Read the updated story at our new website here
Note: this column was originally published in late 2009; since that time, we have finally found Endless Cave! See a picture at the end of the story
If you like to rattle around in ghost towns, I’ve got a place for you: Cave River Valley Nature Preserve
This is the newest property owned by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and is one of the most unique areas within the state. I discovered it nearly a decade ago when it was the only privately-owned public park to allow cave exploration in the state.
Now, with assistance from The Nature Conservancy and willing landowners, the park is publicly owned. Plans were to develop the area with trails and even a campground, at least until the economy tanked.
I have followed the progress of the plan via the internet for the last two years. It was my understanding that the initial stages of development had taken place and everything was ready for visitation. That assumption just goes to show that you can never trust the Internet.
After leaving a conference at French Lick, I drove cross-country on scenic backroads until I found the well-hidden park. I assumed there would be directional signs to vector me in but the area seemed strangely unchanged since my last visit. During the years when the park was privately-owned, it was virtually a word-of-mouth affair among avid spelunkers as there was no advertising nor road signs pointing the way. I stumbled upon the area after almost giving up, happening to see the homemade plywood gate sign off the roadway.
To my surprise, nothing had changed except a new government-issue gate and large sign promising the area would be open for visitation after March 2009. As my calendar indicated it was now October, I was confounded.
The sign stated that I could contact Spring Mill State Park, so I left the area and drove around until I found a cellular phone signal at the top of a nearby hill.
I failed to get the name of the gentleman who spoke with me but he was exceptionally helpful and courteous. Most importantly, he confirmed that the area was indeed open for foot travel though the economy had completely derailed plans for improvements to the area. If everything goes according to plan, he explained that work on trails and campground would start next May. With an admonishment to stay out of the multiple caves within the area and avoid blocking the gate when parking, he wished me luck.
Cave River Valley is indeed a small, sheer-sided valley that lies near the small town of Campbellsburg. The area is chock full o’ history, starting in the early 1800’s when settlers built a mill to take advantage of the strong and steady flow of water coming from River Cave. The area has passed through several hands and was once a tourist destination complete with trout pond that took advantage of the year-round 52 degree spring water. The most notable feature of the area is the multiple caves, including well-known River Cave and Endless Cave.
I returned to area, parked and headed out on the crisp, clear October morning.
The entry road slowly slopes downhill until reaching the valley wall. I remember taking this short but steep road down into the area on the previous trip. The road is remarkable for the fact that the decades-old pavement has crumbled and eroded, allowing the path to start sliding off the underlying limestone.
I believe much of my hearing loss occurred during that trip when our old beater van slid, yawed, pitched, twirled and generally fell into the valley. At the bottom, my son and I sat for five minutes just screaming to avoid having any residual impacted terror.
Today, I was alone as there was no one in the area and indeed the only footprints in the fresh mud belonged to deer.
Reaching the valley, I was surprised to see that things had changed. The valley, not really a vacation spot when I had last visited, had dilapidated even further. Now, with the scraggly meadow grass unmowed as the area remains in limbo, the buildings formed a small ghost town hidden in the geologically remarkable valley.
Mindful of the copperhead snakes, I carefully picked my way the old cabin and poked around the unsecured building. Finding nothing remarkable, I went to the raucous stream behind the cabin.
Picking along the moss covered rocks lining the creek feels very much like a short vacation to the Smoky Mountains. The clear, cold water flows strongly downhill from the cliffside and the noise drowns out every sound. Everywhere there are remenants of old structures and dams.
I hopscotched upstream until reaching the cave itself. I couldn’t get closer than the ancient dam holding back water at the mouth of the opening. According to spelunker reports I had read, the stream in the first 600 feet of cave are six to seven feet deep and require a raft. Looking at the crumbling dam and moss-covered rocks, I’m not sure how anyone every reaches the cave, let along haul a raft inside.
After pictures, I followed the creek downstream across a wet meadow. An old track went through the meadow and followed the shorter grass where the roadway had been. Squishing along in the high, wet grass, my well-known dislike of large garden spiders came to mind when I wasn’t thinking about running into a copperhead or the odd timber rattler.
Eventually, the track crossed the creek and I waded the same. Once inside the treeline, the road actually was open for walking and I sauntered along enjoying the sheer rocks walls of the valley and marveled at the number of small caves in the rock.
I again crossed the creek and continued up a dry run that I believed held endless cave. This was my second attempt to reach the cave, having turned back from this same side valley on my first visit. This time I vowed to find the cave.
The hike grew progressively worse as the creek grew wet, the valley narrowed and downed timber more frequent. Soon I was scrambling up, over, around, under and sometimes inside trees that blocked the path, still wondering if I was headed up the right valley. That; and wondering if one of those conglomerations of timber held Mr. Pit Viper and his family.
Three times I began to turn around and three times I decided that I was going the whole way. I continued to fight my way forward as the valley grew yet narrower. After turning a corner and clambering over a log, I realized my goal: a sheer rock face.
I suddenly remembered reading somewhere that Endless Cave also has an old, silted-up dam at the mouth. I was standing at the bottom, staring at the sheer valley walls and the slippery rock face. Barely over the top, I could see a handmade sign.
Considering I was in a deep valley with no cell phone reception, off the trail in an area where few people would be visiting and I was facing a moss-covered rock face, I did the only reasonable thing: I started climbing.
That idea lasted all of ten seconds. Dejectedly, I dug the moss out from under my fingernails and turned back down the draw. That’s when I slipped on a wet rock and twisted my bad ankle.
I still haven’t seen Endless Cave yet but that gives me a reason to revisit Cave River Valley Nature Preserve.
Next time, I’ll bring ropes and my friendly orthopedic surgeon.
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Map to Cave River Valley Nature Preserve: