Mammoth Cave National Park
A funny thing happened when we were at Carlsbad Caverns. The Ranger leading our tour asked who on the tour had been to Mammoth Cave. Out of a group of 30 or 40, five or six hands went up, and none of them were ours.
Given that we were in New Mexico, it’s unlikely those other people were from Kentucky. And here were the two Kentuckians that grew up and lived most of our lives less than 2 hours from Mammoth Cave that hadn’t been. We promised ourselves we’d remedy that on our way home to visit at Kentucky Derby time. And remedy that we did, with a short stop and tour on our way to the National Cornbread Festival before heading home.
The Prehistory of Mammoth Cave
According to our guide, Ranger Colleen, the constant cave environment preserved torches and other artifacts from native populations that used the cave system from 4,000 to 2,000 years ago. While it doesn’t appear that they lived in the caves, they came rather often to collect the gypsum on the walls of the cave, which may have been used for plaster-making.
Similar to the early exploration of Carlsbad Caverns, it’s amazing to think that these people were able to cover at least 12 miles of the cave system with only torchlight. For unknown reasons though, it seems they quit coming to the cave around 2,000 years ago.
Early History of Mammoth Cave
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the cave was “rediscovered” by European descendents living in the area. Using slave labor, a saltpeter mining operation was setup about a quarter-mile inside the main entrance to the cave. Much of this saltpeter was sold to DuPont, which at the time was involved in making ammunition for the U.S. Military. After the War of 1812, however, there was little need for the saltpeter. Profitability of the mine died off (even with the use of slave labor) and it was closed down.
The Cave Today
Today, Mammoth Cave is known as the longest cave system in the world, stretching through 390 miles of passages, some so small you have to crawl. There are 27 known entrances and the cave is 360 feet deep at its deepest point. That seems deep, but contrasted with Carlsbad, it’s not. Carlsbad’s tours start at 750 feet deep and it goes to over 1,000 feet deep.
All of the rivers flowing through Mammoth Cave are tributaries of nearby Green River. The main entrance tunnel has been dry for 2-3 million years, once again, getting into those timelines that are virtually unimaginable.
The Cave Tours
With a cave system that’s 390 miles long, having 27 entrances, there are quite a few options for tours. The tours can change a bit with the season. The Spring season (when we were there), included 11 different tours, ranging from the very short “Mammoth Passage” Tour that we went on (about 1 hour and 1 non-strenuous mile) up to the 6.5 hour, 5 mile Wild Cave Tour. There are tours for nearly every age and ability, from easy tours like “Mammoth Passage” and “Frozen Niagara” to the strenuous “Introduction To Caving” tour.
Since it was warm and sunny, we couldn’t be gone long with Knox waiting on us, so we opted for the short Mammoth Passage Tour, which also turned out to be free the day we were there due to National Parks Week.
This tour is short and cursory. You don’t get very far into the cave, but you do get a good overview of the history of the cave, plus a blackout experience. We plan to get back to Mammoth Cave in the future to do one of the longer tours and see some of the more impressive features that Mammoth Cave has to offer.
Besides the actual cave, Mammoth Cave National Park offers oodles of recreational opportunities in its nearly 53,000 acres. The National Park encompasses some incredible forest area with those quintessential rolling Kentucky hills, plus over 30 miles over the Green and Nolin Rivers. If you’re into water sports, you can rent a canoe or kayak (or bring your own), do some fishing, or just go swimming.
If you’re into hiking, there are dozens of trails within the forest surrounding the cave, with hikes ranging from 1/4 mile to over 8 miles long. For those of you with horses, many of these trails (about 60 miles worth) are available for riding.
As with most forests, there are ample camping opportunities too. There are three established campgrounds within the Park: Mammoth Cave, Houchin Ferry, and Maple Springs Campgrounds. Maple Springs is the only campground for the horseback riders. Houchin Ferry Campground puts you near Green River. With a Backcountry Use Permit, you can actually camp right on the riverbanks and islands of the Green and Nolin Rivers within the Park’s boundaries.
We mentioned White-Nose Syndrome in the Carlsbad Caverns post. It’s a fungal infection that attacks the muzzles and wings of hibernating bats. The disease is causing up to 95% mortality in caves that it’s affecting, causing large population collapses in several species of cave bat.
You might not think it’s a big deal because they’re “just bats,” but bats eat lots of insects. How’s this sound?
The Forest Service estimates that the die-off from white-nose syndrome means that at least 2.4 million pounds of bugs (1.1 million kg) will go uneaten and become a financial burden to farmers.
Many caves around the area have tested positive for White Nose. As such, Mammoth Cave is taking preventative action to help ensure WNS doesn’t come to the cave.
Before you enter the cave, they ensure that you’re not carrying or wearing anything that has been worn into other caves in the last 7 years. Since Edie’s camera was in Carlsbad, they disinfected it for us before we were able to go on the tour. They told us that clothes that have been washed are fine, so wash your clothes after going to other caves or change clothes. After you leave the cave, you have to walk over a disinfecting mat to destroy any fungus on your shoes.
Getting to Mammoth Cave is quite easy. Once you’ve found Kentucky on the map, find Interstate 65 just above Bowling Green, KY and look just to the left. There’s Mammoth Cave. It’s probably one of the easiest National Parks to get to, being only 1.5 hours from the major cities of both Louisville, KY and Nashville, TN and only about 10 miles off of the Interstate.
While you’re there, take the time to drive some of the roads through the Park. You’ll get to see plenty of wild turkeys (not the bottled variety) along with some beautiful Kentucky forest.
Like Carlsbad, it’s hard to capture the depth and texture of a cave with a camera, but we’ve done our best to bring Mammoth Cave to life for you with our pictures.