There is something about caves, spring creeks, steep rocky valleys and unknown places that inspire the imagination.
Imagine a spot where a large stream emerges cold from the rock, yawning hidden caves can be discovered around nearly every turn, ruins dot the landscape yet you have the place all to yourself. Moreover, imagine such a place is located within Indiana.
If you’ve visited Cave River Valley (CRV) Nature Preserve, you know this isn’t a dream but a reality at one of Indiana’s newest, and least publicized, public properties. In our reasonably-well-traveled opinion, it is also one of the most special places in the entire Hoosier state.
This 300+ acre property was initially purchased by The Nature Conservancy, then by the state of Indiana through a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species grant in 2008. Since that time, plans to further develop the property to include trails, a small primitive campground and restoration of natural features have stalled due to budget problems. However, in some ways this neglect actually adds to the charm and wild feel of the place.
Located north of Campbellsburg and 18 miles east of Spring Mill State Park, CRV is tough to find (see WildIndiana.com for a detailed location map) as there are no signs directing visitors to the place until you actually arrive on-site. Once there, aside from a new gate, some road improvement and three new interpretive signs, the property isn’t much different than when we first discovered it 15 years ago when it was a ramshackle privately-owned caving park open to the general public.
The road leading down to the valley has been improved with a load of gravel and on a recent visit, the open gate at the entrance allowed our high-clearance vehicle to park near the next gate blocking the road into the valley. The road splits and also continues straight from this point but all the interesting scenery lies down the closed road.
After taking the downhill hike on the road, you arrive at a scraggly grass meadow surrounded by steep limestone cliffs and dotted with spooky ruins that give the appearance of someplace you shouldn’t really be.
The area was once a thriving business and tourist destination. It has been the site of several mills and later became a tourist destination when the owners built a dam and charged 10 cents for a boat ride into River Cave. There is even the mosquito-infested remains of a trout pond that was fed by the waters of the cave.
The two biggest caves on the property are River and Endless Caves. River cave lies at the head of the valley behind the dilapidated and vandalized log cabin. As you get close, the roar of water pouring over the ramshackle dam is a siren song as you pick your way upstream on slick moss-shrouded rocks that are reminiscent of a trout stream in the Smoky Mountains. Be very careful as taking a spill is quite likely.
River cave supposedly has one of the longest straight cave passages in the world at 600 feet and is home to several endangered species including blind cave fish and blind crayfish.
After (carefully) exploring, head back downstream to the open-air shelter house to find an interpretive sign discussing the endangered Indiana bat. Beyond the sign there are old stone steps that lead up the hill a short distance. Just over the ridge, you’ll find the yawning mouth of Endless cave, one of the state’s largest with nearly 7000 feet of mapped passageways.
Endless cave is one of the largest and most important wintering sites for the Indiana bat in the state. Both River and Endless cave have been closed due to the threat of White-Nose Virus (WNV) but recently re-opened for tours during the summer months by private groups that receive a permit from Spring Mill State Park.
You can enter the mouth of the cave for 30 yards until calf deep water and ultimately, a steel gate stops your progress.
The valley itself continues downstream for a distance, eventually leaving preserve boundaries. A major side valley holds the remains of a lake that provided recreation for early park visitors. The lake’s levee was breached years ago and the valley is undergoing natural succession to forest.
Though quite exceptional, the nature preserve is seldom visited. In our five trips there over the years, we’ve run into exactly three people, one of which was a trout fisherman on our first visit who claimed the stream held a few brown trout. Considering the water source, it certainly seems possible though it is likely the stream couldn’t support much angling pressure.
Be careful at CRV. Exceptionally slick rocks around the caves and stream invite trouble, as do the caves themselves. Do not enter any cave without permission, proper training and equipment. Most are closed anyway due to the threat of WNV.
The area is home to copperhead snakes and the old cabin and other building ruins look marvelously “snaky.” The stream areas are also home to literal clouds of flying insects that are only bothersome but at times can be overwhelming.
We hope that the property eventually does get its long-planned makeover and is finally spruced up so more folks can enjoy this unique area. Until that time, however, if you’re looking for an adventure that really feels wild and unique, CRV awaits.