I had visited Mammoth Cave once before – when I was about 4. I have a vague memory of traipsing through a cave and lots of steps … and begging Daddy to carry me when I got tired (which he did!). I figured after 50 plus years it was time to visit again! On our way from the cabin up to Indiana seemed an ideal time to plan a brief stop to explore this National Park.
Folks have been touring this cave system for centuries. Evidence of Native American presence in the cave dates back 4000 years while American settlers re-discovered the cave in the late 1700s. The cave was mined for saltpeter (a precursor for gunpowder) for the war of 1812. Over time, more and more people just wanted to come to see this massive cave system. Mammoth Cave became America’s 26th National Park in 1941.
One interesting historical side note is that the cave served as the site of a tuberculosis sanatorium during the winter of 1842-3. A physician named Dr. John Croghan became interested in the cave, noting how well timbers and bodies of bats and Native Americans remained perfectly intact and undecayed. He hypothesized it was due to the cave air, purchased the cave, and convinced 16 “consumption” patients to live in the cave as an experiment. After some months, it became evident that the cool/damp environment combined with smoke from lanterns and fires did NOT improve their condition and the experiment was terminated (failed). Ironically, the doctor himself succumbed to TB and died a few years later.
The network of tunnels, chambers and channels that make up the Mammoth Cave System is currently measured at over 400 miles, the world’s longest cave system. Nobody really knows how big it is, and exploration continues today. The Park offers hiking / biking trails, rivers for boating, horseback riding and camping, but the big attraction is, of course, the Cave.
A dozen or so different tours are offered at the Visitor Center, all exploring different areas of the cave system and offering varying walking distances and levels of difficulty (easy to very strenuous). Tours can be booked online and should be reserved in advance during busy seasons as they do sell out! But our two-day visit was during a not-so-busy time, so we were able to simply walk up at opening time the first day and book all of our tours. We booked 4 tours, two each day. I’ll give the highlights of each.
Historic Tour: This (2 mile, 2 hour, moderate) tour led us through the original (historic) cave entrance, down dozens of stair into this enormous, dripping cave opening. We walked through giant electric-lit chambers past the remnants of the old saltpeter mining operation, while our tour guide brought history to life. We perused thousands of names scratched or burned onto the cave walls and ceilings – early tours encouraged the practice. Now it’s called a felony! We stooped through low ceiling areas and squeezed through “fat man’s misery”, emerging finally at a mammoth dome area. We climbed many stairs up a vertical shaft, back toward the entrance, finally emerging where we began.
Violet City Lantern Tour: The 3 hour, 3 mile tour is considered strenuous. Lit only by kerosene lantern, the tour enters by the original entrance (again), but continues one way down a path built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). It passes by remnants of the TB sanitorium, past ancient Native American artifacts, and streaming underground waterfalls (called cataracts). All of the rain we had during our visit added to the waterfall’s effect! Touring the ancient caverns by lamplight is a whole different experience! It’s certainly light enough to navigate, but the flickering light and shadows evokes what it must have felt like 100 years ago. This tour doesn’t really have “squeezes”, but does have steep ups/downs in spots and quite a few stairs to enter and exit. We emerged into daylight at a different spot and were bused back to the Visitor Center.
Domes and Dripstones Tour: This 2 hour, 0.75 mile tour is considered moderate and begins on a bus to the “new entrance”. This entrance starts off the tour quite dramatically with over 250 steps winding down a vertical shaft, through some fairly tight spaces at times. Claustrophobes might have some heart palpitations here. The passage opens up to wide spaces and winds around to the classic “Frozen Niagra” features that made Mammoth Cave famous with its dripstone, drapery formations, stalactites and stalagmites. The previous two tours led through dry sections of the cave system, which didn’t have these kind of formations. We climbed a few stairs out a different exit, to be bused back to the Visitor Center.
Great Onyx Lantern Tour: Our last tour of this journey (2.25 hours / 1 mile / easy) began again on the bus, this time to a cave outside the Mammoth system (at least, so far as they know). This cave was “discovered” by a land owner who blasted an entrance open – there was no known entrance previously. The owner launched a cave tour operation. This cave was not part of the initial Mammoth Cave National Park land acquisition process, not becoming part of the Park until the 1960’s. The cave sat idle for at least 10 years after that, and has been open for only limited tours since. As a result, the cave is extraordinarily well preserved, with none of the “autographs” seen in the heavily-trafficked tour areas. A 20 minute bus ride took us to the nondescript cave entrance, down a few stairs, into an immediate wonderland of limestone cave features – stalactites/stalagmites, columns, and flowstone formations. A smaller cave overall, the gas lanterns lit the space adequately. As we wound back from the wet area into drier parts of the cave, delicate gypsum formations began to emerge. Gypsum was mined out in the main cave system by Native Americans, but it remained untouched here. The cave was virtually pristine. One cool thing that the guides did on our way back out of the cave was to give us a cave “sunset and sunrise”. Gathering up all of the lanterns, the guides walked away around the corner as the light became progressively dimmer – finally disappearing altogether leaving us in total darkness. A few minutes later a glimmer of light appeared, growing and brightening until we could see our guides trudging back around the corner with our lamps. REALLY cool effect and a fantastic ending to our Mammoth visit.
Our stop here was great fun. The main feature, to me, of the cave system isn’t it’s crystalline limestone features, it’s the sheer size/scale/scope of the caverns. Truly Mammoth.