Louisville Mega Cavern
It's an eco-conscious world, and the days when you could take a natural cave and distort it into a crazy playland are over. But those rules don't apply to an unnatural cave. And if you own one with 17 miles of passages, well, gangway for fun.
That's the epiphany that dawned on the owners of Louisville Crushed Stone Mine in 2009. "We were visiting a lead mine in Montana," said co-owner Jim Lowry. "Seventy-five miles from the nearest town, and when we got there, there were 20 people standing in line waiting to take a tour. We thought, 'We can do better than this; we're in a city of a million people.'"
Indeed, the now-former Louisville Crushed Stone Mine -- rechristened Louisville Mega Cavern -- is one of the most convenient and cosmopolitan caves we've ever visited (that are public attractions - our End Times-proof web servers used to be in a similar, secure mine on the outskirts of Springfield, MO). In Louisville, you turn at the K-Mart, pull into a small business park, drive down a little hill, and suddenly you're face-to-face with a portal into the underworld.
"It's a weird place," said Charles Gwinn, one of Mega Cavern's zip line guides. "In the winter it's warm and humid in here, and cold and dry out there, so it'll snow in the parking lot and nowhere else in Louisville."
Yes, zip lines. Mega Cavern has five of them. Some natural commercial caves have installed zip lines, too -- above ground, usually next to the gift shop. Mega Cavern's are underground, in vaulted mega-rooms with ceilings 90 feet high. Charles demonstrated the "Zip Into Hell" line for us, set in an abyss stage-lit with reddish-purple spotlights and fake fluttering campfires. It's unapologetically cheesy, and from the launch point, near the roof, in the blackness, it does look like you're jumping into a pit of Hades.
Less daring visitors take Mega Cavern's hour-plus tram tour, a ride-thru underground experience with a cheerful driver guide. Ours took time to mention that there are almost no animals in Mega Cavern (there's no food) and no priceless flowstone or stalactite formations, since they grow an inch a year and the Cavern is only 70 years old.
Tour highlights include a stop at the Cavern worm farm (worms eat paper trash and poop fertilizer) and a drive through its underground atomic bomb shelter. The tram stops so tour-goers can watch a crazy old film projected on one of the cave walls ("All of us," says the narrator, "live within fallout range of a likely target."), then the tram drives into a post-atomic-war survival cave reserved for 50,000 Fort Knox soldiers and Kentucky VIPs.
According to our guide, the only people who would be allow to enter (and survive) were those whose names were on a secret list, "and we know Colonel Sanders was on the list." This prompted several wisecracks from the tour group.
"He was the only one with the recipe," said one.
"He'd have trouble keeping his suit white down here," added another.
The survival room, as reconstructed by Mega Cavern in a large chamber, is a tableau of dozens of miserable-looking showroom dummies in grim clothes huddled around dim kerosene lanterns. It's dirty, cold, wet, and pitch black -- not the accommodations a select refugee might expect. "We thought, maybe we oughta make it look nice," said Jim Lowry. "But, no. It really wasn't."
From mid-November through December visitors can drive their own cars through Mega Cavern to see "Lights Under Louisville," a mile-long trail of blinking reindeer and Nativity Scenes in the world's only underground drive-thru holiday light show. Segway tours are being discussed, and it's not inconceivable that on a future Mega Cavern visit you'll see a Segway Scrooge snatched up by a zip line Santa and whisked from the bomb shelter into hell, or maybe just dropped into a pit of worms.
That's the wonderful promise of can-do-anything Mega Cavern. The whole thing is unnatural, so everything is possible!
Update: Zip lines continue to sprout like stalactites in the Mega Cavern. There are five of them now, including side-by-side racing zips and three wobbly "challenge bridges" arrayed along a special all-underground "adventure course." And in 2015 the Mega Cavern opened the world's only underground bike park with over 45 subterranean trails.
With 17 miles of passages, there's plenty of room for more.