A Walk in the Dark
Make your own journey to the center of the Earth at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky
Though it may seem like the National Park Service has been around forever, it was 100 years ago that President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created the agency tasked with protecting America’s natural treasures. To mark the anniversary, we’re bringing you a yearlong series full of unforgettable experiences — from mild to wild — that are unique to America’s national parks. Places where we sincerely hope you’ll Find Your Adventure in the months ahead.
In Jules Verne’s classic “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” the story’s heroes leave the planet’s sunlit surface behind, only to enter an alien world where they must fight off giant insects and dodge underground lightning storms just to stay alive.
While it’s true that they don’t make stories like they used to, modern-day motorhome travelers can still have a similar adventure — minus the melodramatic perils, of course — on their own voyage of subterranean discovery at south-central Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park.
More Than Just Big
Perhaps the most difficult thing about visiting Mammoth Cave is simply comprehending the immense scope of this underground world. By any measure you can name, the adjective “mammoth” is something of an understatement.
Take length, for example. With more than 400 miles of mapped passages, Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system in the world. In fact, it is longer than the combined lengths of the next two runners-up, Mexico’s Sistema Sac Actun and South Dakota’s Jewel Cave National Monument.
Mammoth Cave is equally impressive in terms of cave features known collectively as speleothems. Dripstone formations including stalactites, stalagmites and columns decorate the ceilings and floors in some parts of the cave, set off by flowstone formations known as draperies that cascade down the walls. In other areas, delicate soda straws form iciclelike decorations, while gypsum crystals sparkle like diamonds in the beam from the tour guide’s flashlight.
All of these fanciful features were formed over thousands of years by slow trickles of rainwater and snowmelt filtering down from the surface. On its journey the water dissolves the limestone bedrock and deposits it inside the cave as calcium carbonate, the material that keeps these formations growing even today.
Rushing water has also played an important role in Mammoth Cave. High stream flows have carved grand passageways and a number of large open rooms, the biggest of which — known as Mammoth Dome — rises more than 19 stories from floor to ceiling. Underground waterways with names like the River Styx and Echo River continue to carve the lower levels of the cave system, adding to this underground world’s length and depth with every passing year.
A Powerful Pull
While it may be tempting to think of Mammoth Cave as a relatively modern attraction, the truth is that it has been drawing people here for millennia.
As many as 4,000 years ago, prehistoric peoples used the cave for shelter. They also appear to have mined its mineral content, as evidenced by the clothing, woven sandals and human bones they left behind in the cave. From these artifacts, archaeologists have determined that these individuals ventured as much as 6 miles into the cave using nothing but the light from fragile reed torches.
European Americans rediscovered the cave at the beginning of the 19th century. Mammoth Cave served as a source of the saltpeter needed to make gunpowder during the War of 1812, and later housed tuberculosis patients hoping the constant temperature and humidity would provide a cure for the disease.
Tours have been conducted here for 200 years, making this one of the oldest tourist attractions in the United States. Early visitors experienced the cave by lamplight and used the space for everything from concerts to wedding ceremonies.
Today more than 2 million people visit Mammoth Cave National Park each year and nearly 600,000 of them take tours of the cave. That works out to as many as 4,000 a day during the peak summer season, making advanced tour reservations a must.
Something For Everyone
As far as those tours go, there are more than a dozen to choose from, though not all tours are offered all of the time.
This means there’s an outing that’s a good match for almost anyone’s interest and fitness level. They include relatively easy jaunts like the Frozen Niagara Tour that visits one of the most heavily decorated parts of the cave. It covers a quarter-mile and has just a handful of stair steps, so it’s suitable for families with younger children in tow.
While Mammoth Cave forgoes the multihued floodlights common to many commercial show caves, there are specialty tours here that do without electric lighting altogether. The 2½-hour Star Chamber Tour is a good example, as it equips visitors with old-fashioned candle lanterns for an experience not unlike that of the cave’s earliest visitors.
For those who’d like a broader experience of Mammoth Cave, there are a number of tours that are considered “Moderate,” like the popular Gothic Avenue Tour. On this two-hour excursion you can see one of the most historically significant cave passages, which includes the names of dozens of early tourists written on the ceiling in the soot from candle smoke.
Visitors who are up for a more challenging underground hike can sign up for several tours that fall into the “Difficult” category. Take the strenuous four-hour Grand Avenue Tour for example, which requires traversing 670 stair steps along with several steep hills.
A highlight of most every tour is when the guide flips a switch that plunges the entire group into a darkness so complete it’s literally not possible to see your hand in front of your face. Suffice it to say it’s an experience you’ll remember long after you’ve returned to the sunny world above.
Walk on the Wild Side
Let’s face it: A big part of the allure of visiting Mammoth Cave National Park is the chance to see an unfamiliar world you might not have known existed had you remained on the surface.
Take that idea to the next level and you have Mammoth Cave’s two off-the-beaten-path tours — outings designed to give you a taste of what actual cavers do when they’re exploring new and unmapped passages at the farthest known reaches of this 400-plus-mile cave system.
The Introduction to Caving Tour is a 3½-hour, 1-mile excursion that gives you a taste of the spelunker’s world without a serious commitment. The tour is rated as Difficult, but is suitable for families with older kids and adventurous folks who are not sure they’re ready for the park’s other off-trail romp.
That would be the very strenuous six-hour, 5-mile Wild Cave Tour. Think of it as the Intro to Caving Tour on steroids, with lengthy belly crawls through passages as tight as 9 inches and free-climbing up and down 10-foot ledges. Needless to say those who suffer from claustrophobia or a fear of heights won’t be interested.
Which raises the question of who would be? Anyone in good physical shape who would like to see Mammoth Cave in its natural state, something very few of the park’s millions of annual visitors can claim.
Back on the surface, Mammoth Cave National Park covers 83 square miles — a fact that makes for lots of aboveground recreational possibilities.
Water plays as big a role here on the surface as it does underground. Canoeing, kayaking and fishing are all popular on the 25 miles of the Green River and 6 miles of the Nolin River that run through the park. Nearly 80 species of fish call these waters home, from bluegill and catfish to popular game fish like small-mouth bass and crappie.
There are also 90 miles of aboveground hiking trails that lead to sinkholes, springs and historic sites like a vintage railway engine and the Old Guide’s Cemetery. They range from one-tenth of a mile strolls to more demanding 8-mile backcountry hikes.
Horse lovers will find several outfitters offering trail rides through the rolling hills of the park. Once saddled up, there are more than 60 miles of well-marked trails open for exploration.
Finally, cycling aficionados have plenty of options as well. Pavement peddlers will find 70 miles of paved roads within the park, while mountain bikers can enjoy 25 miles of trails including the Mammoth Cave Railroad Hike and Bike Trail.
Above all else, author Jules Verne’s sense of adventure was as well-developed as his imagination. And even though you’re unlikely to actually reach the center of the Earth, spending time in Mammoth Cave National Park remains one of the best ways we know to turn old Jules’ over-the-top fantasy into a reality.
IF YOU GO
Because many of the most popular tours can sell out quickly, be sure to make reservations early.
- When choosing a tour, don’t overestimate your physical abilities or let others talk you into doing a tour you feel uncomfortable about.
- Temperatures in the cave often hover around 54 degrees Fahrenheit, so a light jacket or sweatshirt is recommended.
- Wear sturdy footwear with good tread (over-the-ankle lace-up boots are required for the Intro to Caving and Wild Cave tours).
- Do not touch cave formations, as the oils from your hand can damage them and/or impede their continued growth.
- The park’s Mammoth Cave Campground has 105 dry-camping sites (on a first-come, first-served basis), a dump station and restrooms with showers.
Cave Country RV Campground
270-773-4678 | www.cavecountryrv.com
Double “J” Stables and Horseman’s Campground
270-286-8167 | www.doublejstables.com
Mammoth Cave National Park
270-758-2180 | www.nps.gov/maca
Singing Hills RV Park
270-773-3789 | www.singinghillsrvpark.com
Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp–Resort
800-523-1854 | http://jellystonemammothcave.com