Lost River Cave Is Bowling Green’s Natural Wonderland

by | May 2024

LOST RIVER Cave is a striking 72-acre expanse right in Bowling Green. It functions as an educational and activity center, a wedding venue, and an opportunity to interact with the natural world. There are 2 miles of trails. And then there is the cave — Lost River’s biggest draw. 

The cave was a place of milling operations until the early 20th century and then housed a unique nightclub that started in the 1930s — cleverly described in those pre-HVAC days as the “coolest” place in town. This distinctive, very popular nightclub hosted big bands, swing, and the likes of Dinah Shore and the NBC Orchestra. But what is crowd-pleasing one day is outdated the next. The nightclub did not survive the transition to rock ‘n roll, closed down, and simply became a place to dump garbage for decades. Incredibly, people backed up to the edge of the cave’s mouth and threw out trash. The acreage became overgrown and filled with invasive plants and litter. 

In the 1980s, a local professor, Nick Crawford, organized a community effort to clean out and restore the cave and the entire area. Since then, a mind-boggling total of 50 tons of garbage have been pulled out of the cave system. 

The cave has been resurrected as the historic Cavern Nite Club, which features the original 1930s bar and bandstand and is the site for corporate events. According to Lost River Cave’s CEO, Justin Jennings, it is a sought-after wedding venue that hosts between 50 and 60 weddings a year. 

There is a hugely popular boat tour, which began around 1998 and was the brainchild of Nick Crawford as a way to raise money for the extensive restoration. 

“We operate our boat tour 363 days a year as long as the water levels will allow us to,” Jennings explained. 

Educational and environmental programming and field trips are available. Over 5,000 students took part last fall. The variety of nature is wide-ranging, including a seasonal butterfly habitat. 

“On every boat tour, people are learning more about the ecosystems we have here and how fragile it is,” said Jennings. “I tell all our new hires, ‘Where else can you do this? You operate a boat through a cave and teach people to be better stewards of the earth.’” 

Labeling something as “overly educational” is often the quickest way to lose a kid’s interest. The students who come to this natural wonderland get educated in the best way possible — by having fun. 

“It’s very enriching to talk to the kids and take them over to the cave wall, show them a fossil, and tell them, ‘This was a living, breathing creature millions of years ago.’ It’s neat to see the kids excited, learning, and developing that appreciation for nature.” 

Some students form a lasting connection to Lost River and will return years later as tour guides. 

“We know we’re making an impact,” Jennings said, “because this is what they want to do with their lives now.” 

Justin Jennings is an example of the close connection that Lost River Cave inspires. He visited the park as a high school student, worked on several Eagle Scout projects on the land, and took a class with Nick Crawford at Western Kentucky University. After working as a tour guide, he moved to the property-management side — a steward of the land. And now he is the CEO. 

There is also a huge community component. Locals and tourists are steady visitors, taking advantage of the 2 miles of nature trails. Every October, the park hosts the scarecrow trail, a popular activity where you can see 75 homemade scarecrows and, depending on your temperament, a unique or nightmare-inducing activity. 

“The urban park hosts a 5K race every year, and after the race, we all go down to the nightclub, and that’s where we hold the awards ceremony and celebrate all the participants.” 

There is also a community-wide campout, where the community is invited to camp out all along the 72 acres and sleep on the nightclub’s dance floor. 

Lost River Cave is a multi-pronged endeavor. It provides many educational functions, a variety of events, and the uncommon historic Cavern Nite Club. The fact that the 72 acres are well within Bowling Green’s domain makes it extra-accessible. Bowling Green is very, very fortunate to have this splendid natural resource. GN 

More Good News