A cave’s a cave?
We’ve explored dozens of caves; from the underground waterfall Ruby Falls near Chattanooga, TN, to the largest Latvia has to offer, Gūtmaņala, all the way across the ocean to the grottes of Gorges du Tarn in France and the σπήλαιο of Antiparos, Greece… we’ve experienced caves across the world. However none had prepared us for the enormity of Mammoth Cave!
On our recent trip to Ohio to spend Easter with family we elected to add a few days to the drive and make a vacation out of it. On the way north we explored Big South Fork NRRA and Caryville, while on our way south we had plans to stop at Mammoth Cave National Park. Being a popular spring break destination we knew we were in for some crowds and so we planned ahead, contacting the Park for information not only on their cave tours, but the above-ground hiking options as well. However, the truth is this – if you are going to visit Mammoth Cave National Park, you must descend into the cave to get the full experience.
There are almost a dozen cave tours offered at the Park, some seasonal and some year-round. The Mammoth Cave website offers descriptions of which tours are offered when, as well as great maps of which portion of the cave the tour explores. However, I feel that it doesn’t do the best job of explaining your options upon visiting the Park. A majority of the tours have a capacity under 40, and with anywhere from 1 to about 10 tours per day, you can imagine that these options sell out quickly, even at $12-$55/person. We went back and forth on which tour we were interested in, wanting to see more than just ¼ mile on the Frozen Niagara tour, but not wanting to go underground with a crowd of 120 people on the Historic Tour, nor spend 2.5 hours in the caves with Vilis (and no backpack carrier as they aren’t allowed) on the Domes and Dripstones Tour. Reservations are not required, but are strongly recommended to ensure a spot on cave tours, and cannot be made the same day of the tour. With our indecision we missed our chance to participate in any of these tours, but luckily there is another option that isn’t clearly explained on the website – the Mammoth Cave Discovery Tour. Along with the Mammoth Passage Tour, these tickets are only available on site on the day of. We wouldn’t have even known about this option if it hadn’t been for a stop at the Visitor Center on our second day in the Park, as our first visit was after 3pm – when the tickets aren’t available. Even upon inquiring if the tours were full, this option wasn’t mentioned… and I can see why - they want to sell out all their other tours. The tickets for the self-guided exploration are only $5/adult (kids 6-12 $3.50 and under 6 free), entry is through the Historic Entrance (right next to the visitor center), and you can explore a designated section of the cave at your own pace. Online feedback from the guided tours indicates little time to photograph or admire individual features with the large groups, and while these tours may offer visits to intricate features such as the Frozen Niagara or famous ‘rooms’ such as the Snowball Room, the Discovery Tour takes you through a giant dome (the Rotunda) and long passageway, more than enough to suit our little group.
Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system known in the world. The park was established on July 1, 1941, and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site on October 27, 1981. There is archeological evidence in the cave of 4,000 years of exploration, and geologists think that there could be 600 miles of undiscovered passageways. The cave also predates all other National Parks as a tourist attraction, for as early as during the War of 1812 the site was already being advertised as one of the greatest natural treasures of the United States.
A short hike from the Visitor Center brought us to the Historic Entrance where we descended into the dark passage that would take us to the Rotunda. Although the cave system is home to about 130 forms of life such as the eyeless cavefish and the cave crayfish, we only saw a couple of brown bats, asleep in the beginning passage right above unsuspecting tourists’ heads. Soon we entered into the Rotunda, one of the largest rooms in the cave system. Lighted information placards and exhibits described the 19th century saltpeter mining operations that took place in the cave, as well as the geologic origins. From the Rotunda we explored Audubon Avenue, a vast canyon passageway. The Narrows and Rafinesque Hall are also open to view on this tour. You will experience an elevation change of 140 feet and must climb 120 stairs.
If you are interesting in crawling through tight passageways on your belly by headlamp, photographing the domes and dripstones or discovering famous rooms further into the underground labyrinth, you probably want to reserve one of the many tours offered by the Park Service. However, if you are interested in getting a feel for the enormity of this underground natural wonder without the time, physical fitness or $ commitment, the Discovery Tour might be for you. Visit the website to explore the multitude of options and to see what tours are offered during the season you expect to visit, and make your reservations early if you choose to do so. However, keep in mind that you can always see a portion of the cave on a self-guided tour – and don’t forget there’s also the above-ground portion of Mammoth Cave to explore!