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Vintage signs from other show caves decorate the vintage lodge of Diamond Caverns.
Vintage signs from other show caves decorate the vintage lodge of Diamond Caverns.

Diamond Caverns

Field review by the editors.

Park City, Kentucky

Discovered by accident, Diamond Caverns has survived as a tourist destination beside its giant neighbor, Mammoth Cave, since 1859. The Diamond Caverns property owner had it named and ready for customers only 35 days after its discovery, making it one of the oldest paid attractions in the U.S. It calls itself the most beautiful cave in Kentucky.

Tiny patch of blue is the original Caverns entrance.
Tiny patch of blue is the original Caverns entrance.

That's a key point: people go to Mammoth Cave because it's big, but Mammoth has surprisingly few formations; and, realistically, how much of a 426-mile-long cave can you expect to see on a one-hour tour? Diamond Caverns, on the other hand, is efficiently compact: you get to see all of its most accessible parts, and it's full of what you want to see in a cave: columns, draperies, cave bacon, stalactites, stalagmites.

But no bats. According to Stanton, our tour guide, Diamond Caverns is too wet for bats. There really is a lot of water in Diamond Caverns, and Stanton warned our tour group against drinking any from the Shimmering Pool as we walked past. "Because of all the minerals," he said. "It's a natural laxative."

Diamond Caverns: a tourist attraction since before there were cars.
Diamond Caverns: a tourist attraction since before there were cars.

Diamond Caverns is also full of steps, 350 of them, including 50 down and 50 back up into the cave lodge, which shelters the Caverns entrance. A trip through Diamond Caverns is a trip back to an earlier time, when cave tourists had to be limber, moderately thin, steady on their feet, and not easily winded.

Stanton stopped the tour at various points to relate Diamond Caverns history, including the decades-long feud among the 20+ caves that once battled for tourist supremacy in the area. Theirs was not an honorable fight. "They would break into caves after hours," Stanton said. "They'd bring 2x4s, baseball bats, crowbars, sledgehammers." A number of Diamond Caverns stalactites were smashed. One member of our group pointed to a dusty-looking flowstone formation. "What's that?" she asked. "It's soot from our cave lodge," said Stanton. "From when it got burned down during the cave wars."

The first 50 Caverns formations are steps.
The first 50 Caverns formations are steps.

The Flint Ridge region is now at peace; there's no more arson, no more smashing. Many of the 20+ warring caves have been abandoned. Some of the biggest, such as Great Onyx Cave and Floyd Collins Crystal Cave, were purchased by the federal government and closed. "We were in better with the politicians than they were," said Gordon Smith, co-owner of Diamond Caverns, "so we survived."

Back on the tour, Stanton cautioned everyone to duck under Knockout Rock ("The souvenir you don't want to bring home is a scar.") and then turned off the lights to give the group a moment of total cave darkness. "If anyone has any questions," he said, "please raise your hands now" (Some cave tour guide jokes never grow old).

Graffiti from 19th century tourists.
Graffiti from 19th century tourists.

A stop in the Cricket Room triggered a smartphone frenzy as tour members tried to get snaps of cave bugs crawling on the walls. Stanton said that after Diamond Caverns was wired electrically in 1917, the crickets prospered -- eating algae that grew near the warm light bulbs. A question about blind cave fish in the Caverns drew an affirmative response from Stanton, although to see them, he said, we'd have to endure a grueling slog through the Sandy Crawl, which our group was relieved to learn is not part of the public tour.

Smartphone frenzy in the cave cricket room.
Smartphone frenzy in the cave cricket room.

One easily visible formation unique to Diamond Caverns is Handkerchief Rock: a real handkerchief left on a stalagmite by an early cave explorer that is slowly being entombed by dripping water. "I don't want to sound like a nerd," said Stanton, "but we're one of the lucky few in our lifetime to actually see that handkerchief. In only a few hundred years, it's gonna be disappeared."

A visit to the Bridal Chamber room prompted the surprise revelation from Stanton that his grandparents were married in Diamond Caverns, as were many other local couples. Cave weddings were money-makers, similar to modern museums renting themselves at night for corporate parties and ghost tours. Stanton said that weddings in Diamond Caverns were eventually stopped because "people were flat-out getting hurt," and also because they were taking pieces of the cave home as souvenirs.

Another Caverns visitor has made it past Knockout Rock.
Another Caverns visitor has made it past Knockout Rock.

At the back end of the cave Stanton stopped our group at the Stairway to Nowhere, an impressive but nonetheless futile attempt by Diamond Caverns to reach the surface for a second exit. The well-worn steps on the never-used staircase, said Stanton, were caused by erosion, "not ghost people, although we get asked that a lot." During heavy rains, he said, the staircase becomes a waterfall.

We then retraced our steps to the Caverns entrance, with Stanton calling out more formations along the way. He pointed with his flashlight to a massive stalactite whose lower section had collapsed onto the cave floor. "That happened 6,000 years ago, during an earthquake beyond our earthly scale," Stanton said. He reassured us that such tremors were unlikely to occur during our tour (which was almost over) and then said that he'd deliberately distracted our attention from the stalactite earlier. "I don't point it out," he said, "because everyone has to walk under it two times and it gets them a little freaked out."

Such thrills are part of what make for a good cave tour, and we climbed back to the lodge with a better appreciation for sky and surface living. Co-owner Gordon told us that the lodge, built in 1941 to replace the one that had been burned down, was "better than any other for a show cave in the United States" -- like something you'd find at Yellowstone National Park, he told us, with its wood paneling and a big fireplace. He also showed us the bathrooms, which he had engineered himself. "Everything's spotless," he said. "Your reputation is your restrooms."

Maybe those casualties of the cave war should've spent less time smashing stalactites and more time building better bathrooms.

Diamond Caverns

Address:
1900 Mammoth Cave Pkwy, Park City, KY
Directions:
I-65 exit 48. Turn west onto KY-255/Mammoth Cave Pkwy. Drive 1.5 miles. Entrance on the right.
Hours:
Summer daily 9-5. Off-season 10-4. One-hour tour. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
270-749-2233
Admission:
Adults $22.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Ruins of Bell's TavernRuins of Bell's Tavern, Park City, KY - 2 mi.
Trail to Sand Cave, Where Floyd Collins DiedTrail to Sand Cave, Where Floyd Collins Died, Cave City, KY - 3 mi.
Big Mike's: Mystery House, Rocks, and Big MoBig Mike's: Mystery House, Rocks, and Big Mo, Cave City, KY - 2 mi.
In the region:
Approximate Cannonball in Building, Elizabethtown, KY - 41 mi.

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