Underground in Kentucky (Mammoth Cave National Park)

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.Looking up

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.

Mammoth Cave National Park Map and Visitor Information

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”.Snowball

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 Nickoriginal 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 Things To Do

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

Phone: 270-758-2180

Directions: Travel south on I-65 from Louisville, KY. Take Mammoth Cave/Cave City exit 53 and follow the signs to Mammoth Cave NP.

Park Website

View Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky in a larger map

14 Comments to Underground in Kentucky (Mammoth Cave National Park)

  1. Fascinating. It’s not called Mammoth Cave for nothing!

  2. Heather…I can’t even imagine what’s it’s like going into that cave…maybe I really need to confront my fear.

  3. Suzanne Perazzini

    A great journey into the bowels of the earth and then even lunch. How eerie – like another world.

  4. wow ! another interesting place to know. Great pictures !

  5. Very intriguing, this is another tour that I never thought about. My kids love caves and I love all the history that the guide delivered!

  6. Good description and Well captured photos without flash or tripod. I am a huge fan of showcaves and always try to visit them if I get a chance. It still gives a remarkable feeling that these places are millions of years old with growth glacially slow at like 1 cm every 100 years. Staggering.

  7. Graham: It is aptly named!
    Jollyjo: One of the “introductory” tours might be a good starting point for those who, like yourself, are intrigued but hesitant. It’s hard for me to imagine taking the kinds of risks early cave explorers did! Our hikes, on the other hand, felt absolutely safe.
    Suzanne: Midway through, I realized that at least two miles of darkness and a winding, steep terrain separated us from our entry point. The guides didn’t really need to remind any of us to stay with the group!

  8. Thanks Esther!
    Fly Girl: I plan to touch on more of that history this week. The human experience with Mammoth is as interesting as its stunning visual features.
    Mark: On the “Historic” tour we descended to the fourth level, just above the fifth level where water is flowing and forming the newest cave passages. It was also quite interesting to consider the long term formation of stalactites, stalagmites and columns growing drip by drip alongside us on the cave trails.
    You’ve written some interesting pieces on caves, Mark. ~Always a good read!

  9. amazing as always

  10. Many thanks Demetrios!

  11. Great pictures, I’ll have to make it up there.

  12. Great place. Whenever we’re in the area, we go to Luray Caverns in VA. But I’ve been to Howe Caverns, Carlsbad Caverns–and watched the bats leave at night–Merrimac Caverns, and a slew of others. Aren’t they absolutely fascinating?

  13. Heather

    Jack: I expected to enjoy myself. I was surprised at how much there was to enjoy! (Your Travel Calendar is terrific!)
    Wendy: Carlsbad has long been on my “list”. I have visited Luray but will have to check out the others you mentioned (thanks!). ~And yes, “fascinating” is the word!

  14. According to your photos this place is rather dangerous

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