Visiting Mammoth Cave National Park in central Kentucky requires a little advanced planning, as tickets are typically sold out about a week in advance. We scheduled our visit in conjunction with Dollywood. Currently, only self-guided tours are available, but Park Rangers are strategically positioned throughout the cave to answer questions and keep traffic moving.
Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system in the world. In fact, it is listed as one of the natural wonders along with Crater Lake, Niagara Falls, Hawaii Volcano Natural Park, Devil’s Tower, Old Faithful and Death Valley. The limestone cave system (and the entire region’s landscape) was formed by erosion. There are over 365 surveyed passages, but geologists think there may be 600 miles more left to discover.
And it’s still being sculpted by rainwater that travels underground! As the groundwater dissolves the limestone, underground streams form. As the streams converge, they create Mammoth Cave’s underground rivers.
This labyrinth is home to 130 species. The Green River – which helped form the cave – harbors 82 species of fish and freshwater mussels. The surrounding areas are specialized habitats for a variety of plants and animals, with moist micro climates at the cave entrances. Mammoth Cave was designated a World Heritage Site in 1981, and an International Biosphere Reserve in 1990.
At the main entrance is a beautiful waterfall. Upon approach, you can feel the blast of cold air emanating from the cave, which hovers around 54°F.
The Rotunda is the first cave room you encounter. The rounded shape is best observed in the ceiling.
You’ll notice the absence of stalactites, stalagmites, or flowstones you would normally find in caves. This is because the cave’s shape, and shale and sandstone roof wicks water away. A few can be seen on the Frozen Niagara or Domes and Dripstones Tours, but these are not currently being offered.
People have always flocked to the cave system. The earliest visitors can be traced back to 2,000-4,000 years ago, on quests for crystals. During the War of 1812, miners extracted saltpeter from the cave to help make gunpowder. Between 1842 and 1843, Dr. John Croghan ordered his slaves to construct a series of buildings near the Star Chamber, to treat tuberculosis patients. (The experiments failed as the cool, clammy air of the cave further deteriorated infected lungs. He also died from the disease.) In 1874, Edwin Booth – brother of John Wilkes Booth – gave a performance of Hamlet’s soliloquy To Be Or Not To Be. Now, visitors to the caves are largely tourists.
Bats dwell inside the cave, though we did not see any. A fungal disease called White-Nose Syndrome has decimated their numbers. Consequently, at the conclusion of the tour, you must walk across bio-security mats to cleanse your shoes and prevent the spread.
While the tour is the main attraction, there are above-ground trails to explore. In fact, the subterranean world is just one half of the park. The above ground realm completes it. If you’re up to it, it is possible to tour the cave and walk a trail in one visit. Other activities include camping, bicycling, fishing, and horseback riding.
Tips for visiting:
- Advanced reservations are required.
- Wear comfortable shoes with traction.
- Take a lightweight jacket.
- Plan to arrive least 5 minutes early for a safety briefing.
- Medical evacuation from the caves can take hours. Visitors with serious health conditions should carefully consider their limitation.
We’re so pleased we made the trek and were able to add one more stamp to the kids’ National Parks Passports!
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