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Green River/Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky

A self-supported trip created by guest-paddler

Trip Overview

Having just read through the report from May 2012, I must pass my sympathy to those folks and try to rehabilitate the image of the Green River somewhat. The Green River is a big creepy crawly river as my fianccalled it over the weekend. It is slow and wide and, if you appreciate the erosion of a large river, it has carved artistic beauty from the land. The forest is old and you have to look through the trees to see much of it, but the river has created art.

However, enough of my waxing poetic for the moment. Our trip started late on Saturday, the day before my birthday as we arrived to get our backcountry camping pass at the Mammoth Cave National Park visitors center. Having grown up nearby in Bowling Green, I spent a lot of field trips and hiking days here and this park is one of the most beautiful and exciting I've been in during my 25 or so years of adventuring.

We decided to do the "discovery tour" of the Mammoth Cave historic entrance since it was free on this day and my fianchadn't enjoyed the spectacular thrill of seeing this one of the 7 wonders of the world. She was appreciative to say the least. The cave still blows my mind and with 326 miles of caves out there, many hiking, horseback riding, and biking trails, and the green river, you could spend many days in this park and not run out of things to see. I highly recommend you at least go in the cheap 3/4 mile tour of the historic cave entrance if not more.

But this is about a kayak trip. We dropped our three Native Manta Rays (two 12s and an 11) at the Green River Ferry for the 12-mile overnight trip down to Houchins Ferry at around 3:30 pm. I had paddled this trip once before and wanted to include the other 7.5 miles from Dennison Ferry to Green River Ferry since I hear it has a paddle-in cave, but our late start prevented this. The weather was supposed to be hot and humid as is normal for KY in summer (90s), but despite these conditions the shade of the trees and the cool of the river and caves must've dropped the temp to very comfortable.

The put-in is a road that runs into the water where the ferry runs. There is plenty of grassy staging area to prepare and then you walk your boat down the left side of the road to the water where there is an easy shove off in calf deep water.

If you put in at Dennison Ferry, it is a much steeper and difficult put in. There is a wooden staircase going down from the circular gravel parking lot (the road is gravel and bumpy, not recommended for low cars). The staircase does have a V in the middle to ride your boat down, but it is steep. I wouldn't recommend putting in above Dennison, even though I've never done it, because it is all outside the park and probably just flat farmland. The river is slow and its a good paddle for 20 miles for one weekend. I haven't done anything above Green River Ferry though, so it might be nicer than I think and I know the water will be faster and the river narrower for some of it.

Shuttling from Green River Ferry took about 40 minutes for us to drop a car at Houchins ferry, drive back, look at lots of roadside wild turkeys, and we were off.

As I said, you have to look for the beauty that is on this river, because it is partially obscured by trees and growth. However, this river has carved an amazing large stretch of land and hills.

The river is wide and the paddling is a slog. There are actually green mile markers just like an interstate each mile on river right as you go so you can count down the 12 miles (20 from Dennison Ferry) of paddling and you quickly will learn to appreciate how far a river mile is on flat water. Some of the signs are obscured, but they are all there.

There is a current, but you won't notice it much due to the width of the river. The water will appear dirty, but it is just a large river and has lots of floating debris and is actually relatively clear, but deep. This river is not for everyone; if you don't like to work for it by paddling or are the slightest bit queasy at the site of a dirty stick in your river, then you won't want to go here. If you stick to the shading from the shore and appreciate the forest for the trees and the cliff erosion of lime and sand stone, then you can find much peace here.

Occasionally you will cross fishermen in low hp boats and there are some commercial canoe and kayak rental operations, but there is plenty of room for everyone on this big river and people are friendly and considerate.

There are probably only 6 really good places to camp in this 20 mile stretch, so on crowded weekends you should try to show up early, get a spot and then you can paddle easily up or downstream and explore or fish. We chose "sand cave" about 3 miles down from Green River Ferry, which is on the park map as well as a few other named spots on the river.

I stayed at sand cave 2 years ago and it was the softest sand I've ever seen. It is a dual cave with a lower cave flooded by crystal clear water and a smaller upper cave with a 30 foot dome inside of it. The rocky beach is an easy takeout. However, there had been a rock slide since I was there last and the area had dramatically changed, just showing how powerful this river is at high levels. The beach was hard packed mud instead of the sand and there were large rocks everywhere so we couldn't use the beach to camp as before.

We made camp above the beach on a well used spot with a great view of the caves, river and cliffs. It's a great spot, but you must make a well worth it climb up a natural stair with your gear to camp there. We made a three person throw line and it went pretty easy.

The fire pit there now seems in a weird spot, but it is perfect for casting large shadows on the cliff wall behind the campsite and I wouldn't change a thing afterward despite my skepticism at first. Firewood was not plentiful, but if you aren't afraid to hike up through the slightly grown over trail to get it, it is there.

The bats in the nearby caves keep bugs down which is nice and, when we hiked down around midnight to hang out by the river, there was a lightning bug show like I've never seen and lots of loud frogs calling for new mates. It was nature's harmony at its best. This sand cave is one of the most beautiful places I've been in KY and ranks highly overall. I love it.

Other campsites are right across from the sand cave on a rocky beach with a lot of dried driftwood to burn, and then there are others further down stream of various conditions.

We found a beach the next day that would have been perfect. It is an island at high levels and doesn't look like much on the upstream side. However, if you take out on the downstream side and the water level has been low enough to allow it all to dry, these beaches are paradise. Trees hang low over the beaches providing natural shelter and relief from the sun and the sand is so soft it is almost like walking on a tempurpedic mattress. I lamented not continuing our paddle until we found this, but dusk had been approaching so we needed to set up camp and this beach is further downstream than sand cave by a couple of miles at least.

There are other campsites that are nice, but the sand beach and the sand cave were my favorites this trip. Due to the nature of this big river and the ever eroding and changing landscape, these campsites might be totally changed next year or with higher water levels, but this year, they look to be awesome.

Be careful of the weather upstream though, because heavy overnight rains can make this river rise quickly as the poster of the May 2012 story noted when they lost their boats to the this primary Kentucky watershed river. Camping on a higher ground campsite like the sand cave site will provide protection from this, but also just making note of the rain forecasts in the area or dam releases from the Green River Lake area will provide some warning.

Final notes on the trip:
the fishing wasn't great, but I didn't do a lot. I caught one bluegill a bit bigger than hand size on a 1-3 foot floating shad lure. I think there are plenty to catch in this river if you have the patience and they are hungry. The paddle out can be boring, but it is a GREAT workout and if you appreciate a big river and the power of it, then being on it will inspire you. For us, the site of Houchins Ferry a half mile downstream was a mixed blessings of relief, accomplishment, and sadness that our wonderful overnight adventure had ended.

The take out is another ferry and campground and is relatively easy. There are portapots, a well pump for washing off, a picnic pavilion, and campsites (obviously).

Have a safe trip. Remember to leave it cleaner than you found it; take at least 2 pieces of trash out with your own. Feel free to contact me with questions. The pictures are sand cave in its glory days 2 years ago, but if you want some from more recently, my fianccan forward them via email.


Camping at Green River Ferry in the Mammoth Cave park, backcountry camping, camping at Houchins Ferry in the park, and motels in nearby towns.

There are porta pots and shelter at Houchins Ferry. Visitor center has facilities. Green River Ferry has none that I recall and Dennison Ferry has none that I recall other than nature.


Backcounrty permit is free, but required for parking overnight. Parking is free for day trips too. The "discovery tour" we took at Mammoth cave was also free on this day, but listed as 5.00/person on the website. Rental fees for boat renters and tour fees for more interesting cave tours.


I-65 to the Park City exit, go west and follow signs the Brown signs to Mammoth Cave National Park Visitors center. The Green River Ferry put in is downstream from the visitors center and the Dennisons Ferry is upstream. Follow the signs to Brownsville as you leave the visitors center or Green River Ferry on 70. Follow 70 until it dead ends in Brownsville, turn north on 70/259 and turn right at the minute mart about 1/4 mile onto Houchins Ferry Road. Follow Houchins Ferry Road to the river. Parking is clearly marked for boat trailers and camping.

Alt put-in: Dennison Ferry is east from the visitors center up job corps rd/mammoth cave park rd. then turn left on the gravel road big woods rd a short distance before you leave the park.


I used the Mammoth Cave website, a mammoth cave park map (you can get one at the visitors center free), and a couple of other websites that were unnecessary but had some information I enjoyed reading.

Trip Details

  • Trip Duration: 2-3 Day Trip
  • Sport/Activity: Kayaking, Canoeing
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II)

Trip Location