The hidden worlds of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park “” and other caves in the vicinity “” bring out the explorer in all of us.
By Pamela Selbert
Kentucky is aptly nicknamed the Bluegrass State. But it could just as appropriately have been dubbed the Cave State, so riddled is its wide midsection with subterranean passageways and elegantly adorned, light-free halls. For millions of years, creeks and rivers in this karst land, or cave country, have seeped into the ground through natural “sinks.” Underground mineral-laden streams continue to move mostly unfiltered through dissolved holes in the bedrock, porous limestone. Drop by drop they create elaborate shapes of unimaginable beauty.
Most people have heard of Mammoth Cave “” it’s one of the most popular of America’s national parks, tallying 1.8 million or so visitors each year. With more than 360 miles of rooms and tunnels explored and mapped, it numbers among the United States’ natural treasures. Although this mileage figure is twice as large as any other known cave system, geologists estimate that up to 600 more miles still await discovery. Also amazing is the fact that 199 other caves are situated within the national park. Among these is Sand Cave, which is not open for tours.
Sand Cave may not attract much attention now, but it drew worldwide notice in January 1925, when local spelunker Floyd Collins became trapped deep inside. Efforts to rescue him turned the area into a “virtual three-ring circus, with people selling sandwiches and balloons to the hundreds of spectators,” said Vickie Carson, public information officer for Mammoth Cave National Park. Unfortunately, Collins was brought out long after he had perished. Publicity from the incident was one of the factors that led Congress to authorize the establishment of a national park in 1926. More than 600 farms were purchased to create Mammoth Cave National Park, which officially opened in 1941.
It’s estimated that only 400,000 of the annual visitors to the national park actually go inside the caves. Hiking and biking trails, fishing, ranger programs, and beautiful scenic drives also are available at the park. Even the road into the area, State Route 225 (Park City Road, exit 48 off Interstate 65) is highly picturesque, a serpentine 7-mile route that drops sharply between thick stands of trees and stair-step limestone bluffs.
Mammoth Cave was begun some 10 million years ago, sculpted over the millenia by the Echo River and River Styx, “underground waterways like a storm water system, fueled by sinkholes in the karst,” Ms. Carson explained. These rivers flowed toward the Green River, which rolls just 1/4-mile west of the 60-foot natural (or “historic”) entrance to Mammoth Cave. In fact, years ago, people could take boat rides inside the cave, but this was determined to cause damage and create pollution. However, nearly 30 miles of the park’s Green and Nolin rivers can be canoed, providing dramatic vistas from the base of towering bluffs.
Over the years the cave has had several uses. In the early 1800s saltpeter, an ingredient in gunpowder, was discovered there. A mining operation was launched, and batches of the mineral were shipped back east during the War of 1812. Guided tours of Mammoth, then owned by a Charles Wilkins and located on a 200-acre tract, were first offered in 1816. In 1839 the land was purchased by Dr. John Croghan, who, said Carson, “viewed it as more than just a natural wonder; he thought it would be the perfect site for a consumptive hospital.” It took only a few months for the doctor to realize that a hospital was not the cave’s best use.
The beautiful roads and trails outside and inside parts of the cave are the handiwork of Civilian Conservation Corps workers, who prepped the area for an influx of visitors during the 1930s. Electricity was added to many of the passageways, and since then five additional entrances have been bored in to make the cave more tour-friendly. Inside it’s a constant 54 degrees Fahrenheit, so have a sweater or jacket handy.
Approximately 10 miles of the cave are regularly included on tours, but most people see much less. The Discovery Tour covers 3/4-mile round trip and is available with or without a ranger guide. Tickets for all tours may be purchased at the visitors center, located in the center of the park, from where several of the tours depart. It’s highly suggested that you make reservations for your tour, especially if you visit between April and October.
In addition to the ticket office, the visitors center has an extensive bookstore, an information desk, a seasonal boat concession, rest rooms and water fountains, and even televised weather reports. Ranger-led talks and slide presentations are held in the auditorium. Everything you might want to know about the park (plus camping and restaurant information, programs for children, and more) can be found there.
We elected to take the Travertine Tour, which Ms. Carson said revealed Mammoth’s most spectacular display of formations. The trip is short, at only a quarter-mile, and involves only 13 stairs (although more are optional). Yet it takes about 75 minutes to complete, as there are many wonders to ogle, particularly in a chamber called the Drapery Room. The way isn’t difficult, though even shorter folks must duck here and there. As you walk you pass such landmarks as Rainbow Dome, Crystal Lake, and Frozen Niagara flowstone; these were created over thousands of years as mineral-rich droplets of water trickled along, laying down the lustrous travertine, or cave onyx, a molecule or two at a time. With luck, you also may see some of Mammoth’s residents, such as the pink-hued eyeless cavefish or white cave crayfish, both of which are sightless.
Deep inside, you round a bend to a stunning spectacle below, the lauded Drapery Room. Here it’s as though Mother Nature engaged in a frenzy of creation, lavishing the walls with all sorts of formations. Some resemble organ pipes, pendulums, flowing curtains, knobby walking canes, odd bones, angels in prayer, and a host of other surreal shapes, all in rich, varying shades of amber. You can see much of this splendor from above. But for a close-up look, and views into the rugged vaults of the ceiling, you must walk down (and back up) the 49-step staircase to the floor. Our suggestion: if you plan to take only one tour at Mammoth, make it this one.
As we walked back up the steps, a ragged-looking group of about a dozen people in helmets and kneepads appeared suddenly from some black cave recess. We learned they had been squeezing through the bowels of the earth for half a day, and, smeared thickly with mud, were finishing up their Wild Cave Tour. Yet everyone in the group “” Germans, Japanese, British, and Americans “” seemed emotionally intact, even elated.
At Mammoth Cave, as Ms. Carson had told us, there is an appropriate tour for everyone.
Cave tour fees vary from $4 to $46; the cost is approximately half-price for holders of the Golden Age or Golden Access cards. Some tours have restrictions on age (children under 16) and body size.
Cave tours are offered daily except December 25, but tour schedules vary according to season. It is highly recommended that you make reservations for any tour; they can be made over the phone or online.
For cave tour descriptions, schedules, and information about surface activities and special events, contact:
Mammoth Cave National Park
P.O. Box 7
Mammoth Cave, KY 42259-0007
Camping for RVs within the park is available at two campgrounds. Headquarters Campground has 109 no-hookup sites. It offers showers, rest rooms, drinking water, and a dump station. The other RV-accessible facility is for groups only “” Maple Springs Group Campground. Each site has a 24-person capacity and no hookups. For more information or reservations, call the National Park Reservation System at (800) 967-2283.
For listings of area commercial campgrounds, check your campground directory or the Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of Family Motor Coaching and online at FMCA.com.
Are you thinking that if you’ve seen one cave, you’ve seen them all? That’s definitely not the case in Kentucky, where even though the state’s other subterranean offerings may not compare size-wise to Mammoth, some are even more spectacular when it comes to elaborate formations. There are, of course, others to choose from as well, but here are four that motorhomers won’t want to miss:
Diamond Caverns was discovered in 1859 by a slave who, along the road to Mammoth Cave, noticed an odd opening in a dry, rocky valley. Entering via a rope, he found inside a glittering calcite world revealing surreal shapes seemingly clad with diamonds “” hence the name. Intricate “draperies” line its passageways in cascades of colorful calcite; stalactites by the thousands, stalagmites, and flowstone formations decorate cathedral-like halls.
Diamond Caverns is located on State Route 255 (Mammoth Cave Parkway), a mile west of Interstate 65 (exit 48). Guided tours are offered year-round; no reservations are required. For more information, call (270) 749-2233 or visit www.diamondcaverns.com.
Hidden River Cave, in the heart of the town of Horse Cave, is a 7-mile labyrinth of passageways connected by the subterranean Hidden River. It’s called the “greatest cave restoration in the United States,” because it formerly was used as a local dumpsite and closed to tours for half a century. Hidden River was cleaned up and reopened several years ago by the American Cave Conservation Association and the City of Horse Cave.
Tours begin at the adjacent American Cave Museum (the United States’ only museum dedicated to caves), where history and science exhibits interpret the underground wonders. From the museum a four-story elevator takes visitors to the Hidden River Cave entrance. The tour follows the river’s path as it burbles over limestone boulders before disappearing into the earth.
Hidden River Cave and the museum are located at 119 E. Main St. in Horse Cave (take exit 58 east off I-65) and are open daily year-round from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and until 7:00 p.m. in the summer. For more information, call (270) 786-1466 or visit www.cavern.org.
Lost River Cave and Valley is the only Kentucky cave site to offer subterranean boat rides. The Lost River begins a dozen miles south and flows, mostly underground, to the valley, where it resurfaces in four “blue holes.” At the end of the fourth blue hole, the river disappears underground again, through one of the largest cave entrances in the eastern United States.
Tours are offered every hour between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. and begin outside the cave with a 20-minute walk along the water. Visitors then board a flat-bottom johnboat for a 25-minute ride inside the cave, cruising cavernous limestone passageways that were used a century and more ago by millers, distillers, Civil War soldiers, and even outlaws, according to local legend. The naturally cool cave air made it “cool” as an underground nightclub in the 1930s and ’40s, and the dance floor remains. Aboveground, the pretty valley is a National Archeological Site and National Historic Site, offering 2 miles of nature trails and an enclosed butterfly garden.
Lost River Cave and Valley is located on Nashville Road (U.S. 31 W.) at Cave Mill Road in Bowling Green. From I-65 take exit 22. For more information, call (866) 274-2283 or (270) 393-0077, or visit www.lostrivercave.com.
Kentucky Caverns measures just 1/8-mile in length, but in some viewers’ estimations, it’s the showiest cave of all. The caverns are located just outside the town of Horse Cave. A dazzling array of extraordinary shapes in a host of colors awaits. The cave consists of three rooms made of caramel-rich onyx with 20-foot-high vaulted ceilings, colored in a spectrum of iron oxide-pigmented hues of rose, gold, yellow, and burgundy. A pathway, sometimes as wide as 6 feet, sometimes narrowing to a foot across, funnels visitors past surreal shapes resembling cow udders, gorilla heads, a chain of skulls, pigs’ feet, bunches of bananas, and haystacks.
Kentucky Caverns is owned by Bill and Judy Austin, who also have developed Kentucky Down Under, an Australian themed animal park. This fun place harbors a host of critters, most of which are native to Australia: kookaburras, lorikeets, kangaroos, wallabies, sheep, border collies (that herd the sheep), and more.
Kentucky Down Under is open from mid-March to October 31, and Kentucky Caverns is open year-round. Take exit 58 (to Horse Cave) off of I-65 and follow the signs. For more information, call (800) 762-2869 or (270) 786-2634, or visit www.kycaverns.com.