Mammoth Cave National Park in south-central Kentucky Visited: May 11, 2004 NPS Site Visited: 42 of 353 NPS Website; Local Website
WHAT IS IT? To date, 365 miles of mapped passageways, the largest cave system in the World.
BEAUTY (9/10) Every room and every passageway has a unique and striking beauty ranging from overwhelming awe to subtle grace and including everything in between. Each turn brings a different world more incredible than the last. Both tours we took followed a natural dramatic plot that built towards a breathtaking climax. They were epic movies that revealed unknown worlds. Their beauty was so unbelievable that we frequently had to remind ourselves that we were not on a movie set or on a ride at a theme park. We were underground. Incredible.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10) Native Americans explored the caves for gypsum, which they used to make paint and perhaps had other medicinal or ceremonial uses. Parts of Mammoth Cave were converted into saltpeter mines between 1810 and 1814. Mammoth Cave was one of many caves that supplied the United States with most of their raw material for gunpowder during the War of 1812. Thomas Jefferson’s embargo had made gunpowder importation from India and China impossible.
Mammoth Cave is one of America’s oldest tourist attractions. Stephen Bishop, a slave, became known as one of the best guides, exploring and naming most of the rooms and tunnels still visited today. Local businessmen would purchase land around Mammoth Cave and search for sinkholes which could signify new entrances to caves which they could convert to money-making attractions, drawing tourists from their original destination of Mammoth Cave. Today’s Cave City carries on this tradition.
CROWDS (7/10) The National Park Service puts a limit on the number of people that can go on each guided tour. We went on two tours, the 2 ½ hour ‘Making of Mammoth Cave’ was full at 60 but the 4 ½ hour ‘Grand Avenue Tour’ was nearly empty with only 25 out of a possible 118 tourists. The size of the ‘Grand Avenue Tour’ was a joy but the ‘Making of…’ tour’s size did not detract from our visit. We had no trouble asking either of the two Rangers a question.
Be forewarned. A Park Ranger told us that come Memorial Day, most tours sell out. A summer visit to Mammoth Cave requires planning. Reservations can be made in advanced for all Cave tours. You do not want to travel the whole way to southern Kentucky just to find out that there is no way for you to go into the Cave.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5) Unfortunately, if you use a wheelchair or have any sort of difficulty walking, you will not have much opportunity to enter Mammoth Cave. There are tours of varying lengths and catered to various physical abilities, but none are accessible to individuals with physical disabilities. Ages ago, the National Park offered a “wheelchair tour” using the elevator to the underground cafeteria, but due to liability concerns, those tours ceased.
The Park is not required to offer accessible tours of the caves since the Visitor Center and one of the walking tours is.
For the first time in the Ratings, we are also reporting on the ease of use of campgrounds located in a national park. We tent camped in the most central campground, located just ¼ mile from the Visitor Center and Mammoth Cave Hotel. There was ample space at the grounds which hosts both tents and RVs. We were allowed to take a look around and choose which site we wanted for our two nights. We ended up going to the site the Ranger recommended. The campgrounds are clean and bathrooms with potable water are within short walks of all sites. The whir of RV generators was the only annoyance. We should probably get used to it.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5) The bookstore is great. It takes up about a quarter of the Visitor Center and is filled with books on the history and geography of Mammoth Cave, spelunking and orienteering, the War of 1812 and the mining of saltpeter.
COSTS (1/5) You can only go into Mammoth Cave on one of 10 different guided tours. Each guided costs a different amount, ranging from $10 to $45 dollars a person. Seeing the Cave could get pricey.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5) There seemed to be Rangers everywhere. They do a terrific job of making themselves accessible. We were amazed.
The tours we went on left with two Rangers. The ratio of two Rangers to 60 visitors on our tour seemed overwhelming but proved otherwise. The Rangers are skilled guides and found a way to answer everyone’s questions mainly during the long walks from place to place.
We saw the maximum 14-visitor, 6 ½ hour long ‘Wild Cave Tour’ leave with three Rangers. The ‘Wild Cave Tour’ costs $45 a person and is a get on your hands and knees pull yourself through small passages full-on spelunking tour. Next time.
We did not go on the any of the Tours that max out at 120 visitors. We believe that they also leave with two Rangers but we are not sure.
TOURS/CLASSES (9/10) Skip the two 10-minute introductory videos on the Park and get in line to buy tickets for the Cave Tours. Everything covered in the videos will be covered in the tours.
The tours’ emphasis can be split into two categories: 1) Geology and 2) the Cave’s Cultural and Commercial History. While it is best to take one of each, the Guides will touch on both sectors. Information repetition between tours is more than likely.
Two different areas of the cave are also covered in the tours: 1) the area near the Historic Entrance and 2) the area near the Frozen Niagara entrance. Tours do overlap areas but most will show you at least one thing another tour does not cover.
We chose the ‘Making of Mammoth Cave’, a geological tour showcasing the Historic Entrance area and the ‘Grand Avenue Tour’, an historical tour that took you to all points from the Carmichael Entrance to the Frozen Niagara Entrance. We do not regret our choices. Next time we will go on the Violet City Lantern Tour, an historical journey done with only lanterns. It sounds like a lot of fun.
Weather isn’t a factor for the Cave Tours. Temperature inside the caves remain a cool 54 degrees year round.
FUN (9/10) We had a wonderful time. It felt fantastic to finally camp and cook outdoors, even in the rainstorm that swept over Kentucky our last day and night. The Tours were expensive but worth every penny.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10) Absolutely. Our tour groups were all ages. Everyone seemed to really enjoy the tours. Rangers pepper their talks with anecdotes and bad jokes. They do a good job at keeping the group together and entertained. Camping made the trip more affordable and enjoyable for us.
If your image of cave interiors is filled with stalactites and stalagmites stretching from the floors and ceilings, you might be disappointed. Cave sculptures are present in parts of Mammoth Cave viewed by the Frozen Niagara Tour and final few minutes of the Grand Avenue Tour, but are absent in most of the Cave. What Mammoth Cave does offer is a striking range of passageways, some cavernous, some a little snug for larger folks. The ranger-led tours are filled with historical and geographical facts but by no means dry. We weren’t joking about the doing the Wild Cave Tour next time. We are definitely coming back.
USA-C2C.com is an independent website, not affiliated in any way with the National Park Service, the National Parks Foundation or any of their partners.