Kentucky Underground: Mammoth Cave National Park

Kentucky Underground: Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park, located in southern Kentucky, is home to the world’s longest cave system.  As of right now, over 400 miles have been discovered with two massive cave systems connected.  It’s expected that many more miles of cave will be discovered over time as there hasn’t been an “end” found yet!

Walking underground throughout this cave system is amazing.  In some areas you have very tight spaces, aptly named “Fat Man’s Misery” and “Tall Man’s Misery”.  In other areas, you will walk through a vast, wide underground cave.  While most areas of the cave are lit, you’ll get to experience the magic of the ranger turning the lights on and illuminating the cave ahead.  On some tours, however, the caves do not have lights.  Therefore, visitors carry a lantern and will get a glimpse into what exploring a cave was like back when it was first discovered in the 1800s.

MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK FACTS

Home to the longest cave system in the world

  • LOCATION:  Kentucky
  • CLOSEST MAJOR CITIES:  Louisville, KY (90 miles) and Nashville, TN (90 miles) 
  • ANNUAL VISITORS:  515,000 (2021)
  • 39th most visited US National Park
  • BECAME A NATIONAL PARK:  1941
  • Most popular thing to do:  Domes & Dripstones Tour

Mike and I spent one very full Sunday on three different cave tours.  We had an early start on the morning we visited, with our first tour starting bright and early.  Below is our itinerary:

  • 8:45 am – 11:00 am:  Great Onyx Lantern Tour  
  • 11:00 am – 12:15 am:  Picnic lunch; Explore Visitor’s Center
  • 12:45 – 2:45 pm:  Domes and Dripstones Tour
  • 3:45 – 5:45 pm:  Gothic Avenue Tour

Now for the tours!

Great Onyx Lantern

This tour met at one of the two shelters next to the Visitor’s Center.  After a brief introduction on what to expect on the tour, we boarded a bus that brought us to the entrance of the cave.  

The bus we rode to the entrance of Great Onyx Cave

About every fourth person took a lantern and we were all spaced out to provide proper lighting along the way.  The lanterns lit our path as we saw massive stalactite and stalagmite formations and gypsum along the walls and ceiling.  It was really neat using only lanterns, just as those who first discovered the cave back in the 1800s did.

While on this tour, we also learned of the famous land law case.  When cave tourism began, the owner of the land above felt he had the rights to the cave running below his property.  Another land owner nearby, had the entrance to the cave on his property.  The two feuded as to who had to the rights to the cave.  It was finally decided that one owns the land above all the way to the core of the earth – so essentially, if you have a cave running underneath your property, you own it!  Thankfully now all the land and caves are owned by the National Park System, so all can enjoy.

Lots of formations in the beginning of this cave

Lanterns lighting the way

The park ranger sharing history of the cave

OVERALL THOUGHTS

We enjoyed the unique experience of carrying lanterns to light our way into the cave.  Seeing the gypsum was stunning, especially where it formed gypsum flowers on the ceiling.  The ranger who led this tour was also fantastic as he shared an interesting history as to how the cave was first discovered as well as the famous land law case.

Domes and Dripstones

This is the tour to take to see what people expect in a cave.  The “domes” refer to the ceiling of the cave and the “dripstones” refer to the stalactite and stalagmite formations.

This tour also met at the second shelter and we once again took a bus to the entrance of the cave.  Once off the bus, we descended down a flight of stairs into a sinkhole!  That’s right, this area of Kentucky’s landscape is dotted with sinkholes due to the caves below. 

Descending down the stairs to a sinkhole to the entrance of the cave

After a brief talk about what we would see on this tour, we entered the doorway and walked down a long passageway of stairs.  Some areas were tight and lots of head ducking occurred.  The ranger explained how the cave is formed with a sandstone roof ahead which keeps the caves intact. 

Stairs and tight spaces on this tour

From here it was off to see the formations!

The Frozen Niagara is an area of dripstones thought to resemble Niagara Falls.  Here you have the option to continue down 40+ stairs…and of course have to return up those same stairs.  I highly recommend going down.  You essentially stand in a chamber of stalactites and stalagmites surrounding you.  It is incredible!

The area known as Frozen Niagara with lots of dripstones

OVERALL THOUGHTS

This tour was the shortest and also most crowded that we experienced.  It had a lot more “oomph” in terms of seeing formations up close quickly.  Because of that, this is a good one for kids and probably why it’s so popular.  Keep in mind, however, that kids will need to be able to do a lot of stairs and be able to walk single file through tighter spaces.  Most of the kids on this tour found that fun!

The ranger on this tour was also fantastic.  She was very knowledgeable and answered many questions.

Gothic Avenue Tour

This tour departs from the first shelter and the group walks from here to the cave entrance.  We toured on a late August day where the outdoor temps were in the 90s.  The rush of cold air hit us as we rounded the corner to the cave entrance.  There is nothing like nature’s air conditioning!

First, we descended the stairs into the cave.  Water was dripping off the sandstone roof.  The entrance was beautiful!

The entrance to the cave

We walked for a bit to get to a location where the cave was dimly lit.  The ranger then turned the lights on.  It was a magical experience as the cave in front of us was suddenly illuminated!  The ranger discussed a lot of history and was very good at making it very interesting with neat stories.  He shared that he is a retired school teacher and really enjoyed sharing the history of the cave.  We all were really intrigued with how he shared the information!  

This cave was wide open

The large boxes that seem to be only partially unearthed once held gunpowder created by saltpeter from the cave during the War of 1812.  

One of the most mesmerizing things to see in this cave is the “historical graffiti”, where folks “wrote” their names on the walls and ceilings.  They did so by using a long stick with a candle attached to it and essentially burnt their names into the ceiling.  The graffiti goes on seemingly forever, which just goes to show how many visitors the cave had back in the day.  Only the rich could afford to travel and this was a real vacation for them.  Also back then, they didn’t have the nice, smooth paths like we do today.  Rather all visitors had to scramble over crushed rock, even ladies in the big hoop dresses!

Historical graffiti

What’s in a name?  Well, Gothic Avenue got its name from the various formations in this part of the cave which resemble gothic architecture.  The gothic appearance of these stalactites and stalagmites were gorgeous!

One in particular, named The Bridal Altar, was the site of underground weddings until 1915.  

“The Bridal Altar” in Gothic Ave, where weddings were held until 1915

OVERALL THOUGHTS

This is a fabulous tour, especially for those with an interest in the history of the cave and this area of Kentucky.  Young children may not be as “wowed” as on some other cave tours due to the long talks about history and longer stretches of walking to get from point to point.  As adults, however, we all were intrigued by the history, the beautiful formations, and the intriguing graffiti up close.  We all learned a lot about the early cave guides and visitors as well as its place in the War of 1812.  The ranger was phenomenal!  We all learned a lot with his great stories about the importance of Mammoth Cave throughout history.

This tour had some steps to descend down as well, but notably we had a several folks with canes.  There were benches at certain locations where people could sit as the ranger talked.  Our ranger was great in having those who needed to move at a slower pace walk up with him so he could set the pace.

Picking a Tour and Planning Your Day

Tours change depending on the season or days of the week.  It’s best to thoroughly read the descriptions on the website before deciding which tours you’ll do on the day you’re visiting.  There are a wide variety of tours, from those that showcase the stalactites and stalagmites to those with a lot of history while walking through a massive cave.  Of course you can also try your hand at lighting your own path while carrying a lantern!  We enjoyed all three of the very different cave tours we did.

Mammoth Cave website:  https://www.nps.gov/maca/index.htm

Other Things to do While Here

There are miles of hiking trails above ground at Mammoth Cave.  We opted to not hike the day we visited as our schedule was pretty tight due to having three cave tours in one day.  Not to mention it was in the 90s!  There are some great short loops, especially good with kids.  You can even walk right up to a sinkhole!

If you want to try out some water activities, you can canoe, kayak, fish, and boat on the Nolin and Green Rivers nearby.  

I highly recommend spending time making your way through the exhibits in the Visitor’s Center.  It is a great way to get an overview of the cave system.

As for dining, there are some snack shacks within the park near the Visitor’s Center serving fare such as burgers, chicken sandwiches, pretzels, and soft drinks.  We had packed a picnic lunch and ate on a picnic table under a shady tree, which was lovely!  On our way back to Louisville we stopped at one of our favorites, Marks Feed Store in Elizabethtown.

Things to Note

  • White Nose Syndrome is a potentially fatal disease that affects bats that dwell in the caves.  It poses no risk to humans however we humans can pick up the spores on our shoes when in the caves.  After every tour, you will walk across a soapy mat to get your shoes cleaned of this disease.
  • Caves are cold!  The caves remain around 54 degrees year round.  While this felt awesome on our 90 degree August day, the shock of hot and humid air to cool cave air warranted a jacket – definitely bring a lightweight jacket or sweatshirt to remain comfortable within the caves.
  • Proper footwear is essential.  You might have lots of stairs, slopes, and uneven ground on your cave tour.  Shoes with traction are a must as you may not always be near railings to hold on to.  Also, in some areas, the ground was damp or even wet.
  • Book ahead.  I highly recommend booking your tour(s) ahead as tours frequently sell out.  You can do so here on the Mammoth Cave National Park website.  

Mammoth Cave National Park is not only a national park but a UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve.  That sure is a lot for middle-of-nowhere Kentucky!  With a plethora of options to choose from, constructing a day of underground cave tours and above ground activities, one can have any adventure they choose – and any adventure will be awesome!

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