Descending into cave entrance in downtown Horse Cave, Kentucky
Have you ever heard about a town being built on top of a cave? We’re not talking about your average cave — more like the largest natural opening of a cave in existence. A cave that’s so unique that inside it is the world’s longest underground suspension bridge above subterranean rivers 100 feet below ground.
This sounds like a set constructed for a fictitious spelunking film, but it’s not. This place is real, and it’s called Horse Cave, Kentucky.
The town was founded around 1850 by Major Albert Anderson on land surrounding the scenic entrance to Hidden River Cave. The reason why the town grew on top of the cave was due to the water access inside making it a livable location for settlers.
In 1888, Dr. George A. Thomas purchased a home by the cave entrance, and eventually purchased the cave for just $375.00. He saw the cave as a source of both water and an electrical power source.
Historic hydroelectric system and water pumps at Hidden River Cave. Photo courtesy of William T. Austin Family
A hydroelectric system was created to gather water from the cave using a wooden tub which was hauled up to a springhouse by a bucket trolley. This created an enthusiastic buzz in the surrounding communities that Horse Cave began offering tours from 1912 through 1943.
However, groundwater pollution from sewage led to the cave’s closing in 1943. For 50 years Hidden River Cave had been all but forgotten.
In 1992, cleanup efforts Hidden River Cave’s large sinkhole entrance began. With that, so did exploring and mapping the cave. (Still today the complexity of the passageways is still a mystery).
A tour group visits Hidden River Cave circa 1930. Photo courtesy of William T. Austin Family
Today, twenty-one types of cave species have been discovered including clear crayfish and eyeless fish! Hidden River Cave had transformed from one of the most polluted to one of the most biologically diverse cave ecosystems in the world.
In fact, in 1867, “Father of the National Parks”, John Muir, talked about traveling to Horse Cave in his book, ‘A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf’ calling the area, “a noble gateway to the birthplace of springs and fountains and the dark treasures of the mineral kingdom.”
Since seeing is believing, we’re are going to help you plan your own weekend escape to one of Mike Wolfe’s favorite towns to visit, Horse Cave. Read on to discover his top picks for where to stay, eat, pick, and explore in town.
WHERE TO STAY
Let’s travel back in time to the wild frontier with a unique stay at the Horse Cave KOA Holiday in one of their Conestoga Wagons. You wouldn’t know it from the outside, but the interior of these wagons features modern amenities like electricity and heat! You also have the option to rent one of the Treehouses at KOA too! Enjoy views of roaming hills and pastures from 20 feet off the ground. The KOA also offers campsites and cabins rentals. A little further down the road, you’ll have the opportunity to check in to the Historic Wigwam Village. Built in 1937, these unique structures feature original hickory-and-cane furnishings and sleep 2 to 4 guests.
Now that you are unpacked, let’s head downtown.
Conestoga Wagons available at Horse Cave KOA Holiday photo credit to Lee Huffman
WHERE TO EXPLORE
Did you know thanks to the construction of a hydroelectric system in the 1890s, Horse Cave became the first city outside of Louisville to have electricity? They were also the first city in the state to have incandescent street lights! Much of that charm remains in Horse Cave’s Historic District which has more than 50 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
What’s also unique about downtown streets is how narrow they are — at just 30 feet wide! When Major Albert Anderson founded Horse Cave, he laid out the streets with linen tape to accommodate the horse and carriages. Those narrow streets are still part of the town’s charm today — so watch your mirrors!
Cyclist ride down Main Street featuring “Horse Cave Stories Cell Phone Tour” sign, Mike Wolfe photo
While you’re walking down Main Street, you can trace the pathway of the cave under your feet! Along the pathway of the cave is the award-winning Horse Cave Stories Cell Phone Tour that tells the story of a town that grew on top of a cave.
In Horse Cave’s Downtown Shopping District, you’ll find a dozen small businesses beneath colorful awnings. If antique and vintage home decor is your thing, check out A Walk Through Time which is considered the smallest “big store” in town covering 2,000 square feet. Inside you can find just about anything, and if you can’t find what you’re searching for, shop owner, Emry Riley, knows how to track it down.
“Every time I stop by Emry’s shop I end up spending hours talking to local pickers who gather around on the couch and table up front sharing stories and catching up,” says Mike.
Pickers and locals talk antiques inside A Walk Through Time, Mike Wolfe photo
Don’t forget to pick around Emry’s wife’s shop, GeeGa’s, offering a more feminine collection of vintage home decor pieces. Caveland Antique Mall is another great shop full of treasures from around the region.
Local art is a great souvenir when traveling. Stop into Sims Studios & Art Shop, this studio has been part of the community for almost a decade! They offer custom framing services, art restoration, art classes, portraits, and more.
“Jesse’s Frame shop is more like an artist retreat,” says Mike. “It has a lot of really amazing local art and a great vinyl selection…ask him to spin you a few.”
LEFT: Emry Riley owner of A Walk Through Time RIGHT: Jesse Sims owner of Sims Studios & Art Shop, Mike Wolfe photo
If boutique shopping is your game, don’t miss the collections at The Hanger Boutique and All Things By Mel.
If you feel like taking a 5-minute drive out of the downtown area, you’ll find the Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo. This Australian-themed animal park offers interactive experiences like feeding kangaroos and Rainbow Lorikeet birds!
Main Street mural painted by Jesse Sims, Mike Wolfe photo
All that shopping and animal feeding can work up an appetite! Let’s check out some places serving delicious local dishes.
WHERE TO EAT
Dennison’s Roadside Market has been a Horse Cave favorite since 1992. This family-owned business offers seasonal and local produce like fruits and vegetables and even homemade jams and jellies. Inside you’ll also find Chaney’s Ice Cream, Penn’s, Country Hams, and more. They even offer berry picking when in season. We’d recommend filling up on food here to take back to your campsite and cook up some delicious meals after a day of exploring the caves.
Dennison’s Roadside Market, Mike Wolfe photo
C&J’s Diner is your ticket to classic southern homemade dishes like biscuits and gravy, meatloaf, and burgers. Don’t skip on the pizza and pasta dishes at The Feeder Restaurant or the baked goods at Farmwald’s Restaurant and Bakery for some homemade Amish treats and fish fry Fridays!
Now that you’ve eaten and have reclaimed some energy to explore, let’s get you ready for the caves!
HOW TO EXPERIENCE THE CAVES
The centerpiece of the town is Hidden River Cave. It’s the largest privately operated cave in Kentucky. You can take a 50-minute guided tour, zip line across the cave entrance, or even rappel down the limestone face of the cave! Sunset Dome, named for its unusual lighting effects, contains the greatest unobstructed floor space found underground to date. Adjacent to the cave is the American Cave Museum, where you can learn more about the history of how the cave was discovered.
Guided tour inside Hidden River Cave photo credit by Renegade Winters
We’ll let you in on a secret: there are eight major caves within 45 miles of Hidden River Cave including Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest in the world. Seize the opportunity to get a close-up view of stalactites, stalagmites, and other formations created by water and time.
Hidden gems towns like Horse Cave, Kentucky are a great reminder to always remain curious no matter where you are, because you never know what is waiting to be discovered above or below the surface. Don’t forget your flashlight!
Sunset Dome photo by Matt McClintock
ABOUT MIKE WOLFE
Mike Wolfe grew up in Bettendorf, Iowa, trash picking his way through his early years. Bikes in bad shape were his passion, pulling his two-wheeled loves from his neighbors’ trash to breathe them back to life to sell to other neighborhood kids. Wolfe’s been covered in the dust and rust of Americana ever since, mining for buried treasures in backroad barns and leaning sheds across the country. His discoveries of all the bits and pieces of American history that have survived the ages in the hands of amateur collectors and serious hoarders end up in one of Wolfe’s Antique Archaeology stores in Le Claire, Iowa, or Nashville, Tenn.
Wolfe lived a simple life on the road in obscurity, driving from one small town to the next in a non-descript cargo van. That all changed in 2010 when he hit gold. In January of that year, the History Channel debuted the first episode of “American Pickers,” a television show created by Wolfe that drew in 5.4 million viewers each week. As the show’s star, Wolfe suddenly lost his anonymity. Heading into its 11th season, “American Pickers” is still a hit and shows no sign of going away anytime soon.