Cave River Valley

Read the updated story at our new website here

French Lick IACT Cave River hike 071 (Small)
River Cave

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 ghost town
Cave River Valley ghost town

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.

Cabin in valley
Cabin in 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.

Fungus among us

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 myFrench Lick IACT Cave River hike 099 (Small) 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.

The long-sought-after Endless Cave!

Next time, I’ll bring ropes and my friendly orthopedic surgeon.








View the WildIndianaVideo at Youtube

Map to Cave River Valley Nature Preserve:

My location
Get Directions


29 thoughts on “Cave River Valley

  1. Hi,
    I enjoyed reading your Cave River Valley adventure. I just had to comment , when you were at River Cave you were actually less than 75 yards from the entrance to Endless Cave. When you go to the metal roof shelter there is a trail that takes you to River or Endless Cave if you follow the trail to the left thats River to the right is Endless. Unfortunately Endless is the cave that the state wants to close, but it is one of the best caves to enjoy if your a novice caver. You were probably following the stream coming out of Endless but that was the long way. Probably the most awesome cave at Cave River Valley is named Dorsey’s Cave. Most people don’t know how to find Dorsey’s and I guess its just as well because parts of it might be called dangerous (mainly just the entrance). Long ago when one of the private owners ran the property he sold a booklet about the Cave Valley and there were tons of history in the Valley. I have the book and I must have read it twenty times, I just love that area.
    Keep Exploring,
    Tim L.

  2. I enjoyed this story on Cave Valley. I find it intersting because I’m doing some geneology and this sounds like the same place that my ancestors were raised. Back then it was called Clifty. There were 2 caves, one wet and the other dry, according to stories I’ve been reading. A family member whom wrote a book for his children visited this same place in 1998 and metioned the gate and the road to the water. Hammersley owned Clifty Mill and it was operated by a man named Hamer, who it was believed to be his indentured servant. The two men later started Spring Mill. Now remember this was like 180 years ago. It is now called Cave River Valley located in deep woods. A sign on the gate at that time said Cave Park and instructed visitors to write down their name and address and place $5 in a slotted box to help maintain the park. He mentioned the cliffs on all sides were of sheer limestone 60-feet high, heavily wooded all around. There were only two known caves at that time. But today there are many more. The family I am speaking about living there so long ago were the Gordons. If you have found any history on this family during your research I’d love to read it too.

  3. Hello again,
    I was in the area on 10/24/10, so I visited Cave River Valley for the first time since the sale to the state in 2008. I have been trying to keep up with the progress or lack of, by the internet, on the new Cave River Valley Park.
    I can hardly express my dissapointment in what I found.
    I was first introduced to this area in the 1960’s by camping trips with the Evansville In. boy scouts, since then Cave River Valley has been one of my most favorite camping areas in my life, I took my sons there and planned to take my new grandsons but I believe that has come to a end. I knew there would be changes but now that “Big Brother” has possesion I can see that the Valley will never again be the adventure I remember.
    I was actually SHOCKED to see that Endless Cave has been permanetly gated,
    I located the peoples web site that installed the gate and found they are quite proud of what they have done. The state is just letting the log cabin go to ruin.
    I have many more thoughts on this subject, but right now I’m just so dissapointed – I just feel old.

  4. Hi,
    My great grandfather owned Cave River Valley and built that log cabin there. After recently visiting the park, my cousins and I realized that, like others have previously said, the cabin is being left to ruin. We are glad to hear that someone else cares about the property as much as we do.

  5. Bev,
    I have’nt looked at the book for a long while. I believe it does discuss some of the owners, the one I do remember reading about was a Mr. Green I’ll look at the book again tonight and if I see anything, I’ll post here. One thing the state has done is install several information markers, and 2 of them tell a lot of Cave River Valley History, I found them very interesting. I have some digital pictures of the markers I can email. The name of the book I am talking about is – A Guide To The Caves At Cambellsburg and Surronding Area, or something like that, I’ll look tonight.
    Tim L.

  6. Bev,
    I found and checked my book today. I was wrong about the name of the book, the name is: The Spelunkers Guide To The Caves North Of Campbellsburg, Washington County, Indiana. I read the history section again and there is no mention of Gordons. However, the aurthors of the book got their information from 2 books they used for reference, these books are:
    Centennial History of Washington County, Indiana, by Warder W Stevens (Indianapolis, 1916) p. 44
    Hidden Valley Village, by Norman C, Evans (Mill Lake Press, 1953) p. 41
    After Mr. Green there were several owners of Cave River Valley:
    In my book I also found the flyer given out in May 1980 advertising the Music Festival being held by one of the owners.
    There was the out of state owner that had the property timbered, and put it up for sale for $160,000
    I found the name and phone number of a young woman that lived in Campbellsburg, who ran the valley for a while.
    Good Luck

  7. This was a sad day for myself and many friends when this property was sold. We have been going here to camp and cave for about 20 years. The state’s plans and current progress have ruined what was a mecca for the midwest. Most people who stayed here took care of it, occasionally it seemed there were some idiots who left trash behind and abused the property, but all in all it seemed all who knew about the area respected it. To gate Endless is a travesty. To answer the question about rafts into River cave, it is quite doable and not too bad to disembark from the left side of the cave with a two man raft. We hit all the caves on the property except for one, and the name is eluding me now. Dorsey’s was wet, but fun. Lamplighters only went in twice, not very fun.

  8. just thought i would say that i read the IDNR site plan for cave river valley, and their plan as of 2009 was to have endless cave closed annually from august 15 to may 1. so it possibly may still be open the rest of the year. it is closed because of efforts to save endangered bats, endless is an ideal hibernation spot for them, thus the scheduled closing of the cave.
    a footnote to that is we should all be disenfecting our boots (soak the soles in lysol & water for 15 min,) in between caves, to help stop the spread of “white nose”, a disease that has been decimating bat populations in the U.S..

  9. I was happy to see the information on the Cave River Valley
    my Son Michael, called my attention to the site.

    My mother Louise Smith helped Mr & Mrs Victor Green manage the valley back in the
    1960’s along with some of my sibblings for a while.
    My brother Steve helped Victor Green with the building of a paying trout pond.
    There was an article written in the Free paper, The Giveaway. I still have the article.

    My mother and sibblings lived on the property for at least one or two summers.
    we all liked to visit there and our son Jim caught his first fish in the trout pond with his
    grandfather Vernon Lewis Smith..

    Your article has been enjoyable to revive old memories.

  10. I’ve been going to this park since 1969 and have always felt it needed protected, but now the
    people at Spring Mill park don’t seem to care about the public that once enjoyed it.
    This “white nose bat fungus” has been going on in Europe for more than a decade and the bats
    there have built up their own natural immunity. I have 8mm movie film that my older brother took
    in 1963 at the park. And some 60 slidesn taken over the years until the fall of 2008.
    Who can I pass these on to? The people at Spring Mill don’tn seem to care….
    I have asked to volunteer to be on the project at CRV, let Spring Mill staff copy and scan my slides
    and still photographs but hear nothing from them!
    Last fall, 2010, I did a fly over and seen the bridge still setting in the creek, the old bait building
    standing by the trout ponds…. nothing has changed!
    We just can’t enjoy it now!!!

  11. Thank you Brent, for the U Tube video on the CRVSP, it made me remember one of the features when camping in the valley – the sound of rushing water – There is something about camping in the valley that is almost magic, the sound, fog, rocks, cliffs, huge trees, the cooler temps.
    I guess we’ll never be able to do that again now.
    But, back to the positive, I’m glad you found Endless
    We were camped in the valley once when a local church held their services at the cabin. The hymns and music in the valley atmosphere were unforgettable.
    I wish the state would at least allow camping there this year.
    I was thinking about volunteering next week during the volunter week but I’m pretty sure they would not want my help at CRVSP.
    I’m sorry if I seem to be the most prolific commenter, its just not a day goes by that I don’t think about the valley if maybe only for a couple of seconds.
    Have a good 2011

  12. It was really great to stumble onto this info about Cave River Valley! I went to school in Borden, IN with owner Victor Green’s grandson, Jim Green. In elementary school we had a few field trips to Cave River Valley, and after 50 years or so I still have some things pictured in my mind. I knew that it was located somewhere in our area, but I could not remember where it was located. After seeing this info, I am now going to have to find it and visit. Where can I find specific directions on how to get there?

    Thanks for the memories,
    Bruce Callam

  13. Bruce,
    Just above the comment section there is a expandable Google map. To use it; on the upper right hand corner there are 2 buttons; click on the button that says map. On the upper left hand corner you will see a + plus or – minus, click on the – or minus, you may have to click it 3 or 4 or more times to get your bearings. I always just turn north at the flashing light, off of 60 in Campbellsburg In. and follow that road straight till it almost runs into the gate at CRVP.

  14. I just came across this website. I am also from Evansville (like Tim Lambert) and have many memories of Cave Rver Valley. I was introduced to caving in 1975 at CRV (sorry, I can’t remember the names of the guys that took me along on one their trips, but I am grateful). After that I was hooked on the adventure and over the years that followed friends that I subsequently introduced to caving and I made weekend and day trips to CRV, Garrison Chapel area in Bloomington, Bedford, Paoli, Crawford County, all over. We never vanadalized a cave and never dropped so much as a scrap of trash. My wife and I camped next to the stream in CRV in 1979. My brother and I, and friends went there in college. Later, my son and I were active in Boy Scouts and Venture Scouts, and I lead at least two scout trips to CRV. We had a great time and I was pleased to introduce some young people to the adventure. I’m getting older now and it seems all I do is work, but we still have a 15 year old daughter at home. Somehow the subject came up that she and her best friend have never been to a non-commercial cave. My first thought was to take them to a nice walk-through cave, like Endless Cave at CRV. I am very disappointed and upset that DNR has closed CRV. The DNR website states that all CRV caves are indefinately closed because of White Nose Syndrome. We all know the importance of conservation and protection of species, but responsible recreation for people is also important. This is classic government overkill and bureacracy.

    Private conservation groups do this also: I lead a scout trip to Buckners a number of years ago and had to jump through numerous hoops with the KARST group to get a permit. How many times have I been to Buckners – 5, 10? Am I qualified? I’ve only been to Sullivans Cave once, but not since KARST took over. Can a regular person (not a member of NSS or KARST) get a permit? I suppose that is the goal of conservationists – cave conservation by restriction of access. And, now CRV, traditionally open to the public, is closed by the DNR. Yes, the general public has been hard on some of the easy access caves (Buckners has always been an example of a trashed-out cave, but it’s still fun), and bat protection is important, but it was great fun to “just go caving”.

    Just Complaining and Missing the Good Old Days,
    Joe Sims

  15. I first visited Cave .River as a teenager in the late 1950’s.Vic Green and his wife owned the property and sold food and snacks out of the old cabin. They made their living in the free newspaper business.You could visit any time of the year and explore the caves.Around 1950 the Charles Neuhauser family from Scottsburg managed the park for the Greens and lived in army tents from April until October.The children were from ages 14 down to six and helped run the campgrounds.Each weekday the father would put on good clothes and head out of the valley to sell Fuller Brush stuff door-to-door in the area!!The place was wild and wonderful then and we would spend 3 to 4 hours in the endless cave with just regular flashlights and no spare batteries!!! don

  16. If anyone is interested here is a link to the 2009 IKC meeting minutes and the letter they submitted to the DNR to install gate/close Endless Cave in CRVSP.

    If you read through several of the articles it appears the IKC cut a deal with the DNR.
    This statement is my opinion.
    I have a very strong opinion about this subject.

  17. Hi,
    Victor and Mabel Green were my grandparents (hello to Bruce Callam!!). I spent many long weekends and
    summers at Cave River with my grandparents aned cousins. My wish would be to visit there again and relive some of the wonderful memories. I have been in Endless Cave back to the end of the lights that Grandpa had installed. I will check back on this website to read more. Great memories!
    Thanks so much.

  18. We were in the vicinity Sunday 10/23/11 so we dropped by CRVSP. The place is beautiful in the fall.
    We parked by the paved road and hiked down to the valley.
    We didnt feel very welcome because of all the warning signs.
    No progress on the park development.
    The log cabin is going downhill.
    The old picnic/camping area is all overgrown.
    Massive erosion at the corner of the concrete bridge over Clifty Creek due to the creek drainage pipes being clogged up under the bridge.
    We hiked and looked at a couple of the cave entrances, since it is now illegal to enter we didnt go any further.
    I guess we were lucky to be able to hike there.
    How depressing is that?

  19. I have started a site on facebook..Cave River Valley Park. Please come to the site and join us sharing old photos and we, as the public can be part of the decision making for it’s future. The DNR wants to close ALL these caves to people! Since 2008, nothing has been done to clean up any of the old debris….

  20. From 1946 until the time my folks (Victor and Mabel Green) sold CRV, my sisters and brother were frequently at Cave River, helping on the weekends to run the park. I went through all the years loving that park and I have to say, I still do, even with the deterioration. I just think it is the most beautiful park on earth, a place you can breath, hike and enjoy nature. It was there that mother taught us the names of the trees and the flowers that grew wild.

    It was there that I “ran” the oars for the boat into River Cave and even led a professer from IU on a six hour trip into that cave looking for critters that may have the same changes in becoming colorless and blind due to living in the dark all the time.

    It was there that we spent Saturday evenings gathered in the old log cabin that we had moved to the site and put back together, while listening to mother play the old organ. It was there we acquired a taste for the rhubarb that grew there, either stewed, or in a pie, that mother fixed on the weekends.

    In that Valley, I was able to take my children in future years to experience the same wonder
    at the beauty and the “wildness” of the place. After mother and daddy were gone, I was hoping for a “saviior” to buy the property and keep it like we remembered it. Because I knew what it might look like in the wrong hands, I was delighted when it was bought for a State Park. I just hope and pray that before I go (I am 80 years old now) that somehow, someway, the park will be preserved so that future generations can enjoy the adventures we had there.

  21. i had went there for almost 20 years loved that place and me and family friends always took care of it there around 12 caves i believe and river cave is awesome u do need a boat its almost as long as endless, also river cave has a dinasuar bone in there i found it my first trip there and seen it every visit in there awesome stuff, another favorite is flowstone not real long but tall and skinny most places,if i can help restore and of the past glory would love to help dallenmcneely@gmailcom

  22. I have been in nearly every cave in the cliffy creek system,and am interested in the status of caving there currently.Its been nearly ten years, but I’d love to go back!

  23. I was there as a boy scout some 35 years ago. It was a winter campout and we camped by the creek, caught crawdads (and ate them), fished and then did endless cave. When we came out we were soaked to the bone so we all stripped and put on dry cloths (no modesty allowed) and throughly enjoyed the time. I would love to come back with my kids or a boy scout group. A place of great memories. I even remember the Greens and how kind they were.

  24. My name is Bob Van Cise. I lived in Pekin during my high school days (1959-63). I worked at the Banner Gazette office which was owned by a Mr. Green who also at that time owned Cave River Valley. I worked for him both at the Banner office and also at Cave River Valley. The cabin was wonderful at that time. My father and I along with some other friends built the covered bridge crossing the creek that flows out of one of the caves. We also built the dam in front of the cave. We put our names in a jar and cemented it into the dam itself. Other names it the jar would be Tulsa Green and his boys, Jerry and Gordon and my father, John Van Cise. I wonder if it has eroded away. We mowed grass, kept the paths passable, kept the road from washing away, and spent hours exploring the caves. Many scout groups visited there and lots of churches had picnics. I visited Cave River Valley some 30 years later and was saddened by its lack of care.

  25. I find myself thinking of CRV often.Back in the 70’s Myself and a few friends would camp there to get back to nature.It was perhaps one of the most magical places I have experienced.I remember the folks that lived in the old cabin there and we used to have bacon and eggs that they cooked for us for breakfast on mornings before we started out on our days activities.They had geese that guarded the front yard.The old man always had time to tell tales of the valley of Indians that wintered over there and an old bear that once lived in endless cave.There was an awesome water wheel just off to the side of the cabin that was powered by the waters of the river cave.Last I was there it was falling apart as was the cabin and Grandma and Grandpa were gone.I remember the tale he told us of “Lovers Leap”which was a high rock overlooking the tree tops and stream of river cave.You had to run and jump out on to the boulder to get out on it.The story was an indian woman jumped there to her death when she learned of the death of her husand.Then there was the trout fishing.It was great.Catch what you wanted and have them cooking over an open fire minutes latter.I want to go back to visit the valley but am afraid to now as to what I will see there.I guess that saying about never going back is true.The magic of those early visits there will live on in my memory for as long as I live.Maybe someday someone will come along and fix this treasure back to the jewel it once was.It deserves to be appreciated and enjoyed by all who are caring of the land.

  26. I grew up in a nearby town Saltillo. As a young boy I spent a lot of time exploring the caves and valley as it was only a two mile bike ride to the valley. In the late 1920’s and early 30’s Bernie Matthew and his wife Anna Green lived in a large two story home in the bottom of the valley. My father Wendell Matthew was born there and lived there until the mid 1930’s. My grandfather was an electrician by trade and he refurbished a water wheel that was there, the stone foundation is still there on the streams edge opposite of the cabin. The wheel was connected to a generator and they strung lights in to the entrance of the caves and they would charge people to tour the caves. The house burned in the mid thirties and they moved to Saltillo. I caught my first rainbow trout in the old trout pond which was at one time a spring fed pool originally. In the early eighties a man by the name of Dale Bachelor was the caretaker and he lived in Saltillo but would go down every day or so to keep an eye on the place. A biker gang used to spend weeks in the summer there in the mid eighties. The cabin looks old but was built in the late forties. In the early seventies the place was operated as a private park. The attractions were the pay trout pond, lovers leap a limestone out crop you could step out on about thirty feet off the ground, the cabin was lived in and you could have the owners or caretakers clean and cook your fish you caught. The cabin used to have a large stuffed bear on the porch. It was a magical place to visit as a child. An old covered footbridge used to span the stream just up from the concrete bridge. The footbridge had tons of names carved in it, it was very cool. I used to lev to go down there during the hot summers because you could stand between the cabin and the mouth of the cave and It was like natural air conditioning. The last time I was there and in the caves I took my son and daughter and we explored to the end of each cave or at least to the farthest spot we could go, there we saw names of my father and grandfather carved in the walls along with many other locals who’s family names I recognized. Of course we added our names to the list. My goal in life was to one day purchase the place and retire there, but it was not in the cards. I now live in Texas and dream of the days when I was a boy daydreaming about one day living there. I was sad to hear that the state took over but I am sure over time it will be for the best.

Leave a Reply