mammoth caves is known as one of the best interpretive national parks
About three hours from Indianapolis is Cave City, Kentucky, which is located off Exit 53 on Interstate 65, passing through the capital city of Louisville. Since its founding in 1835, the area thrived, but has recently undergone some depletion after being hit hard during the country’s economic recession. However, it still has much to offer the adventurous traveler.
Most of the businesses that closed their doors were not worthy of your time or money, essentially the typical tourist trap. The quality attractions, such as the Green River Canoe or the Jesse James Riding Stables, which take you horseback riding on what they deem the most gentle horses around throughout the hillsides and valleys where Jesse himself rode while fleeing the law, are still going strong and provide memorable moments during your visit.
Nonetheless, the number one tourist attraction in the caves region is Mammoth Caves National Park. The caves are the world’s longest, running more than 390 miles in length with still more to be discovered. There is no entrance fee to the park, which is home to over a dozen endangered species and has as much to see and do above ground as there is beneath. You can horseback ride and hike over 80 miles of trails or mountain bike on over 20 miles of trails.
the map of over 390 miles of trail, with more still being discovered
In the summer of 2010, the park opened the doors to its new visitor center, where people can purchase gifts, souvenirs, books and tickets for more than 10 different cave tours.
Note: Some do sell-out quickly and others are only offered once a day, depending on the season. I highly suggest checking the Website for Mammoth Cave to make reservations online for most of the tours. A few are not available by reservation and must be purchased at the Visitor Tour on the day of the tour.
Before every tour the guides explain the physical and mental considerations that must be taken on your part. Yes, mental considerations. The caves can play tricks with your mind. There are points in tours where you have to bend down and almost walk on your knees to get through passages. At other times, you are walking across a bridge or up/down a staircase, look over to the side and see a never-ending drop. The mere fact that you are hundreds of feet below the surface is another hurdle to overcome. I can honestly say it is worth it all though. Groups, depending on tour, range from 12 to 120 in size.
It should be known that Mammoth Caves National Park has highly knowledgeable and passionate guides. Every question you ask them will get an in-depth answer with an eager tone. These people look forward to spending their days underground sharing the stories of the caves, its history as well as their own personal experiences in the caves. One of the girls first visited the park when she was eight and now she is leading tours.
Tip: Choose to either be at the front of the pack or at the end if you want to have the chance to ask the guide leading the group or the guide at the back of the group specific questions you have regarding things you notice in the caves or have in general about the history of them while you walk. Trust me, you will have many questions pop up in your head and they are more than willing to answer.
I took two tours: New Entrance Tour & the Historic Entrance Tour.
walking down stairs in a narrow passage
New Entrance Tour:
Length: 2 hours, 3/4 mile.
Tour Limit: 114 people
Total Stairs: 500, including 280 on initial descent
The New Entrance Tour has the guides shuttling you to an entrance that appears to be a random steel door in a hillside, resembling a portal to a bomb shelter. The opening was created after a man, who wanted his own cave, had purchased land with a sinkhole above a portion of the caves that he knew were linked with Mammoth Caves. He used dynamite to blast a new way into the caves and started exploring.
On the initial descent, you walk down 280 steps that become extremely narrow and steep, winding through passages no wider than your hips. Once you reach the stopping point you make your way through the caves. At one point you reach a big room, and the group will take a seat while the guide explains some history and tells stories about the caves. This is also where they turn all the lights out, showing you what some of the earlier explorers faced during their time down in the very passageways you are walking through.
During your entire time down in the caves, the guides will be explaining various things such as the writing on the walls, how the rooms got their names and prominent people whose names will be forever associated with the caves.
Frozen Niagara Falls
The main attraction of the New Entrance Tour is the Frozen Niagara, which is 130 feet below ground surface. You enter a room of formations rising from the ground or hanging from the ceilings like icicles. These columns are called stalagmites and stalactites. They are created by calcium salts and the dripping of water. The bigger formations, such as the Frozen Niagara take thousands of years to form by the slow drip, drip, drip of water and is a sight to marvel. After this stop, you make your way out of the cave via the Frozen Niagara Entrance, completing a two hour and 3/4 mile trip.
This tour does not require a jacket and is a great basic introduction to the Mammoth Caves. It takes you down and up stairs, crouching through tunnel passages, provides a glimpse at the river below you and a stroll through a room full of formations.
the Historic Tour path
Length: 2 hours, 2 miles
Tour Limit: 120 people
Total Stairs: 440, including 155 at Mammoth Dome
Warning: This is tour is not for those who suffer claustrophobia or are afraid of heights. You will experience steep stairs, bridges and crawl spaces. Again, it is worth it to push yourself!
On this tour you get to enter the original opening to the caves and walk to a large room at 140 feet below the surface, called the Rotunda, which still has artifacts from the early days when these caves were mined.
After this you walk yourself through tunnels that make you feel like a tiny ant in an ant hill, and over a bridge that crosses the Bottomless Pit. Take a peek over the edge and see blackness for as long as your eyes can see.
the giant's coffin
You will have the chance to pay respects at the Giant’s Coffin. A large granite form is laying in front of you and appears to be the final resting place of a large person. This is also where the guides will tell a story about a slave woman who was the only one buried in the Mammoth Caves in this spot on the tour. They believe she may have held a prominent position for having been brought all the way underground to be placed.
The biggest attraction on this tour, in my opinion as well as my mom’s, is Fat Man’s Misery. They even have a tiny sign to let you know that you have arrived to this portion of the tour, which is a passageway that has you going from a standing position, to a crawling position in a narrow space that has you squeezing your way through to make your way into the Relief Room, where you can stand and go to the bathroom.
At last you’ll make your way to The Tower in Mammoth Dome where you’ll climb up five levels of stairs that also get more narrow along the way before making your way back to the Rotunda Room and into daylight once again. Although you won’t see any formations, you’ll get a rich taste of history and stories about the people who walked before you in these caves.
squeezing through Fat Man's Misery on Historic Tour
I survived both tours. Granted, it took me some deep breathing and support from my parents to get me in there, it was well worth it like I’ve mentioned in this blog post. To feel smaller than ordinary and see the vastness of these caves is astonishing.
The passion the tour guides possess for the caves is inspiring. Some are the next in their generation to walk underground, and now their kids are working themselves up the hierarchy ladder to become a guide.
Both tours I went on are excellent introductions to the caves. The New Entrance Tour is on the opposite end of the Historic Tour, so you get to enter from both sides of the cave system.
For the more daring, there is a tour offered at night, Violet City Lantern Tour, where the only light you have guiding you for 3 hours and 3 miles is a lantern you are holding. As for the cave explorer, the Wild Cave Tour is about six hours and 5 miles in difficult and strenuous situations.
Note: Some pictures in this post were taken by my mom.