This is a long post with a link to more photos at the end.
When my brother and I were kids, family road trips were long (before the interstate), dangerous (two-lane winding roads), uncomfortable (before auto air conditioning), and boring (before FM radio, cassettes, CDs, and smart phones).
Our break from the boredom of road trips came when we saw the next series of Burma Shave signs or the next series of billboards that announced a cave ahead.
Caves were always a mixture of excitement and disappointment. “This natural formation looks like bacon and eggs”. Oh, really. That’s all you’ve got. Bacon and eggs? Really?
Luray Caverns in VA, Ruby Falls in TN, Meramec Caverns in MO, and Mammoth Cave in KY were well advertised and well-known. Louisville Mega Cavern may be well-known to Louisville natives but, 180 miles away in Nashville, I haven’t found anyone who was aware of it, even though they may have driven over it thousands of times.
Mega Cavern is a huge, privately owned, man-made cavern that was excavated in the 1930s to quarry limestone. Its 17 miles of corridors sit under all 10 lanes of the Watterson Expressway, the interstate 264 southern loop around Louisville, the Louisville Zoo, and businesses, including Wendy’s. Mega Cavern has or has had many lives.
Its original purpose was to quarry limestone. Limestone is used in architecture and in the filtering process for Kentucky’s large bourbon industry.
During the cold war, Mega Cavern served as a secret nuclear survival bunker that could house 50,000 people. A priority list was maintained that included soldiers from nearby Fort Knox, Kentucky politicians and VIPs, and famous Kentuckians. Colonel Sanders was on the privileged list; but the average Kentucky citizen wasn't.
For a time, Mega Cavern maintained a nuclear fallout shelter survival pantry but, as the food aged, it had to be removed and replaced. The nuclear survival pantry was eventually discontinued.
Today, limestone is still being quarried. A company is producing large squares of limestone – about 4’ x 4’ and about 2” thick – for use in upscale restaurants and architecture.
Storage is a big business for Mega Cavern. Anything that can be stored is there – boats, motorhomes, business records, amusement park rides, etc. Large cargo containers that are seen on tractor trailers, trains, and cargo ships are stacked on top of each other – contents unknown to the visitor.
The State of Kentucky and City of Louisville store salt for snowy roads. When I was there, the salt supplies for Kentucky and Louisville were depleted.
Mega Cavern is a dump – a recycle center, a landfill. Landfill material built up the floors in many areas.
Mega Cavern is classified as a building because its limestone supports are five times as strong as require for buildings. It is the largest building in Kentucky.
And it is a green building. It stays at a constant temperature of about 60 degrees without air conditioning or heat. Trash is recycled by worms.
In the traffic areas of Mega Cavern, the limestone walls are painted white to help light the area with lower wattage lights.
Louisville Mega Cavern, the tourist attraction, was unveiled in 2009. There are at least four entrances that can carry two or more lanes of traffic plus the entrance for Mega Cavern visitors. The first thing you see after a long walk from the parking lot to the visitor entrance is a large underground room with tables and chairs. A gift shop is at one end of the room and Mega Quest is at the other end.
This 16,000 square foot room, through Mega Events, can host up to 250 people for dinner and up to 350 people for meetings. It is available for rent for corporations, schools, churches, etc.
Mega Quest is a well-constructed aerial ropes obstacle course with suspension bridges, ladders, cargo nets, mini zip lines, cat walks, etc. – 76 rope elements in all. It is a popular European import that is part mountain climbing and part caving and gives the illusion of danger while being perfectly safe for ages 5 to adults.
You wear an orange helmet with a caver’s red light and a safety harness that is attached to thick metal cables. The height of the course ranges from ground level to about 15 feet.
Kudos to the lighting director. Mega Quest is awash with soft hues of reds, greens, blues, yellows, magentas, and cyans as red helmet lights move throughout the course – beautiful to look at but hard to photograph well.
How big is Louisville Mega Cavern? Big enough that it houses Mega Cavern’s newest attraction. Mega Zips – up to 2 hours of zip lines and two challenge bridges – is advertised as the world’s only underground zip line. Yes, advertised. Mega Cavern seems to have mounted an advertising campaign for Mega Zips that is sure to attract more visitors. One mom told me she brought her daughter to Mega Quest after seeing a Groupon offer.
Mega Zips has no photo ops other than the end of the zip line near Mega Quest where returning zippers zip into a red net. I met with a very helpful manager who told me he would not recommend taking an expensive camera on the zip line. Advice taken but, on my next trip, I’ll go on the zip line without my camera.
Mega Tram is an hour long tram ride through Mega Cavern. It is fascinating but tacky and is the one part of Mega Cavern that should be and could be brought up to the modern standard of Mega Quest and Mega Zips. It’s as if the tour guide’s dialog, the staging, and the lighting were created in the 1950s and never changed.
At one point, the tram stops and a short film from the Eisenhower era talks about the prospect of nuclear war and nuclear survival. The film should segue into footage about current nuclear threats but it is stuck in the 50s.
At another stop, cheesy department store mannequins with bad wigs wearing 1950s leisurewear stand in the middle of camping gear – about 6 people per acre – to simulate life in the cavern after a nuclear attack. It could only be tackier if one of the mannequins was Colonel Sanders.
Mega Tram depends on lighting but could use the talents of the person who lit Mega Quest. The lighting is often a single, harsh, white, too bright light at ground level that casts shadows of department store mannequins on the cavern walls. Tacky.
At one stop, the tour guide pointed out a natural formation that, if you used your imagination, looked like an Indian princess. Oh, really? It looked like bacon and eggs to me.
And here’s a modern, green, different kind of tacky. Since Mega Cavern is a green building, trash such as paper towels from the restrooms gets recycled by worms.
At the worm recycle tram stop where newly delivered trash sat waiting its turn in unrecyclable plastic bags, the young tour guide told us that survivalists – possibly surviving a nuclear attack – are trained to eat worms and he educated us about the fine art of eating a worm. You don’t choose a wiggler. You don’t chew the worm; they are bitter. You just swallow them as quickly as possible. Right.
Then the tour guide looked through a shoe box on top of the trash, selected a worm, and ate it. But before he ate the selected worm, he put it under a light and inspected it. You don’t want a bit of dirt on your worm dinner.
Eating worms seems to be the job requirement for tour guides. Since tours run every hour, a tour guide can snack on 5 or 6 worms in the course of a day. And someone has to restock the shoebox with good worm candidates each day. I wonder if they'll put those jobs on their resumes.
But, even with all the tackiness of the Mega Tram, it is an hour well spent.
And finally, each Christmas, Mega Cavern is transformed into Lights Under Louisville with 2 million lights in over 850 30 minute drive-through, underground Christmas displays.
Louisville Mega Cavern has something for everyone and, with their new advertising campaigns, may be on the edge of wider discovery.