It’s Always 54 Degrees
The dark clouds are above us as we approach the Mammoth Cave visitor center. The threat of rain hovers over us but fear not – most of this park is indoors and naturally air-conditioned!
Fortunately, we did our research ahead and booked the tour before we got there. Nearly all tours are booked for the morning with only a few left in the afternoon. While it is a warm summer day, most visitors carry a sweatshirt with them. It will be important in a few minutes.
The Longest Cave in the World
A Mammoth is an extinct elephant, but that’s not why this cave is named Mammoth. The other definition for mammoth is big, huge. This cave certainly lives up to that definition. There are over 400 miles of subterranean tunnels under the Kentucky forest. Not all of it
is mapped. Some of the “rooms” inside the cave are big — large enough to hold a small concert (the acoustic would be terrible though). Some sections are so tight you have to crawl through them. There is a passage named “Fat man’s misery”, just to make a point.
While this is a National Park that is most independent of the weather, it requires more planning than the usual park. Once you get inside the cave, it doesn’t matter what the weather is outside. It’s always 54 degrees and dry. While a large part of the park is outdoors, the main attraction is the cave. Finding the right tour is essential. Booking early during the peak season is important to get the tour and the time you want. I recommend this park during the peak season (summer), when far more tour types are offered, as long as you plan ahead and get the tour tickets.
The Historical Tour
We all wait at the designated shelter for our tour. As the hour approaches, we all look around for the sign of a ranger. Then, at the appointed hour, there he was —our guide for the next couple of hours.
He gave the usual safety speech and did his best to be a comedian — a good sign. He impressed upon us to avoid heart attacks while on the tour. “Don’t have any emergencies while in the cave. It takes 8 hours to evacuate an immobile person. That means I have to work lots of overtime”. We cross our fingers and pray nothing will happen. He gives us the go-ahead and the hundred or so of us walk down to the main entrance of the cave about a half mile away. Right on cue, the rain intensifies as we entered the cave. We learn a lot about the cave and its history during the tour.
As we enter the cave, those in shorts and t-shirts are regretting it. 54 degrees and shorts don’t go together. You will need your hands in places, so bring as little as possible on the tour. Strollers are generally not allowed. If your kids cannot walk the distance, they shouldn’t be on that tour. Photography is difficult since it’s dark with minimal lighting. Tripods are not allowed.
Heighten Your Senses — Except One
We pass “rooms” large and small, climbing up and down the rocks and steps. Ranger Jason tries to deliver one funny line after another. He should keep his day job.
Then we stop in one of the larger rooms and he tells us to hold on to someone or something, then don’t move. We wait with anticipation on what he will do next. All of the sudden, it is pitch black.
Experiencing total darkness is a treat, if it doesn’t last that long. You literally can not see your finger 1 inch in front of you. All your other senses take over. You feel the warmth of the hand of the person you are holding. You hear the breath of the people around you. You smell the dusty dry cave. All other sense are heightened during this total darkness.
Suddenly, the lights come on. You feel a sense of relief that no one or thing touched you while it’s dark. You get a taste of being totally blind and now truly appreciate your sight.
The Wet Cave
In a caravan of buses with hot and steamy air, we head for the “new” entrance for the part of the cave that is wet. We are on the Domes and Dripstones tour. No funny ranger Jason this time. This ranger is friendly but all business. Stones grow through the millennia. The scenery is very nice, but certainly not the best for stalactite or stalagmite formations. Luray Caverns has much more of these formations with better lighting for visitors.
Other Ways to Enjoy Mammoth Cave National Park
There is a nice park above ground with plenty of hiking trails and camp grounds. Most of it is on the north side of Green River.
Green River itself is not especially interesting, but very important geologically for the cave system. Crossing the Green River can be unpredictable. Only “ferries” are available in places inside the National Park. These are basically floating platform with rope guides that’s just big enough to fit a couple of cars. Any kind of weather shuts down the crossings and it takes a long time to drive to the other side if the crossings are closed. Plan accordingly.
The Green River Bluffs trail + Echo River Springs trail is a loop around the visitor center. It’s a nice walk with a bit of elevation that overlooks and then descends to the Echo River. You can see the Echo River disappear under the rocks into a cave.
Calling all “able-bodied” people! If you are able to crawl on your hands and knees for extended time, not claustrophobic, not afraid of dark places, and generally fit, go for the more adventurous tours that will take you to places fewer people will experience. The true spirit of Mammoth Cave is for spelunkers. The wonders of exploration. What will you find around that next corner?
Thought for Mammoth Cave
From the Beatles:
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
When darkness sets in, and the road is blocked, there is always an alternative. Seek and listen to find the wisdom.
Impressions of Mammoth Cave
Like the Great Sand Dunes National Park, Mammoth Cave has one feature that is the largest of its kind. The tours are well run and interesting. There is a tour for every ability, as long as you can take a few steps. The scale is grand but the nature of the cave makes it impossible to fathom the vastness of the connected underground structure. True spelunking is required to really appreciate the cave system. Just think —405 miles of interconnected caves known so far. Above ground, it’s a nice park with a nice vista of the Green River and good hiking trails, but nothing that will take your breath away. The cave, however, is well worth the visit.
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Practical Info for Visiting Mammoth Cave
- Check the tour site for latest schedule and description at least a few days ahead for the large capacity tours, and even earlier for the small group tours
- If you only have a day, plan for a tour in the morning, and another one in the afternoon with a short hike in between.
- There is a restaurant next to the visitor center, so you can get food easily.
- If you have two days and are able-bodied (by spelunking standards), go for a 4+ hour tour that is moderate and requires some crawling, and a large capacity tour.
- There is no entrance fee for the park, but there is a reasonable charge for the tours.
- Go in the peak season when more variety of tours are available, but get tickets ahead of time.
- If you stay in Horse Cave, go to the park via the very pretty Flint Ridge Road.
- Restaurant recommendations:
Mammoth Cave Facts
- Size: 52,830 acres, ranked 44th.
- Visitors: 566,895 visitors in 2015 (ranked 31st), a healthy increase from 522,628 in 2014. The record is 1,891,307 in 2002. Note there is a difference in counting method starting in 2006 so the record number in 2002 and present are not direct comparisons.
- Peak month in 2016: August with 72,008.
- Low month in 2016: February with 7,256.
- Entrance fee: Free but cave tours cost various amounts.
Date visited: July 12-13, 2016.