Exploring the Mammoth Cave System

By: Mark Shallcross

July 21, 2014

It’s just a big hole in the ground, but you’ll likely need a reservation to get inside. About half a million people a year travel to south-central Kentucky to visit the Mammoth Cave System, which encompasses the longest cave system in the world, with more than 400 miles of surveyed passageways.

Approximately 400,000 travellers annually tour the cave, while another 100,000 take part in surface activities such as hiking, canoeing, picnicking, horseback riding, cycling and camping across the grounds of the National Park.

The park, about a two-hour drive from Louisville, Kentucky and an hour from Nashville, Tennessee, is open year-round except for Christmas day. Overnight lodging is available, with reservations highly recommended for cave tours and hotel rooms during the summer months.

“The cave is still being researched and surveyed to this day; there’s still a lot of unknowns and things to discover,” said Vickie Carson, Public Information Officer for Mammoth Cave National Park. “We continue to find (Native American) slippers, gourds, pottery, shells and woven cloth inside the cave. The cave tours, of course, are the most popular attraction for visitors – the most popular one lasts two hours and runs for two miles.”

Broadway toward Rotunda | Mammoth Cave

The enormous entrance to Mammoth Cave welcomes more than 400,000 visitors every year  © U. S. National Park Service

Most of the park’s resources and facilities are available free of charge; fees are charged for cave tours ($5 to $48), camping and selected picnic shelter reservations. Mammoth Cave National Park covers more than 52,800 acres and features a new visitor’s centre, which opened last November. The centre, which opened in 1941 as part of the U.S. National Park Service, is a great place to begin your visit to the park.

Some of the cave tours can be physically challenging, so be prepared to squeeze through such sections as Fat Man’s Misery and manoeuvre past a vertical shaft known as the Bottomless Pit.

Lighted cave tours range from one to six hours in length. Two tours, lit only by visitor-carried paraffin lamps, are popular alternatives to electric-lit routes. Several “wild” tours venture away from the developed areas of the cave into muddy crawls and dusty tunnels. Several species of bats inhabit Mammoth Cave, along with other creatures that have adapted to live in the dark.

Inside the Mammoth cave

Cave walls lit up creates an abstract spectacle of colour © ColorPlayer/istock/Thinkstock

Some of the more popular cave tours include: Historic, Domes and Dripstones, Frozen Niagara, Grand Avenue, Great Onyx, Snowball, Violet City Lantern, Gothic, River Styx and Star Chamber. The tours can be a bit spooky, which only adds to the charm of the experience. Mummies found in the cave represent examples of intentional burial, with ample evidence of pre-Columbian funerary practice. Reports of ghostly apparitions and mysterious sounds have been recorded for many years.

Green River from Bluff Trail at Mammoth Cave | Mammoth Cave

Green River from Bluff Trail at Mammoth Cave © Snikeltrut/iStock/Thinkstock

On the surface, there are 90 miles of hiking trails, 60 miles of horseback riding trails and 31 miles of navigable water on the Green and Nolin rivers for canoeing and kayaking. Fishing without a license, is also permitted. Recommended sites are: The Big Woods, a glimpse of the uncut forest of old Kentucky; Sloan’s Crossing Pond, where bullfrogs serenade visitors; Cedar Sink, a place where the earth opens a window into its inner secrets; the Green River Bluffs Overlook, where the Green River Valley opens before you from a bird’s-perch view; and Cave Island, another world between the banks of the Green River.

The Mammoth Cave System has a rich history of exploration going back some 5,000 years, when the first human passed under its imposing arch into the subterranean labyrinth. Curiosity led to the discovery of highly prized minerals, which were plumbed by primitive miners for nearly 2,000 years before the cave mysteriously went quiet. Native Americans explored and mined the upper three levels of Mammoth Cave for a distance of over six miles, seeking gypsum, selenite, mirabilite, epsomite and other materials.

green r bluffs, fav resized.jpg

The view from the bluffs above the Green River is a thing of beauty © U. S. National Park Service

It was discovered by European settlers in the late 18th century and shortly thereafter became an important source of extracted calcium nitrate, or nitre, which could be converted into saltpeter, and then into a good grade of black gunpowder. This material played a large role in supplying ammunition for the War of 1812.

African-American slaves were among the early tour guides and explorers of the cave. Probably the best known was Stephen Bishop, who during the 1830s and 40s was one of the first people to make extensive maps of the cave and named many of its features. No doubt the individual most associated with Mammoth Cave was a man named Floyd Collins, a celebrated cave explorer in the region, which is known as Cave Country because of the many underground attractions in that part of Kentucky.

Frozen Niagara | Mammoth Cave

Frozen Niagara: The stalactite formation known as Frozen Niagara is one of the cave’s most popular attractions © U. S. National Park Service

On 30th January 1925, while trying to discover a new entrance to the system of underground caves that were a popular tourist attraction, Collins became trapped in a narrow passageway below the surface. The reports about efforts to rescue him became a nationwide newspaper sensation and among the first major news stories to be reported on via the new technology of amateur radio. After four days, during which Collins could be brought food and water, a rock collapse closed the cave to everything but voice contact.

Mammoth Cave National Park | Exploring the Mammoth Cave System

More formations inside the caves © BenKrut/iStock/Thinkstock

Courier-Journal reporter William “Skeets” Miller interviewed Collins in the cave and later received a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage. Miller’s reports were distributed by telegraph and were printed by newspapers across the country and abroad. Shortly after the media arrived at Mammoth Cave, the publicity drew crowds of curious visitors, at one point numbering in the tens of thousands. The rescue attempt grew to become the third-biggest media event between the two world wars. (Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight and his son’s kidnapping were the top two.)

Sadly, Collins died of exposure, thirst and starvation after being trapped for 14 days, three days before a rescue shaft could reach his position. The incident later inspired a musical, a film documentary, and several books. In 1951, Ace in the Hole, a film by Billy Wider was released, featuring the media circus surrounding the attempted rescue of a man trapped in a cave.

Mammoth Cave National Park offers a special experience for visitors from all over the world, both above and, especially below, the surface of the earth.

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Have you visited the Mammoth Cave System? Let us know in the comments section below.

Written by Mark Shallcross


Mark Shallcross

Mark V. Shallcross is a free-lance writer living in Louisville, Kentucky. A graduate of the University of Louisville, Mark is a tenth-generation Kentuckian who has worked as a reporter for The Courier-Journal, Voice-Tribune and Jeffersonville (Indiana) Evening News newspapers. He worked most recently as a communications manager, copywriter and media liaison for the Kentucky Derby Festival. He enjoys travel, reading and competitive running.

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