentucky Down Under, a little piece of the Australian Outback in the Bluegrass (3700 L&N Turnpike Road, Horse Cave; (270) 786-2634; check online for current hours and prices). Take the kids on a walkabout, spotting wallabies, emus and kangaroos and even pan for gold.
The kids are also sure to love Dinosaur World (711 Mammoth Cave Rd., Cave City; (270) 773-4345; http://www.dinoworld.net; open 8:30 a.m. Central time to sunset daily; check online for current prices), where some 100 life-size dinosaur statues are posed in an outdoor setting reminiscent of Jurassic Park.
Guntown Mountain (101 Mammoth Cave Road, Cave City; (270) 773-2430; call for current seasonal hours of operation; $8.95-$14.95) is a sight to behold. A chairlift takes visitors to the top of the mountain (OK, hill) to a re-created Wild West town, complete with cancan shows, live country music, stunt performances and gunfights on the main street.
If you are looking for more grown-up activities, there is the Shake Rag District and the National Corvette Museum, both in Bowling Green. The former is a National Register District offering self- guided walking tours of an area known for its African-American historical significance.
The Corvette museum (350 Corvette Drive, Bowling Green; (270) 781-7973; 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Central time daily except for major holidays; $4.00-$8) is a monument to America's love affair with a car. A quarter of a mile from the assembly plant where all Corvettes are manufactured, the museum features one of the first Corvettes off the assembly line in 1953, the historic one millionth 'Vette, and full-scale dioramas showing classic Corvette models in period settings.
If you are looking to stay the night, there are a couple of excellent options. Barren River Lake State Resort Park (1149 State Park Road, Lucas; 1-800-325-0057) has a lodge and cottages surrounding a 10,000-acre lake, an 18-hole golf course, hiking, boating and fishing.
But if you have kids, you probably won't get past the red and white tepees at Wigwam Village Motor Court (601 North Dixie Highway, Cave City; (270) 773-3381). Built in the 1930s, the National Historic Landmark harks back to a time before cookie-cutter motels cropped up along the Interstate. Each concrete tepee has original cane and hickory furnishings. Plan to book in advance in summer.
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