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Our Story

In 1986 the Cave entrance and the 25-acre wooded valley was donated to Western Kentucky University by its owners: WKU professor Dr. Raymond Cravens, WKU Physical Plant Administrator Owen Lawson and Mr. and Mrs. Leroy Highbaugh. The donation served as the springboard for the restoration and preservation of Lost River Cave and the surrounding natural environment.

A 501(c)3 non-profit organization, The Friends of the Lost River, Inc. (dba Lost River Cave) was incorporated in 1990 to facilitate the conservation and sustainability of the Cave and surrounding area. In the spring of 1999, visionary board member Dr. Nicholas Crawford, Director of WKU’s Center for Cave and Karst Studies, convinced the board to build a dam inside the Cave with the aim of providing float tours of the interior. His idea was to generate funding for the conservation effort; his logic was along the lines of “if we build it they will come.”

In 2001, the threat of commercial development on land directly adjacent to the Cave and valley compelled the Friends organization to pursue protection of that land as well. Drawing on support from the City Commission and the Greenways Commission of Bowling Green and Warren County, an additional 42 acres was purchased. Since then, acquisition of additional parcels has expanded the park to 72-acres offering trails, wetlands, meadows and a restored prairie.

Today, donors, members, underground boat tour, gift shop, and event rental income sustain the ongoing work to preserve and maintain Lost River Cave as a cultural and natural landmark. Park guests and locals help preserve the park when they purchase a park membership, make a donation, or volunteer service hours to contribute to the Friends’ mission.

Lost River Cave’s mission is to educate and enrich lives through connections with nature.

Lost River Cave is managed by the Friends of the Lost River, Inc., a non-profit 501(c)3 organization. This group of committed individuals works to provide fiscal sustainability for the conservation and protection of Lost River Cave’s natural and cultural resources while providing outdoor experiences and education.

The principles that guide their work include: 

  1. Providing children, parents and adults with interesting personal experiences and education that embrace Aldo Leopold’s definition of a community to “include soils, waters, plants, and animals.” 
  2. Fostering an appreciation of unstructured time in the outdoors at Lost River Cave and beyond. 
  3. Maintaining the trust of members, donors and the community through ethical stewardship of the cave and land. 

30 Years Strong

Lost River Cave is an urban 72-acre park that offers activities and events that utilize its natural and man-made features. Natural features include the cave, a wooded valley with trails, river, and other karst features, such as blue holes, sinking streams, and beautiful rock outcrops.  A 20-acre barrens prairie and a woodland meadow are currently being restored. Visitors to the park will also find a seasonal butterfly habitat, man-made wetland system, paved greenway trail, visitor center and gift shop, classroom/meeting space, and an event venue at the Historic Cavern Nite Club.

A wide-variety of skill sets are needed to achieve the goals of the organization. Qualified staff members: 

  • Train as interpretive guides 
  • Develop nature-based experiences and volunteer opportunities 
  • Provide educational opportunities for students 


Support for visitation generated by tourism and educational programming is provided by:

  • Maintenance staff and groundskeepers 
  • Tour guides, program guides, and retail gift shop staff 
  • Supervisory staff overseeing daily operations 
  • Marketing personnel responsible for brand management and in-house publications 
  • Event rentals coordinator 
  • Philanthropy team that engages the community to support the sustainability of the Park and the Mission through memberships and community relations 


A volunteer board of directors and the executive director provide support for the Mission Statement by establishing goals and engaging the community to become involved with the organization. 

The board and staff share a commitment to these goals: 

  • Engage children, teenagers and adults in nature-based programs and outdoor activities 
  • Collaborate with volunteers, other non-profits, government entities, WKU, and corporations 
  • Fill the gap in nature-based learning opportunities in the region  
  • Create STEM-based (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) activities that encourage and enable educators to integrate our programs into their curriculum 

In 2020, the board and staff adopted a five-year Strategic Plan that will guide the organization and ensure sustainability and effective allocation of the resources that serve our mission. Implementation of the 2020 Strategic Plan magnifies the original mission – drawing attention to the importance of all its natural and cultural resources and expanding its potential for growth.

With the 2020 Strategic Plan, Lost River Cave will expand the usefulness of its diverse and vibrant ecosystems and its role in the region. We believe that understanding the natural world begins with experiencing it. Uniquely situated within the City of Bowling Green, the cave, valley, woodlands, prairie and wetlands offer tremendous potential as an urban sanctuary for visitors who hike the trails and most especially for those creatures that have made this their home.

The 2020 Strategic Plan outlines a pathway for becoming an even more significant resource to the community. Strengthening our connection with donors, members, and supporters of all kinds will allow Lost River Cave to:  

  •  Preserve the cultural history, geological, and environmental resources of Lost River Cave for future generations 
  • Expand Lost River Cave’s impact as a center for nature education and conservation 
  • Build on environmental educational programs utilizing Lost River Cave’s diverse and vibrant ecosystems and 72-acre Park 
  • Enrich the community’s connection to nature through volunteer opportunities 

The goals, strategies, and actions outlined by the Board of Directors in the 2020 Strategic Plan are the important steps toward realizing the sustainability of Lost River Cave. Implementing the 2020 Strategic Plan will support the mission and guiding principles of the organization and deepen our community’s connection to nature 

A major component of the 2020 Strategic Plan is the completion of the Nature Discovery Center Capital Fundraising Campaign. Upon its completion, the Nature Discovery Center will serve families, schoolchildren, and adults from 26 surrounding counties without a nature center.

Rendering of future Nature Discovery Center at Lost River Cave.

Framework for the Future

Over the past thirty years, the Friends of the Lost River has served an increasing number of local families and visitors from near and far. Annual visitation has grown to 100,000, making it one of the most effectual non-profit organizations in the community. Principles and practices developed to ‘save the cave’ have provided conservation, outdoor recreation, and strengthening of the local economy with jobs and tourism revenues. 

The organization has a strong tradition of fiscal responsibility and planning and working closely with donors to enhance the resources we are privileged to protect.  

  • Conservation. Protection of the original 25-acre valley from commercial development has compelled the Friends organization to acquire several adjacent parcels of land. Today, the park is comprised of approximately 72 acres of woodlands, wetlands and prairie. 
  • Stewardship. Preservation of the cultural history, geological, and environmental resources for future generations through responsible planning and management. 
  • Education. Place-based learning opportunities for schools and scouts are the focus of a wide-variety of activities that each year help thousands of local children develop an appreciation for and understanding of the natural world. Western Kentucky University faculty, students, and interns utilize the park for research and hands-on application of course work. 
  • Community Investment. Boat tour proceeds and other tourism-related activities deliver the majority of financial support that allows the Friends organization to provide the community with a 72-acre park that is open year-round and free to the public. Responsibilities include:  
    • Protection of the cave, valley woodlands and blueholes, over two-miles of natural and paved trails, butterfly habitat, outdoor classroom, and historic buildings 
    • Ongoing restoration of a 20-acre Barrens Prairie, located along Dishman Lane, that provides natural habitat for urban wildlife and educational opportunities for thousands of area school children
    • Upkeep of a constructed wetland and retention basin where native plants serve as a barrier to Stormwater runoff entering the cave system. Creation of the wetland established new habitat for hundreds of birds, ducks, frogs and turtles
    • Annual debt service on three parcels of land. These mortgages represent the only long-term debt held by the organization 
    • Maintenance of educational classroom space, community meeting space, gift shop, administrative offices, and maintenance facilities necessary to support the mission

Now, the volunteer Board of Directors will turn its attention to the future. The Board is committed to provide a place where both the mental and physical benefits of time in the outdoors is readily available to our community and all who visit. 

Goal One: Invite the community to participate in a capital campaign to create a Nature Discovery Center at Lost River Cave. The Nature Discovery Center will include exhibits, classrooms, meeting spaces and interpretative signage that inspire connections with the natural world and will be the first of its kind in south-central Kentucky.

Goal Two: Establish sustainable support to provide annual maintenance of cave, trails, prairie, outdoor classroom, and wetland. The board has taken the initiative to increase philanthropic support and explore additional revenue streams. 

Goal Three: Expand existing programs to stimulate a love of learning about nature and science. Utilize our professional staff to involve teachers and the community through authentic hands-on, nature-based activities. 

Goal Four: Understand member and donor needs and recruit new supporters. By building awareness of Lost River Cave as a community resource that provides access to ‘nearby nature’ we can help our community become more in tune with the importance of nature in our everyday lives.

Rendering of future Nature Discovery Center at Lost River Cave.

Lost River Cave & WKU’s History

In 1986, the cave entrance and the 25-acre valley was donated to Western Kentucky University by WKU professor Dr. Raymond Cravens and WKU Physical Plant Administrator Owen Lawson. The donation served as the springboard for the restoration and preservation of Lost River Cave and the surrounding natural environment. Starting in the mid-1980’s, Dr. Nicholas Crawford, Director of WKU’s Center for Cave and Karst Studies organized the effort to begin the conservation and preservation of this important historical site. His vision was the impetus behind the revitalization of the cave and valley.  WKU students, under Dr. Crawford’s supervision, received environmental instruction as they worked to preserve the natural resources. Today, WKU faculty and students utilize the cave valley to study:

  • Karst Topography
  • Hydrology
  • Civil Engineering
  • Biology
  • Botany
  • Weather
  • Non-profit Management
  • Professional Development
  • Environmental Conservation

Incorporated in 1990, The Friends of the Lost River was organized to provide stability for the restoration work and research. A 99-year lease on the 25-acre valley is the foundation of the partnership between the Friends organization and WKU. Throughout the years, Lost River Cave has served as an educational laboratory for faculty and students and prioritizes the hiring of WKU graduates, interns, and student workers to fill its full-time and seasonal staff positions.

The 25-acre valley, owned by WKU, provides a natural environment for field-research. Students from WKU’s Department of Geology and Geography are most commonly found taking advantage of its natural features. WKU researchers have investigated subjects such as hydrology, karst biology, and karst engineering. Their findings have had implications for public health and public standards. In addition, global connections have been fostered through research at the cave. In 2012, a UNESCO research team worked with WKU to facilitate research (Research) at the park, and other caves in karst region, that would develop standard operating procedures for measuring atmospheric CO2 consumption. Today, there are multiple site-based studies being conducted on the property owned by WKU at Lost River Cave. One on-going study is examining permanent mineral erosion. The findings of this study could inform researchers and conservationists of possible reasons for erosion like waterborne pollutants and climate change, explaining changes in karst topography. Another study is investigating how commercial development in a karst region impacts the underlying ecosystem.

Service is the foundational cornerstone of the WKU-Lost River Cave partnership. For the past 35 years, WKU volunteers have contributed thousands of hours to make the valley the urban sanctuary it is today. Students and faculty who volunteer at the park practice social responsibility, while engaging with the community and nature. Their efforts not only benefit the park, the environment and visitors from around the world, but help protect Lost River Cave’s natural and historical resources. Big Red Blitz, the first volunteer event of the school year, invites incoming WKU students to participate in an invasive plant pull. Students with the Gatton Academy, WKU Forensics team, and the School of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport volunteer regularly at the cave.

Lost River Cave offers a unique opportunity for students to become engaged with nature, providing a more holistic and well-rounded educational experience. Many WKU departments and organizations have utilized Lost River Cave’s park as a resource:

WKU meetings, events, and trainings also take place at Lost River Cave. The Department of Financial Assistance, Department of Applied Human Sciences, WKU Symphony, and the Center for Environmental Education and Sustainability have all used the park for professional development and learning.

From the start, the relationship between Lost River Cave and WKU was strong and remains so today. Many departments and their faculty members utilize Lost River Cave to enrich their curriculum, while also offering up their expertise in service of the conservation effort.

WKU Biology Faculty

  • Dr. Steve Huskey (Webpage)
    • Procures bones for educational programming
  •  Dr. Keith Philips (Webpage)
    • Provides insect collections for educational programming

WKU Geography and Geology Faculty

  • Dr. Stuart Foster (Webpage)
    • Partners in the Mesonet project by hosting a station in Lost River Cave’s prairie
  •  Dr. Chris Groves (Webpage)
    • Lost River Cave works with graduate students to provide data collection opportunities for thesis work in hydrology
  •  Dr. Jason Polk (Webpage)
    • Lost River Cave works with graduate students to provide data collection opportunities for thesis work in hydrology
    • Provides access to the WKU lab as a field trip location for the Karst STEM Camp
  • Dr. Leslie North (Webpage)
    • Lost River Cave works with graduate students to provide data collection opportunities for thesis work and non-formal education in show caves

WKU Agriculture Department Faculty

  • Dr. Martin Stone (Webpage)
    • Provides advice on botany related issue

WKU Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sport Faculty and Associates:

  • Dr. Raymond Poff (Webpage)
    • Hosts Lost River Cave CEO, Rho Lansden, once a year for guest lecture

The park provides internships to many  Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sport undergraduate and graduate students annually.

WKU School of Teacher Education Faculty

  • Dr. Jeanine Huss (Webpage)
    • Uses Lost River Cave location to hold professional development seminars for teachers

WKU Center for Environmental Education and Sustainability Staff

  • Dr. Terry Wilson (Webpage)
    • Uses Lost River Cave location to hold professional development seminars for teachers

There’s so much more going on at Lost River Cave. Check out the full calendar of upcoming events.