It’s the world’s longest cave system, with more than 400 miles of passageways and caverns explored — and more hidden areas discovered every year. Its vast chambers and complex maze of tunnels that seem to go on forever give Mammoth Cave a very fitting name.
As you travel toward Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, you wonder what could possibly be here that attracts so many people? It’s beautiful, but there isn’t a large city for miles, let alone a grocery store or any type of big box store.
When you cross into Mammoth Cave National Park, and you pretty much lose all cell coverage, which isn’t a bad thing, because now you have to concentrate on the beauty of the area — and there is a lot of that.
The Mammoth Cave Visitor center is huge and has a nice display and museum area to peruse. I recommend picking up a brochure which shows the prices and costs of doing one of the cave tours. Then you can head out to start exploring the surrounding area. www.nps.gov/maca/index.htm
I was not prepared for the beauty of the landscape around Mammoth Cave. When you think of a cave, you think of a dark and kind of dreary place. It might be a cool place to visit, but it’s not beautiful in same way you might consider trees and hiking trails. The funny thing is, if you didn’t know a cave was there, you literally wouldn’t know it was there. You have to be looking for the entrance in order to find it.
There are 11 guided tours and several self-paced walks that vary in difficulty from easy to strenuous.
The Heritage Trail is a wonderful family hike and easy for kids to complete. It starts off on a wooden path and is pretty easy after that. There is a cool lookout point where you can stop to view the entire park. The trail starts right in the back of the visitor’s center, then hooks up with a few other trails so you can continue on to more interesting terrain. The kids loved climbing all over the rocks and exploring while we were hiking.
Next, we headed out on the River Styx Spring Trail. The kids were starting to get tired, so we weren’t sure if we were going to complete the extra distance to get down to the spring, but we were glad we did. There’s a deck leading to the spring which provides an interesting perspective watching water spill into a pond from a rock wall above.
What we didn’t realize is that we’d been walking downhill for quite some time! So next came the uphill hike. It was impressive how the scenery kept changing as we were hiking through the park. As we got toward the top of the hill, we saw one of the cave entrances.
There are multiple cave tours that you can take, so you need to read through the brochure to decide which one is best for you and the people you are traveling with. In our case we choose one of the shorter ones, since we had young kids with us.
The Mammoth Passage Tour is about 1 hour and 15 minutes long and follows a path to one of the largest “rooms” within the cave. They call it an introductory tour since it is shorter, and you don’t explore as much of the cave. However, with kids, this really is the perfect choice. A guidebook offers step-by-step directions and provides information about the caves and how they were formed.
If you have the time, consider the Historic Tour, which begins through the natural entrance and includes “classic” Mammoth Cave landmarks visited by writers, scientists, military figures and celebrities of the 1800s and early 1900s.
For a truly unique experience, the Violet City Lantern Tour is an unforgettable way to tour the cave as people walk exclusively by lantern light while park guides recreate a nostalgic experience of days gone by. The flickering flame and rugged trails make it seem as if time stands still in the cave. The knowledgeable guides are sure to relive stories and point out some impressive illusions along the paths. Sorry kids, only people 16 and old can carry lanterns.
Photographers will fall in love with the Focus on Frozen Niagara Tour, an evening hike that takes people to the Rainbow Dome, Crystal Lake, Moonlight Dome, Onlyx Collonade and the famous Frozen Niagara flowstone, with an optional trip to the Drapery Room. Don’t forget your flash and tripods — the rangers want to make sure you capture the best images possible.
Young visitors will enjoy the Trog tour — a kids-only off-trail adventure developed especially for adventurous 8- to 12-year-olds where they hike, slide and belly crawl through a cave. Hardhats and headlamps are provided. www.recreation.gov/tourParkDetail.do?parkId=77817&contractCode=NRSO
The parking lot at the Visitors Center is huge, and there is a parking area for RVs and buses. You could easily drive in for the day, park your rig, explore the park and then head on to your next destination. On the other hand, you could stay at one of the campgrounds in the area and spend multiple days exploring everything the park and visitor center has to offer.
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay close to Mammoth Cave National Park, I highly recommend Diamond Caverns RV Park. It’s a very nice, quiet park just a few miles from the cave’s visitors center. There are some trails you can access right outside the RV park. You can also visit the caves at Diamond Caverns, which is located right across the street from the campground. www,diamondcaverns.com
The National Park Service maintains three developed campgrounds at Mammoth Cave, and several primitive sites that require hiking, but allow people to camp right along the river. www.nps.gov/maca/planyourvisit/camping.htm