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Mammoth Cave National Park: Journey to the Center of Kentucky
When you take your first step into Mammoth Cave National Park, you are immediately transported into a subterranean fantasy. Every step leading farther into the cave system, takes you a step further into Jules Verne’s classic novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth. I kept thinking that if the 80s epic classic film Goonies was ever reimagined, it should definitely be filmed there. Then, as I traveled deeper, my thoughts went deeper as well…
…Whatever compelled ancient natives to venture into these dark places? It’s difficult to comprehend what could have been going through their minds taking first steps here, into the blackness of a cave system armed only with the light of a lit tree branch while wearing the modern-day equivalent of underwear.
The grand entrance to the largest cave system ever mapped: Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky.
The rediscovery of the cave is credited to a European hunter named John Houchins, who as legend has it, followed a bear to what is now known as “the grand entrance” somewhere between 1798 and 1802. Then came the settlers, and with them came continued exploration which unearthed the presence of valuable natural resources that helped turn the cave into a money making machine. Slaves were enlisted to mine the resources—the main one being potassium nitrate, a component of gunpowder. It did not take long for the cave owner of the time, Franklin Goring, to realize that the real attraction of the cave was tourism—the wealthy were dying to explore it. Goring enlisted one of his slaves, 17-year-old Stephen Bishop, to learn the system well so that he could guide elite visitors underground. Bishop became enthralled with the caves and learned them so well that he became the go-to expert on subterranean navigation through the depths of Kentucky. Late in his life, he was freed. But he loved Mammoth Cave so much that continued to guide there until his death, his reflections living on and enduring with his legend. He called it “a grand, gloomy and peculiar place.”
And he was right—it is a grand, gloomy and peculiar place indeed. More than 400 miles are currently mapped and it is believed that there is double that length yet to explore. And explore it they will. This otherworldly place calls cavers, as well as those involved in research and conservation to Mammoth regularly—to explore, to discover. For those of us visiting under more casual circumstances, it is a wonderful yet vulnerable feeling to be surrounded by Earth and at the mercy of the limestone walls and a sandstone cover that has saved the roof from collapse for millennia.
Stef follows Ranger Jackie as he leads the way into the cave.
When I snapped out of my daydreams, I had plenty of inquiries for our guide, Ranger Jackie, a true champion of the park. “Hey Jackie! When you tell your wife you are spending your day off in the cave, do you tell her that you are going spelunking?” His reply: “Spelunking? What’s that?! No. We go caving.” He told us that apart from the abysmal depths of the sea, you will never experience true darkness the way you will in a cave system like Mammoth. To prove it, he led us into one of the darkened trails and turned off his lamp until we were standing in complete blackness. It was not darkness; it was blackness. Once I wrapped my head around that feeling, he lit a match that quickly illuminated the cave and our faces. It was mesmerizing.
It was no season (though outside it was winter), it was no time of day, there was no year, we were not educated or not, or wealthy or poor, young or old, male or female … we were just humans tucked inside of Earth, at her mercy, on a path that leads to many others not yet explored … right here in America, land still to be explored for the first time. How amazing is that?
6 down, 53 to go!
The longest known cave system in the world | 405+ miles mapped
Ceiling paintings made of candle soot remain perfectly in tact from centuries ago when they were left.
Official name: Mammoth Cave National Park
Established: July 1, 1941
Location: Edmonson, Hart, and Barren counties, Kentucky. Nearest city: Brownsville.
How the park got its name: The original deed cites the name as “Flatt’s Cave”, but it grew to be called “Mammoth” for its unanswered size and depth. Mammoth Cave is also called “The Monarch of Caves.”
Iconic site in the park: The cave! This is the most massive cave system on Earth, so no matter where you go, you are in a truly iconic place. One of our favorite sections is where early explorers left drawings made of dotted candle soot on the ceilings. Reading the names of visitors, the years they were there, and trying to decode old-school penmanship brings imagination of the cave’s history to life.
Accessible adventure: The “Frozen Niagara Tour” offers a taste of the cave system in just over an hour. This tour is designed for children, the elderly, people who cannot walk long distances, and for those who may have an aversion to tight and/or confined spaces. There are multiple departures per day, and there really is no off-season when you are underground making this a great park to visit all year long.
Big adventure: The “Wild Cave Tour” is geared for those who are up for a challenge and want to get dirty. This six-hour tour guided by experienced rangers brings small adult groups into the depths of the caves to climb, crawl, squeeze, and hike the canyon as early explorers did. This is a seasonal offering so check the Mammoth Cave National Park website in advance.
Did you know?
For many years, Mammoth Cave has been a house of music. This tree is leftover from 2015’s holiday choir event.
Mammoth Cave has been offering tours 100 year longer than the National Park Service has been in existence — 200 years of tours!
Every year inside the cave there is a free holiday concert, last year over 500 people attended. In years past, there have been shows conducted by orchestras, A Capella choirs, barbershop quartets, and local blue grass bands comprised of former park rangers.
The Green and Nolin Rivers course more than 30 miles through Mammoth Cave National Park, making it a fantastic place for above ground activities such as boating, canoeing, fishing, and camping.
While bats are most at home inside of cave dwellings, bats in the eastern United States are endangered. And did you know that they can eat their weight in mosquitos? 3,000 mosquitos a night! Thank you bats.
Finally, some history through music. The 1925 tune “The Death of Floyd Collins” by Vernon Dalhart tells the tragic tale of America’s most famous spelunker, er, caver, is beloved by natives near Mammoth Cave. Collins is an enduring legend to cavers across the world.