We did two days of cave tours at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky last weekend. We were there because Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system in the world with more than 400 miles of explored caves below the surface. It became a national park in the 1940s but has been on the nation’s radar for much longer. There have been cave tours here for just over 200 years. Neither one of us had been in a cave before, so we were excited to get below ground and check it out.
We drove down to Mammoth Cave from Cincinnati. We were there for the Oktoberfest, the largest in the United States, in mid-September. Cave City, KY is roughly 2.5 hours southwest of Cincinnati, making it a great weekend or three day weekend trip south for much of the Midwest. Monday was a long drive back to Philadelphia, but we completed four cave tours in under 48 hours and had a blast.
We started planning this trip about a month ago, and locked in our tour times and campsite just over two weeks ahead of departing. It was the fall, so we weren’t too worried about campsite reservations. There were a lot of people here in the campground Saturday night, so it was a good thing that we did make reservations. On Sunday night, there were only a handful of people camping, so we got a great photo of our campsite in its natural state on Monday morning:
The only tour that was completely booked at the time we made reservations was the Wild Cave tour. Since it is only offered once a day on the weekend (and not during the week), be sure to book it very early if you have your heart set on it.
We ended up booking four tours ahead of schedule. On Sunday, we did the 8:45 am Gothic Avenue tour, the 11:45 am Great Onyx tour, and the 3:15 pm Historic tour. The tours in the middle of the day booked up by the time we arrived (the Onyx tour was sold out, for example), so if you have your heart set on a certain schedule, better book early. In the summer, I would definitely recommend reservations.
Three tours and a trip down the River Styx trail on Sunday definitely wore us out, but we wouldn’t have changed our schedule a bit.
(the Gothic Avenue tour and the Historic tour both enter through the historic cave entrance pictured above)
On Monday, we did the Grand Avenue tour. It is a four hour tour that leaves at 9:45 AM on the weekdays in the fall. The combination of the four tours let us cover almost every inch of cave available to us at the time.
The tours were very well designed and each guide was obviously passionate about the cave. The Gothic Avenue tour lets you see see some of the amazing architecture and the scrawled names of past visitors on the walls/ceiling. The Historic tour takes you across a lot of historic areas, including the Bottomless Pit, the River Styx Hall, Fat Man’s Misery and the Mammoth Dome Tower. The Onyx tour takes you by bus to a different entrance and lets you see one of the competitor caves that remains more natural (the operator, Miss Lucy, didn’t allow any graffiti). The Grand Avenue tour traverses four miles underground, the longest tour other than the Wild Cave Tour. The section of cave at the end (the Frozen Niagara section) is remarkable and was the perfect end to our trip through Mammoth Cave.
(handwriting on the ceiling from past visitors seen on the Gothic Avenue tour dates back to the early 1800s)
We’re putting together more detailed descriptions of each component to our trip, but here are a few tips and things of note for people planning their own trip:
Tickets are picked up from the Visitor Center, but many of the tours leave from the Rotunda Room at the Lodge, or the shelters between the Visitor’s Center and the Lodge. Make sure you pick up your tickets early so that you have time to walk between the Visitor Center and the Lodge. The bridge between the two is under construction in fall 2017, making it a nontrivial walk between the two locations. We had a moment of panic, but ended up making it in plenty of time.
Any tours leaving from the Historic entrance (including the Gothic Avenue and Historic tours) involve a fairly steep upward climb on the return trip to get back to the Lodge. This is nicely broken up and the second half is at your own pace, but you should definitely be aware of it as you are making reservations.
You have to walk on bio-security mats after exiting the caves. This is to minimize the risk of spreading white nose syndrome, a disease that impacts hibernating bats. Mammoth has already lost a significant percentage of its bat population to the disease, so they are trying to keep it from spreading to other caves. These mats are safe and simple to use, as they are a solution of Woolite laundry detergent and water, and just serve to rinse spores off the bottoms of your shoes. We did manage to see two bats across our roughly eight miles in the caves.
If you look closely at the tour information, you will find that portions of the Gothic Avenue tour are duplicated by the Historic tour. We saw this and decided that we were doing both anyway. It was the right call. The only part of duplication is really the entrance and initial hallway. The Gothic Avenue tour is the first of the day, so you open up the cave and turn all of the lights on. We really enjoyed the leisurely pace of the Gothic Avenue tour and it is an entirely different experience – plus our ranger led the first half of the tour as an 19th century tour guide and the second half as himself, giving a range of interesting information.
The River Styx exits the cave only a half mile from the Historic entrance (photo above). At one time, they did boat trips down the river in the cave. Due to the environmental impact, these were stopped some time ago. We heard that they occasionally still do tours to the edge of the river when the conditions are right, but it can otherwise be some of the thickest mud you will ever see to get down there (according to a guide). Instead, you can reach the exit from the cave via a trail from the Historic cave entrance. However, it is at a much lower elevation than the entrance to the cave. We walked down there after our last tour on Sunday. I would definitely not go down there before a cave tour because you may not make it back in time. It’s a decent uphill for the East Coast.
For most tours, the only things that you should bring are water, a camera and a fleece sweatshirt. If you don’t wear long pants, you may get cold. Tennis shoes work fine – just don’t wear flip flops! There are sections of both wet cave and dry cave on various tours, plus steps and rock to walk on, so we want everyone to be safe.
Additionally, they no longer serve lunch at the Snowball Room during the Grand Avenue tour. We were really excited and extended our trip because we thought that would be really cool. But we found out just a few days before that they had cancelled lunch service a few years back due to insufficient resources and lack of demand, plus the impact of that program on the caves. We still really enjoyed the tour though. The beginning is a deep stair descent into the cave which really sets the mood, and the finish at the Frozen Niagara is spectacular.
(none of our photos really did it justice)
Please don’t be the annoying person on your tour. Don’t forget to turn the flash off on your camera, avoid taking a picture every five seconds while walking even after realizing your photos are blurry (the rangers’ safety talk does remind you to stop to take all pictures, so you don’t trip or fall), or shine the light on your cell phone around everywhere to see. It only takes a handful of annoying people to make a tour less pleasant.
One last note: be sure to check the route your GPS is taking you to the park. If you are approaching from the north or west, there is a possibility that it decides to take you over a ferry. This would be a problem if you are hoping to make a certain tour time, or in our case racing to pitch the tent before dark. Our GPS sent us through Cave City off I-65 (the correct route), so we were good.
(one of the fawns that we saw)
We had a great 48 hours in Mammoth Cave National Park. If we stayed in the park longer, we definitely would have explored more above surface. We would have taken the ferry, rented a canoe to float down the river, done some fishing, plenty of hiking and spent a lot more time watching the wildlife (we did manage to see plenty of deer and hear two owls without even trying). It is a bit of a drive for us, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re back in the next year or two.