Spring break usually sends us scrambling for some sunshine. This year we headed for the extreme opposite, a cave.
Not your usual cavern in a cliff, however, Mammoth Cave National Park is the longest cave system in the world. Measured at 367 miles so far, its boundaries extend a little further with each year’s explorations.
While entrance to the park is free, admittance into the cave requires a purchased tour with a park ranger guide. In a labyrinth of Mammoth Cave’s magnitude, no one wanders alone. Every twisting turn reveals new geology with passages and crevices opening in multiple directions. Standing in one place and doing a slow spin around can reveal just as many surprises.
On our Grand Avenue tour, we hiked for four and a half hours climbing up and down to an eventual depth of 267 feet. It’s rated a “difficult” route with 670 stairs and hills that climb (and fall) more than 60 feet in places. The surface can be slick and the light is kept as dim as possible in an effort to maintain the cave’s natural conditions. Algae doesn’t require much light to grow and compromise the natural rock surfaces in these moist conditions.
Passages varied from cavernous rooms and climbs that reminded me of the “National Treasure” and “Indiana Jones” movies to narrowed trails that felt similar to Utah’s slot canyons -but with eventual ceilings this time. My mind was in a constant state of “wow”.
Midway through our adventure, the group stopped for an optional lunch in the Snowball Room named for the globular knobs on its ceiling.
Once snow white, the orbs were discolored long ago by the oil lamps of early visitors. Side passages still contain unspoiled formations. It was slightly surreal, sipping hot soup at a picnic table far beneath the rolling Kentucky woods we’d hiked the previous day.
Our guide on the Grand Avenue tour, Jerry Bransford, is the great-great grandson of one of the original slave guides, Mat. Cave history includes tales from the previous four generations of Jerry’s own family. Riveting. He shined a flashlight on a tribute to Mat’s brother Nick, written with candle smoke more than 150 years ago.The spectacular geology of Mammoth Cave was no real surprise; the stories of slaves and kings and Archaic Indians were unexpected, fascinating and will be shared in a future posting.
*Ultra low lighting and a “no tripod/monopod rule made photography a challenge! My human “duopod” Matt lent his head and shoulder when necessary to steady my camera.
Mammoth Cave National Park Map and Visitor Information
The largest cave system in the world; 367 miles so far…!
Miles of trails both above and below ground.
Hiking, biking, kayak/canoe, horseback riding, hunting/fishing, camping…
“Yes” for pets (not in Cave; kennel available within park)
Park Fees: None for park entry. Cave tours range from $5 – $48.00 with discounts for youth and senior citizens.
Mailing Address: P.O. Box 7; Mammoth Cave, KY 42259
Directions: Travel south on I-65 from Louisville, KY. Take Mammoth Cave/Cave City exit 53 and follow the signs to Mammoth Cave NP.
View Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky in a larger map