Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world. So far, over 400 miles of cave have been explored and mapped and nobody can really say how much further the cave goes. It is generally a dry cave, so it’s not known for beautiful and elaborate formations (with some notable exceptions), but it’s enormous rooms and passageways make it a magical place to visit. It is a National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the International Biosphere Reserve.
In addition to the vast underground cave system, the park also protects 52,000 acres of beautiful Kentucky forest surrounding the Green River. Miles and miles of trails crisscross the park providing ample opportunities for exploration above ground as well.
People have been visiting Mammoth Cave for thousands of years. Explorers and scientists have found evidence of Native Americans several miles inside the cave - no small feat in the time before electricity. People of European decent stumbled across the cave at the very end of the eighteenth century. Mammoth Cave became an important source of saltpeter during the War of 1812. By the 1840s,, an African-American slave named Stephen Bishop was guiding tourists through the cave and was one of the first to start mapping the different routes. Over the next century, Mammoth Cave served many purposes in addition to delighting tourists including a church, music venue and tuberculosis ward.
In 1925, local cave explorer Floyd Collins got caught in one of the entrances called Sand Cave. The rescue attempt brought international attention to the area. Despite a massive effort to rescue him, Collins did not survive. The media attention captured the eye of many prominent Kentuckians though, and a push to create a National Park was begun. They got their wish in 1941 when Mammoth Cave National Park was passed into law.
Today, Mammoth Cave gets about a half-million visitors every year. There are several different tours offered from 1 hour introductions to all-day “get dirty” tours. When I visited, many tours had been shut down for the winter, but I still managed to do two different 2 hour tours: Gothic Avenue and Domes and Dripstones. Gothic Avenue entered through the Historic Entrance near the Visitors Center and took a look at the historic uses of the cave from the saltpeter mines to early tourism. It travels through some massive chambers to Gothic Avenue, an area where early tour guides allowed tourists to burn their names into the ceiling with candles on long poles. Some of these “signatures” date from the early 19th century. Domes and Dripstones enters through the New Entrance and winds down an incredibly engineered set of steps through tight twists and turns into the cave below. After visiting several large chambers, the tour ends in the Frozen Niagara section, one of the few areas of formations in the cave, and definitely one of the highlights.
In between and after my tours, I visited several other beautiful sections of the park. The River Styx Entrance is a magnificent water entrance to the cave. There are also several wonderful overlooks over the Green River, made even prettier by the fall colors. As an old guide myself, I enjoyed visiting the Old Guides’ Cemetery, one of 80 historic cemeteries that dot the park. Finally I made my way down to Sand Cave to learn more about the story of Floyd Collins and pay my respects to this early explorer.
I had a wonderful full day in Mammoth Cave National Park, and I think you will see from the photos below how beautiful a place it is, both above and below ground. No tripods are allowed on the tours, so forgive the darkness and blurriness of many of the underground photos, but I think you’ll get the general idea. Click on any of the photos to see a larger view. If you go for a visit, you won’t be disappointed. While not required, you should definitely make tour reservations as far ahead as possible, especially in the summer. Make your reservations HERE. I definitely recommend you visit the Frozen Niagara section while you are there - by far the most “beautiful” part of the cave I saw.
“In Focus” is a series of posts focusing on photographs of our beautiful National Parks. I love visiting units of our National Park System, and highly recommend you find one near you so you can go for a visit yourself. To see more posts in this series, scroll down to the footer at the very bottom of this page and type “In Focus” into the search bar. Enjoy!