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  • Writer's pictureKristin Bailey Wilson

Winter Hiking: Cedar Sink Trail


Note: This is a blog I wrote for another purpose in December 2022, but it wasn't published, so I decided to pop it here. There's still time for a little winter hiking!



The sign at the entrance of Cedar Sink Trail at the Mammoth Cave National Park claims the trail is “perhaps the most dramatic surface expression of the cave-bearing landscape” at the Park. However, during the spring, summer and fall, the trees are covered in leaves and the ground cover is leafed out and flowering. It’s hard to get a sense of the landscape with all the green. It’s hard to see the massive depression and the rock outcroppings in their full glory. During the winter, the views at Cedar Sink Trail change dramatically. Hikers can peek through the leafless trees to get a sense of the enormity of this sink hole.


The trail is less than 2 miles long, but there are 295 steps. Cedar Sink is known for spring wildflowers, so when I visited recently, I was the only hiker on the trail. The ground was dotted with Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostiichoides) that remained deep green, but had laid down for the winter to weather the cold. Otherwise, there were a sparce remnants of wildflowers, tiny bits of fall color on the leaves, and mosses and fungus growing tightly to limestone and rotting logs. And because I was alone, the white-throated sparrows didn’t bother to stop their rummaging as I walked by. It was a quiet winter hike that offered the opportunity to marvel at the power of water and rock.

The draw for me was the karst window into the underground cave river system. Cedar Sink itself is a sink hole, as indicated by the name. The impressive depression in the landscape was formed by the slow dissolution of chalky limestone underground until the rock below ground couldn’t maintain the weight of the surface rock, soil, and vegetation. I stood at the overlook wondering what it sounded like for the surface to sink into the crevasse below.


For a non-expert such as myself, standing quietly in Cedar Sink offers the opportunity to imagine the area as flat ground, either grassland or forest. Then as it rained and the water seep

ed into the ground the limestone dissolved bit by bit and was carried away by the rain water. Bit by bit, year after year. First a small depression appeared then another then another until the limestone gave way and the massive sinkhole was formed. I walk along wondering if it was a dramatic moment like the moment corvettes slide into the sinkhole underneath the corvette museum. Or was it slow drama? Either way, the majesty of the topography around me is testament to the power of water on rock.


Less than halfway down an overlook marks the spot to view a karst window into the subterranean waterways. I’ve made winter visits when the water wasn’t flowing. It’s a window into a dry bed, but today the water is flowing, continuing to work away the chalky limestone. A metal grate high above the flowing water marks the entrance into Mammoth Caves 350+ miles of underground passages. Water and rock, vital to human life and the native plants we love.


Over half of Kentucky is limestone bedrock, so karst topography is our billion year past and our billion year future. Hiking Cedar Sink in the winter and peeking through the karst window affords the opportunity to delight in the power of water and rock, and to look forward to those spring wildflowers.



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