Pilgrimage to the Hilly Land

Scouting Kentucky’s Green River, Tourist Traps, Backroads and Other Diversions

Part One – Instant Snowbird

Houchins Ferry, which wasn't operating at the time I stayed at the campground.

Houchins Ferry, which wasn’t operating during my stay.

If I had waited another week, I would have been writing this from a padded cell.

My camping gear had been staged in the office all winter, crammed into river bags and ready to go. The weather was not. For the second straight year, the rivers around here froze solid and ice remained on the lakes well into March. I have no qualms about winter canoe camping, but that requires open water.

I couldn’t wait any longer; it was time to head south. I’d been wanting to explore Kentucky’s Green River for years. The time — and the weather forecast — seemed right. The forecast called for warm, dry weather March 30 – April 1 and a lot of rain after that.

My plan, for want of a better word, was to spend three days and two nights on the river then scout more of it by car the rest of the week. Or however long it took.

Green River is 384 miles long, at least 350 of it navigable. About 25 miles of the river flows through Mammoth Cave National Park. Green River is, in fact, responsible for the formation of the cave system that has made the park an incredibly popular international tourist destination. The caves, still being explored, measure 400 miles long and counting. Some cave entrances can be accessed via the river. Although you’d need scuba gear and a death wish to explore them further.

Within the park boundaries, paddlers can camp free virtually anywhere along the floodplain. Certain restrictions apply and you must obtain a backcountry permit, which doesn’t cost anything.

It was 20 degrees when I left Ohio. By the time I arrived at the Mammoth Cave visitors center it was 53.

I planned to set up a base camp at Houchins Ferry, get a shuttle upstream and canoe for three days. It was surprisingly easy to set this up. I walked into the visitors center, talked to a park ranger and called a livery to set up the shuttle — all within 10 minutes. That included getting a backcountry permit.

Houchins is one of two ferries operating within the park. The other is Green River Ferry. Back when the park was all farmland, there were eight ferries operating along that stretch. The Houchins and Green River ferries allow visitors to access the northern part of the 52,830-acre park and there is no charge to use them.

The Houchins Ferry Campground was remarkably quiet. Until the owls got to hooting and screeching in the middle of the night. Apparently it was mating season and the owls that make the most racket get lucky.

Next — Paddling and camping Green River



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