Generally speaking, caves and caverns aren’t very accessible. After all, in most cases they’re underground. That said, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Although these subterranean showplaces don’t have an elevator like Carlsbad Caverns, or an accessible drive-through tour like Fantastic Caverns, they’re definitely worth a visit, as access features have been added to make them more accessible for wheelchair-users and slow walkers.
Cub Run Cave
Located in Hart County Kentucky, just 15 miles west of Munfordville, Cub Run Cave (270-524-1444, www.cubruncave.net) was first discovered in 1950. Shortly thereafter it was closed to the public, and remained boarded up for over 55 years. In July 2006 it reopened for tours, and because of the long hiatus, it’s still in pristine condition.
Although access upgrades were added for the grand reopening, it still doesn’t have true barrier-free access. In fact the owners bill it as “handicap friendly”, rather than wheelchair-accessible. That said, since a self-defined “slow walker” recommended it to me — and since she was very excited to find it doable for her — I thought it was worth a mention.
The tour actually starts at the Cub Run Cave Gift Shop and Restaurant, which has level access, with parking in a gravel parking lot in front. Tours are held three times a day in the summer, but they may be cancelled during heavy rains. There is also level access to the restaurant next door, which offers an all-you-can-eat catfish special. And although the restrooms are big enough for wheelchairs, they lack grab bars.
From the gift shop, visitors follow the tour guide in their own cars down to the cave entrance, which is about a mile down the road. There’s plenty of room for parking in a gravel area outside the cave. That said, you have to be able to make your way up four steps to get inside the cave. After that, there are wide level walkways and elevated boardwalks through the cave, with another 10 steps near the halfway point. The one-and-a-half-hour tour is very interesting, and you’ll see cave wildlife like blind crayfish and salamanders, as you make your way along the quarter-mile walkway past massive stalactites and stalagmites and gorgeous crystal pools.
According to the tour guide, wheelchair-users have done the cave tour, but they had to either be assisted or carried up the steps. They do ask that you call and chat with them if you have any access issues, so they can properly prepare for your visit. Additionally, they hope to ramp the entrance in the future, so don’t hesitate to check back to see if more access upgrades have be added.
Mammoth Cave National Park (270-758-2180, www.nps.gov/maca), which boasts over 400 miles of underground caverns, is located just 40 minutes south of Cub Run Cave, near Cave City, Kentucky.
There’s plenty of accessible parking in the Visitor Center parking lot, with level access to the building. Inside you’ll find interpretive exhibits, a gift shop and an information desk staffed by rangers. This is also the place to buy your cave tour tickets, as the caves are only open for group tours.
The most accessible cave tour is the Frozen Niagara Tour, which is touted by park rangers as being suitable for people who use wheelchairs, canes and walkers. This one-and-a-half-hour tour begins just outside the Visitor Center, and travels by bus to the cave entrance. From there, there are 12 stairs to get into the cave, and another 98 optional stairs along the tour. The elevation gain is only 40 feet, and although it’s not barrier-fee it’s doable for many people. Again, like in Cub Run Cave, you have to be able to navigate the stairs to get to the accessible part of the tour.
That said, the caves are only part of this 52,000-acre national park; and if you’d like to stick around and enjoy if for a few days, the nearby Mammoth Cave Hotel (270-758-2225, www.mammothcavehotel.com) makes a very accessible home base. Located just across the bridge from the Visitor Center, there’s plenty of accessible parking, with level access to the front lobby.
Room 403, which is located near the lobby, is a very accessible choice. Access features in this spacious room include wide doorways, good pathway access and lowered closet rods. It’s furnished with two 24-inch high double beds, with an access aisle between them. The bathroom is equipped with a roll-in shower with grab bars, a hand-held showerhead and a portable shower chair. The bathroom has a full five-foot turning radius, and it’s also equipped with a roll-under sink, and a toilet with grab bars on the back and left walls (as seated). The access at this property is very nicely done, and you just can’t beat the location.
If you’d like to enjoy the surrounding forest, then check out the accessible Heritage Trail, located next to the hotel. This .3-mile trail includes a level cement pathway and an accessible boardwalk, with benches along the way. There’s also a short paved path to the Old Guides Cemetery. And don’t miss Sunset Point, where you’ll get a great view, even in inclement weather.
Sloans Crossing Pond Walk, which is just a short drive away, is also worth a visit. There are no marked parking spots at the trailhead, but there’s usually plenty of room to parallel park there. This .4-mile boardwalk around the shaded pond is wide and level, and it’s dotted with accessible viewing platforms, benches and interpretive plaques. There’s also a cement pathway to some accessible picnic tables under the trees. It’s a very pleasant spot for a midday break.
The trail out to the Sand Cave site is also a good accessible choice. The trailhead is located between the east park entrance and Park Ridge Road, but it’s very easy to miss. There’s no accessible parking in the paved lot, but there is curb-cut access up to the trail. The .1-mile boardwalk winds through the forest, and because of the railless-design you’ll get some nice wildlife views. The trail terminates at an overlook, which has a view of the Sand Cave rescue site; where Floyd Collins was trapped and ultimately died in 1925. In spite of Floyd’s unfortunate fate, it’s actually a pleasant little stroll.
Smallin Civil War Cave
Last but not least, don’t miss Smallin Civil War Cave (417-551-4545, www.smallincave.com) when you’re near Springfield, Missouri, as Kevin and Wanetta Bright will warmly welcome you to this historic — but accessible — cave.
There’s accessible parking near the office, with a barrier-free pathway to the front door. From there, it’s just a short walk to the cave, down the back ramp and over a wide gravel pathway.
Once home to a group of Osage Indians, the cave also served as shelter for traveling soldiers and reportedly housed a Union spy during the Civil War. Today history-buff Kevin leads visitors on an informative one-hour cave tour, which begins at the natural entrance. There is level access to the cave, and the half-mile cement walkway makes it accessible to everyone. It should be noted that there are a few patches of the trail that have a slight incline, so some manual wheelchair-users may require a bit of assistance in those areas.
Geologically the cave is quite diverse, as you’ll see tufa, soda straws and a variety of fossils (including a shark tooth) on the ceiling; but by far the highlight is Kevin’s’ historical interpretation of the cave. Tours are held every 30 minutes in the summer, but as Kevin notes, “they can be weather dependent.”
If you’re looking for a fun place to eat after your cave tour, then head on down the road to Lambert’s Cafe (417-581-7655, www.throwedrolls.com), home of the “throwed rolls”. There’s plenty of accessible parking out front, with level access to the entrance, and a wheelchair available for loan at the front desk. They serve up everything from steak and ribs to ham, chicken, shrimp and catfish, with the sides all served family style. Then there are the rolls, which are thrown to diners. And according to Wanetta, “It’s a honor to be hit with a roll at Lambert’s.” It’s a very homey place to eat, but don’t forget to bring some cash, as Lambert’s doesn’t accept credit cards.