This week we explore the Mammoth Cave National Park. And I mean explore because to see the Park one must explore the “underground” to really appreciate this national treasure. The above ground part of the Park with it’s many hiking and biking trails, ponds, sinkholes and excellent visitor center can occupy visitors for a good amount of time but the real experience is on a ranger guided tour of one of the many miles of caves. During our stay, we took two cave tours that I’ll describe in a bit but first some background information.
Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world with over 405 miles of explored and surveyed passageways. Wow, that’s a lot! A common question that rangers get from visitors is “How much of the cave is undiscovered?” Well, after a little head scratching and a “well duh!”, the ranger answers “the rest of it!!!!” Explorers are still discovering new passageways and there is no end in site.
The Cave began forming an estimated 10 million years ago after a thick layer of soluble limestone was deposited then capped by a layer of sandstone and shale. Water eroded this cap away exposing the limestone to the forces of rainwater that created cracks and holes to eventually form rivers below ground that hollowed out the caves we see today. These couple of sentences don’t do justice to the long, slow, natural process that created these caves.
You might be wondering how these caves were discovered and then opened as a tourist attraction. The indigenous peoples hunted and lived in this area for thousands of years. Some of the early natives explored the caves leaving behind artifacts such as cane reed torches used to light the way in the vast underground passages. In addition, ancient human remains are found in the cave. Settlers came to the area in the late 1790’s but found the rocky land with thin soil hard to farm. Legend has it that the cave was discovered by two brothers who were out hunting and shot a bear. The wounded bear disappeared but the brothers found the cave entrance that led to many future developments. When the War of 1812 broke out with the British Empire, the fledging United States found itself short of saltpeter (a form of nitrate) used to make gunpowder. Mammoth Cave had huge reserves of saltpeter and with prices high, the mining of calcium nitrate began and shipped from a nearby port to locations were gunpowder was manufactured. After the war ended so did the mining of saltpeter but a minor tourist trade soon arose. An African-American slave, Stephen Bishop, served as a guide at the cave and became one of the first people to explore and map the cave. The fame of Mammoth Cave grew over time after being visited by famous writers of the day. In the early 1900’s, the Kentucky Cave Wars broke out. It wasn’t a shooting war but a war between competing caves in the area that were trying to attract tourists to their sites. Interest in establishing a National Park began in the early 1920’s with authorization coming in 1926 and the federal government began to accumulate some of the more than 52,000 acres of land that make up the Park today. The process was slow as there were over 600 parcels of land that needed to be purchased or acquired through eminent domain. Finally in 1941 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law that established the Mammoth Cave National Park. I should mention here that the name Mammoth Cave refers to the mammoth size of it’s chambers and passageways not the woolly, elephant like creature.
Although there is no admission to the Park itself, participation on one of the many guided tours requires paying a fee ranging from $5.00 for the simplest of tours up to $50.00 for specialized tours. Please note a few of things about these tours: first, it’s wise to make reservations online well ahead of your visit because they often sell out especially during the peak tourist season; second, the two tours we took each had 120 people on them; and three if you hold a National Parks Senior Pass, tickets are half price for the pass holder. We took two tours of the cave, one on each of the two days we were in the area. The first tour was the Historical Tour that was led by a guide, Ashley, from Stoughton, Wisconsin just outside of Madison. She earned her stripes by starting out as a guide at the nearby attraction, Cave of the Mounds.
This tour started with a walk down a hill to the entrance of the cave. Along the way, the guide pointed out the geology of the area that led to the creation of the caves.
The two hour tour covered approximately two miles. While it was difficult to take photos in the cave, I did manage a few that are decent enough to share.
There were a couple of stops along the way to take a bit of a rest. At these rest stops, the guides presented some of the historical facts about the cave. One interesting fact shared was that up until the 1990’s, the National Park Service offered a boat tour of one of the underground rivers called the Echo River Tour. The tours were discontinued due both lack of financial feasibility and the environmental impact of conducting these tours.
At the end of the tour, we climbed these stairs to the outside world. These tours are not for the claustrophobic!
The next day we took the Domes and Dripstones Tour. This tour starts with a bus ride to the cave opening and an introduction by a park ranger.
This tour requires the ascent of about 280 stairs so isn’t suitable for those physically not able. There is a visit to the Frozen Niagara formation, one of the most scenic and decorated sites in the cave. Here are a few photos from our two hour tour (includes the bus ride).
Note the “graffiti” on the walls and ceilings of the cave. These aren’t recent, most were etched using candles by early explorers and workers in the cave.
Some of the above ground activities took us on a walk on a pond that featured the very loud calls of the many bull frogs that inhabit the pond. There is also a ferry in the park that takes visitors across the Green River to the north section of the Park.
Mammoth Cave attracted national attention when a cave explorer was trapped by a rock that fell on his legs. Early attempts at rescue were unsuccessful so his family brought him food and water until his leg could be freed. The rescue captured the fascination of reporters and drew a crowd to the cave. Unfortunately, before he could be freed from the rock, a cave in buried him where he fell. This outside exposure likely helped lead to the establishment of the National Park.
Again, another interesting visit to a National Park. Isn’t it a wonder what variety we have in our Park system? There’s something for everyone!
Until next week, travel safe.