Insider's Guide to Mammoth Cave National Park

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Entrance to Mammoth Cave National Park, KY.
Entrance to Mammoth Cave National Park, KY. Anissa Wood
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Descending into the subterranean world, the air thickens, heavy with the smells of bats and earth and time. It almost seems the weight of the boulders, dirt, and flora above can be felt on the skin as the outside world fades. While eyes begin to adjust to the light cast by tastefully hidden lamps along the edges of the walkways, the impossible stalactite sculptures that pour off the ceiling come into focus. It seems as if something special is unfolding, and it is.

Mammoth Cave is the world’s longest known cave system. Over 365 miles and five levels have already been mapped, with an unknown labyrinth still to be investigated. Slaves were some of the earliest known explorers and guides and many of the cave features still bear the names they gave them.

Above ground, the park boasts 52,800 rolling, wooded acres with two rivers flowing through it, providing a variety of activities in some of the most majestic forest in southcentral Kentucky. Eastern white-tailed deer are seen browsing along roadsides, and flocks of wild turkey often litter the grassy coves along the drive into the park, which many consider worth the trip alone.

Mammoth Cave was established as a national park on July 1, 1941. It became a World Heritage Site in 1981, and in 1990, it was titled an international Biosphere Reserve, an ecosystem with plants and animals of unusual scientific and natural interest. Of the 130 animal species that call the cave home, three of them are endangered species.

Classic Adventures

Mammoth Cave National Park.
Mammoth Cave National Park. David Fulmer

The cave system is the grand dame of the park and the main reason millions of visitors make the journey each year. It’s essential to pre-book one of the tours guided by the knowledgeable, sometimes wise-cracking, park rangers. Walking by the seemingly prehistoric cave crickets skittering about near the entrance can leave guests nonplussed, but they won’t be a bother. Tours vary greatly; pick ones to fit your time and stamina .

The best all-around tour for families with small children or those who find a lot of stairs a challenge, is the Frozen Niagara Tour. This section of cave takes just over an hour and has examples of many of the best formations found in the cave system. Exploring mainly larger caverns, even the claustrophobic can enjoy this one.

The most popular tour is the moderately difficult, 2 hour, “Domes and Dripstones,” which includes everything seen on the Frozen Niagara Tour and a number of other dramatic cave features. The difficulty comes from the 500 stairs to climb and several tight areas where head ducking or belly sucking is needed.

The tag-line “Face the darkness — and the challenge” gives you a sense of what the Wild Cave Tour has to offer. The most strenuous experience available is 6-hour journey that covers 5 miles of slick, filthy fun. Limited to small, adult-only groups, participants scramble, slither, squeeze, and hike deep into the belly of Mammoth Cave. To help minimize the spread of White Nose Syndrome, a fungus that has resulted in the death of millions bats, all caving equipment and outerwear is provided.

In the fresh light of day, visitors take advantage of the well developed web of hiking and horseback riding trails that are accessible from six trailheads. The Green River cuts the park in half, running roughly east-west. The NPS manages the south side of the park as ‘frontcountry,’ and the north side as ‘backcountry.’

The frontcountry includes the cave tours, visitor center, lodging and developed camping areas. There are a variety of short, easy hikes with interesting karst formations, sinkholes, and springs worth a look. The Cedar Sink Trail is a particular diamond and an easy stroll through a wildflower paradise arriving at the asstounding geological feature that is the sinkhole.  Ask for a map of all the current trails at the visitor center.

The trailheads of the backcountry areas are bustling much of the year with equestrian traffic and the local party crowd on weekends, so if camping is the plan arrive early.  Many of the trails here are short and can be combined to make a full day of hiking. A good choice for an intermediate-level hike is the three mile Turnhole Bend Trail. Continuous birdsong makes this a sweet trail as it winds through towering trees and over a small creek. It’s particularly lovely in the autumn with a kaleidoscope of color.

If the cave system is the grand dame, then the McCoy Hollow Trail is her squire. The most popular long distance trail in the park starts at the Temple Hill parking area and then traverses a diverse, 6 miles of hollows, steep ridges, streams and rock walls through the forest. The trail is one-way and it can be either backtracked for a big, 12-mile day or done as overnight trip. Use caution as there are some drop-offs near the trail and stream crossings can be slick.

During the summer season, sightseeing tours are offered on the Green River through a variety of local providers either via motorboat, canoe or kayak. Geological formations and varied species of wildlife are among the attractions of a river jaunt. For the anglers, fishing without a license on the Green inside park boundaries is allowed. Recommended sites include: The Big Woods, Sloan’s Crossing Pond, and Cedar Sink.

Secrets of the Park

Mammoth Cave National Park.
Mammoth Cave National Park. Brian Garrett

It’s not widely known (or encouraged), but it is possible to do a bit of unguided spelunking. There are over 200 above-ground entrances to various bits of the cave system accessible from the hiking trails. A permit is needed for entering any of the caves, ask a ranger at the visitors center for details.

Traditionally mountain biking isn’t allowed in the National Park system, but at MCNP an exciting partnership is unfolding with the Southwest Kentucky Mountain Bike Association to build and maintain a trail system. Currently on offer are a small selection of “Gateway Trails”, aimed at beginners and intermediate riders. The best of which is the 9-mile Big Hollow trail. Alternative lines with features for more advanced riders continue to be added. Mountain bikers and hikers can also check out the Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike and Hike Trail (also 9 miles), a rolling crushed-gravel path following part of the original railway through the park.

Immerse Yourself

Mammoth Cave National Park.
Mammoth Cave National Park. Michael R. Hicks

To ‘go big’ at Mammoth Cave National Park, it’s possible to paddle the 26 miles of the Green River that run through the park. Featuring dramatic bluffs, majestic trees and glimpses of h erons, bald eagles, and hawks, it’s enough to get a photo buff excited. Camping is permitted on islands and along river floodplains, as long as you are more than one-half mile from a ferry crossing or campground. Note that the visitor center won’t issue the necessary free, backcountry permits with only 15 minutes to closing, so arrive early.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit

  • BOOK TOUR RESERVATIONS EARLY. Seriously, the popular tours can get booked out months in advance, especially during summers and holiday weekends.

  • Plan two hours for the informative and well designed Visitor Center.

  • The Green River bisects the park. In order to cross it use one of the two ferries operating. At certain times of the year there can be a long wait time.

  • Note the following aren’t permitted in the caves: flash photography, strollers, tripods, large trekking backpacks or any child backpack carriers.

  • All participants on cave tours must walk on bio-security mats to protect the bats.

  • Be aware that this is great tick and chigger country. There are also two poisonous snakes in the park, the Timber Rattlesnake and the Copperhead.

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