Location: Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
Webpage: National Park
General Description: Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system known in the world with over 400 miles of explored and mapped caves and an estimated 600 miles of yet to be discovered caves. This unique cave system consists of an impervious sandstone cap that protects a thick limestone layer known as karstic formation. Water flows into the system through sink holes that pockmark the surface giving access through the sandstone layer. Consequently, there are few creeks or rivers in the region making for poor growing conditions for agriculture. Over eons this water has created five layers of caves as the Green River which drains the area, has cut into the limestone lowering the water table over time. On the surface the National Park encompasses 52.830 acres of wooded hills. The National Park Service offers a number of cave tours including Mammoth Passage, Frozen Niagara, Historic, Domes and Dripstones, Grand Avenue, Cleveland Avenue, Violet City Lantern, Great Onyx, River Styx, and others. Many of the tours crisscross the same sections of the caves, but all have their own unique nature. On the surface there are numerous hiking trails, a bike trail along the old railroad bed, and canoe trips floating down the Green River.
1) The Visitor Center is a beautiful modern stone building where visitors can purchase tour tickets, gather information about hiking trails, purchase souvenirs, and learn about the area. There is not a video like you would find at other National Parks, however, the museum provides numerous exhibits on the geology, history, and cultural aspects of Mammoth Cave. Many of the exhibits have interactive features and there are a couple of short films. It is well worth the time and can easily take a couple of hours to explore.
2) There are many tours to choose from, however, be aware that they only offer a limited number on any given day. While we were there, we choose to take the Historic Tour, which had only been made available recently as they completed new flooring for the tour. As the name implies, this is the old original tour of Mammoth Cave that dates back to the 1800s. This tour covers over 2 miles of caves and takes 2.5 hours. It begins in the historical entrance to the cave entering in an area between the first two levels of the cave. Within this area of The Rotunda you see the remains of Indian exploration and the amazingly well preserved remains of the Saltpeter mining of bat guano during the War of 1812. This part of the cave is at the convergence of two subterranean rivers with smooth ceilings over 40 feet high. The tour continues nearly half a mile down Gothic Avenue before descending down to level three along a narrow stairway carved into the rocks. On level 3 you cross the Bottomless Pit where you can look straight down hundreds of feet through a grate over the pit. The tour then descends through Fat Man’s Misery, a narrow rocky channel to the Great Relief Hall at level 4. This is the lowest point of the tour and from the hall you can look down a cave filled with water at level 5. From here the tour begins the journey back up along Sparks Avenue to the Mammoth Dome. Within this dome they have constructed a metal staircase that brings you back to level 2 with many spectacular views back into the depths as you ascend. The tour circles back to The Rotunda along Audubon Avenue, the second river that meets in the Rotunda.
3) A week later we returned to Mammoth Cave to take a canoe trip down the Green River from Dennison Ferry to Green River Ferry, a distance of 7.5 miles. As we made the trip during the week, there were few other visitors on the river, so we had the river to ourselves for most of the day. As we basically “floated” the whole distance on individual kayaks, we took over 3 hours to make the journey. It was very relaxing with a lot of nice scenery of grassy and rocky banks along the way. I strongly recommend the experience as a way to see the Kentucky landscape from a different perspective.