Underground adventure

Explore the waterways of The Gorge Underground

By Greg Seiter // Photography by The Gorge Underground

Kentucky is widely associated with many things, including horse racing and bourbon, but with more than 1,900 navigable miles of water, the Bluegrass state is also a paddlers’ playground for canoe enthusiasts, kayakers and paddleboarders. In fact, less than three and a half hours from Indianapolis, year-round kayak and paddleboard experiences are available inside a former limestone mine.
Known today as The Gorge Underground, a part of the state’s Red River Gorge recreational offerings in Rogers, Kentucky, The Gorge allows for underground cave kayaking, paddleboard experiences and boat tours.
Work on The Gorge Underground’s limestone mine is believed to have initially begun sometime between the late-1800s and early-1900s with the removal of surface rocks. Dynamite tunneling started
around 1920 and continued until miners struck underground streams, and the area began to fill in. Even then, the water was almost a blessing, as it provided a convenient way to help workers cool the mining equipment they were using. However, as affiliated costs continued to rise, the decision was made to discontinue mining operations in 1985.
“The owner of the mine retained ownership for a long time, but at some point, a bank took partial ownership,” said Heather Warman, general manager of The Gorge Underground.
Aside from occasional uninvited visitors who secretly explored the mine’s newly created waterways, the facility sat empty until 2015, when a cabin-development concept in the area evolved into a kayak and paddleboard business venture.
“The Gorge cabin owner’s original idea was to drain the mine, but he didn’t know how much water was in there,” Warman said. “In the meantime, he had an office person who admitted to having gone in there illegally as a kid. That worker took the owner down there, and they both thought it was very cool.”
Soon thereafter, the mine was repurposed and opened to the public for recreational excursions.
“The first two years, we did only a few kayaks and paddleboards,” Warman said. “However, once we got the clear boards, social media made things really explode.”
Despite the clarity of the mine water, which in shallow areas, allows guests to easily see tracks and various equipment impressions left behind on the mine floor, early kayaks and paddleboards provided explorers with visual highlights that mostly existed above water. However, the introduction of clear-bottom paddleboards and kayaks along with the addition of underwater LED lights, significantly enhanced underwater visibility potential for those who chose to go that route. The same holds true today.
The Crystal Kayak Tour and the Crystal Clear SUP Tour (Paddleboard) now allow guests, even as young as five years old, to navigate the cavern (with assistance, of course) while observing curious rainbow trout directly below them. As would be expected, classic kayak tours and even group boat tours that don’t allow for underwater viewing are also available and are a little cheaper than the clear-bottom options.
“The rainbow trout are stocked, and we have to feed them because they’re not native,” Warman said. “They get to be enormous because they don’t have any predators here. We feed them a couple of times per week from a cave boat.
“We stopped feeding them during tours because they started jumping into boats.”
Visitors may spot other types of life while exploring the mine, as well.
“We usually have 250 to 300 bats hibernate here every year, but they’re tiny and seem to mostly stay in the back of the mine because of the more stable air temperatures there.
“We also have cave crickets, spiders and baby salamanders, but the salamanders are usually only around during the warmer months.
“In summertime, we have cliff swallows. When we see birds, we know the bats have probably moved outside.”
Unguided tours were recently added to The Gorge Underground recreational menu.
“You still have a guide who helps with gear and takes photos, but ultimately, you get two hours of time to explore the mine on your own,” Warman said. “We only allow four at a time, and the guide still tells you where you can go. We added it for people who are a little more experienced.”
Those opting to purchase a deluxe tour and experience clear-vessel bases and LED lights will begin their excursion in the rear entrance of the mine, following a brief safety and instructional session.
“You start in the main hall and go to the dock area. That room was the original machine room for the mine. They would repair almost everything there,” Warman said. “Typically, after that, you head through what we call Nessy Hallway. There’s a part of the old pump system there, and you can actually see some of the old pumps that were used.
“You can also see old wire lines hanging down from the ceiling. They probably had a lot of electricity running through there.”
Peculiarly etched shapes, both naturally and artificially, created by various combinations of water erosion and equipment can be spotted on walls and ceilings throughout the mine. “The snake” and “The man” are a couple of examples.
Ground level, underwater, accent lights help spotlight lingering rainbow trout as they gather in hopes of being fed in designated areas.
“There are stalactites growing from the ceiling, but this isn’t a cave,” Warman said. “If we didn’t have water, we would have stalagmites, too.”
Warman has a few tips for anyone interested in experiencing what The Gorge Underground has to offer.
“We have three different types of tours: boat, classic and deluxe. Carefully read the descriptions of each tour and be sure to understand which one you’re getting. Most of our bookings come through online,” she said.
“GPS is not friendly in eastern Kentucky. We send out maps but, still have a lot of people get lost because they don’t take time to read the directions we send them.
“We’re open all year except for a few days during the winter, but wintertime is one of the best times to come. There are fewer people here, and it’s generally much more peaceful,” she continued.
Finally, please understand the weight limits we have are not discriminatory. The equipment has limitations. For example, the kayaks are rated for 300 pounds, so for safety, we cap it at 275 pounds.

More information can be found at gorgeunderground.com