Happy Birthday From The Big Cave in Kentucky- 7 Ways That Mammoth Cave Humbled Me.
WHAT and WHY:
I want to visit all of the National Parks and the U.N.E.S.C.O. World Heritage Sites in the United States. I have a good head start, but somehow I had never visited Mammoth Cave National Park. This cave is also a U.N.E.S.C.O. World Heritage Site and today is the 100th birthday of our Nations’ Parks so I am celebrating my recent visit to the big cave. Travel Trifecta!
When you see this guy on I-65, this is the cue to turn.
#1. I thought that there would be a few people visiting.
I knew it would be busy but little did I know that this is one highly visited park. When I pulled into the parking lot, there were so many cars with license plates from many places in North America.
LESSON #1: On a busy summer day between 5,000 and 7,000 visitors come to this park. In a year, more than 2 million visitors come to the park, with nearly 500,000 of them taking a cave tour. Do plan ahead.
#2. With so many tours, I thought that I could walk in and get on a tour. Walking inside, there is a central visitor information area with rangers to answer questions, a store and a museum/exhibit information area about the cave and park. There are ticket agents for the tours and restrooms. It was pretty easy to view which tours had tickets available by looking at the monitors. By luck, I was able to secure tickets for my group of four, the last four tickets Meanwhile, I only had a few minutes to zip through the store to get my passport stamped.
Fantastic exhibit that deserved more time.
The display hit on “everything Mammoth Cave” by winding the visitor through a series of exhibits.
I always like a mystery and I was curious about the mystery of the native Woodland peoples who lived and explored in this area. They disappeared and no one knows why. I wished that I had more time to spend in this area.
Lesson #2. Do as I say and not as I do. Plan ahead
#3. I thought we would walk up to this one cave, stepped inside, check it out and hit the road.
I learned that there are FIVE different tour options. Although I was interested in four of the tours, the fifth tour was called a Wild Cave Tour that takes five hours. The words darkness, wild exploration, and extremely strenuous, helped me to rule this one out. Plus, I did not plan this trip. I chose the Domes and Dripstones Tour, which covers portions from two of the other tours. Once tickets were secured, we were directed towards a shelter to wait for our bus. I was surprised at how many people are in each group. Tour capacity is 118 people.
Once we got on the bus, it was a 4-mile bus ride from the center to the new entrance to Mammoth Cave. It was a hot day and I did not have time to drink water.
Lesson #3. Be prepared. Even though I was a Girl Scout, I was not prepared. Hydrate ahead of the tour, wear shoes with good tread and don’t go hungry. However, the views were gorgeous.
#4. Don’t bring Grandma unless she is a Billy Goat. I thought I would step inside the cave and it would be on level ground-ish. Idk. After stepping off of the bus, there is a hike to get to the cave entrance.
At the entrance to the cave, (not the original) our tour guide gave us a historical account of how this cave was formed, the first explorers, and how this marvel became a national Park. We met people from many other countries.
We then stepped inside to a stairway that had 280 stairs. this area reminded me of a tornado shelter or an underground military bunker. The walls began to narrow and soon we entered into a new world made of rocks.
I thought it would be easy, bring the granny. It was called “moderate” in difficulty and the tour lasts for two hours. There is a total of 500 stairs and although it was only ¾ mile it felt as if we traveled a long distance.
With tight spaces and a number of hairpin turns, and steep views, I admit that I felt some anxiety.
I had to wonder just how many people died in this cave? Lesson#4. Know your limitations ahead of time. Can you do 500 stairs? Do you get anxiety in tight quarters? Can you handle looking into a bottomless pit without fainting? I would say that some level of fitness is required. Some of the tours have limitations on age and size of each person. From the park website. “Warnings:Many cave tours require some exertion on the part of visitors. In general, if you are accustomed to walking without getting severely winded, and have no difficulty climbing and descending stairs, and have no heart, respiratory, or similar impediments, you should be able to take a “strenuous” tour with little difficulty.”
#5. I thought that it would be one great big cave. You know like a room, the one that is shown on the billboards on I-65.
Lesson #5. People have spent their entire lives exploring this cave system. Mammoth Cave National Park e is the most extensive cave system in the world, with over 285 miles (456 km) of surveyed cave passageways within the property (and at least another 80 miles [128 km] outside the property). However, there was a big room, the one that I saw on the I-65 billboard. In this spot, the ranger turned off all of the lights to show how absolute darkness and absolute silence felt.
This park has the world’s largest network of natural caves and underground passageways. Thus far, explorers have surveyed more than 400 miles of cave passage. Our tour guide told us that the explorers are still discovering new passages, and they often say, “there is no end in sight.”
#6. I thought that it would be just a bunch of rocks
At the end of this tour, there was the ultimate cave experience as you take a short walk through a variety of dripstone formations. I found it to be creepy, dark, and scary. A place that takes on shapes and forms of another world and my imagination went in many directions.
Lesson #6 More beauty and mystery than I could have imagined.
From the U.NE.S.C.O World Heritage Site, I learned that “Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system in the world. The long passages with huge chambers, vertical shafts, stalagmites and stalactites, splendid forms of beautiful gypsum flowers, delicate gypsum needles, rare mirabilite flowers and other natural features of the cave system are all superlative examples of their type. No other known cave system in the world offers a greater variety of sulfate minerals.”
We learned that there are an endangered bat species and at the end of our tour, had to do a special type of shoe wash to help these bats. We learned that there is also a unique and endangered species of Kentucky Cave Shrimp, a sightless albino shrimp in these caves.
Also from the U.N.E.S.C.O. World Heritage Site website, “The flora and fauna of the cave is the richest caverniculous wildlife known, numbering over 130 species, of which 14 species of troglobites and troglophiles are known only to exist here.”  We also learned that there used to be river tours through the caves but these are no longer done due to damage that they were causing to this cave system.
#7 I thought that this park would be just about the cave, and I was not the only one.
Mammoth Cave National Park not only preserves the cave system, it is so large that I literally could go there for years and not experience all that this park has to offer. The park holds 52,830 acres of the gorgeous Green River valley and hilly country of south central Kentucky. There is a hotel, shop, restaurant, and cabins. There are park programs for visitors to learn more about the park, camping, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, horseback riding and miles of trails to hike. I know that I would love to spend some time in this beauty.
Lesson #7 There is never enough time to explore.
Everything about my visit to this park expanded my horizons. Sometimes, I think that I know a thing or two and have been around the block; and other times, I think that I know absolutely nothing. With this visit, I was humbled beyond belief and will never view this earth the same again. I felt proud that this unique geological wonder has been preserved and will personally commit to being involved in the stewardship of this National Park system. And this is why I visit.
So Happy Birthday National Parks and wishes for many more. You don’t look a day over 10 million years.
- DO Support your Local, State, and National Parks.
- If you do not stay at the Mammoth Cave or the Park Campground do stay Sleep Inn and Suites located right off I-65 in Cave City. It is a newer hotel with clean surroundings and a great shower!
- Know where you are going. Following the signs on the road was a bit challenging. It took a few people with sharp eyes to get us there. Yes, I have the modern technology in my car. While writing this blog I learned that many people miss their tours because the GPS will direct them on a tour of the Kentucky countryside. There are specific instructions on the website.
- Literally, we secured our tickets and ran to the bus stop. These tours are quite lengthy and exercise is involved.
- The website to plan your visit. Mammoth Cave plan your visit