Three and a half days in Mammoth Cave National Park in early October have been just right — this being our first of 55+ national parks in North America, we wanted to wade in gently and learn a lot about negotiating the parks with enough time to do them right. This was a great one to start with.
Mammoth is the largest cave system in linear miles in the world. Over 400 miles of mapped tunnels crisscrossing the limestone karst of three Kentucky counties. These caves are ancient solution caves (limestone dissolved by acidic water dripping or flowing through the rock), and their current state is likely to be much like their future state as they are protected from much further breakdown by a 50-foot sandstone cap over top of the 600-foot limestone bedrock.
We camped at a nearby KOA campground as the park campgrounds were either sold out or only available on a first-come, first-served basis. Not unusual for a national park close to population centers during Fall Break (little did we know beforehand!).
Our caving included a 2-hour tour of the Grand Onyx cave (a favorite for its twinkly walls, created by calcium sulfate (gypsum ) crystals, 2.5 hours in the Cleaveland Avenue section, and another 2-hour tour of the Domes and Dripstones portion, accessible via the New Entrance and exiting at the Frozen Niagara entrance (see the blue stars).
For drama and oohs-aahs, it’s hard to beat the Domes and Dripstones tour. If you can only do one, that’s the one to book. If you’re coming, book your tours in advance, as the best slots get sold out fast, especially in the summer. The Onyx tour was conducted by lantern, which seems lovely until you realize that the cave walls have been severely damaged by the torch tours of past generations and the lantern fumes are probably not helping to eliminate further damage.
The Park Service also offers a Wild Caves tour for those into spelunking (think tight spaces, tiny corridors and lots of wiggling around on the ground to get into otherwise inaccessible places). We have too much claustrophobia for that, but it would be a blast for those who can stomach the tight quarters, close contact with cave crickets and other subterranean creatures, and dramatic views few get to see.
We really enjoyed learning about the early guides, especially Stephen Bishop, who was a slave owned by the cave owner in the mid 1800s. What a mind he must have had, to explore, learn and then educate thousands of wealthy patrons who wanted to tour the early cave segments. He eventually earned his freedom, but he really pioneered the art of cave guiding and blazed a trail for other African Americans who dominated that profession for decades. Much like the Buffalo Soldiers of Yosemite and Sequoia, these historical figures are little known or credited.
Our visit here wrapped up with a two-hour, 8-mile kayak down the Green River that winds through the park and is the source of much of the acidic water that has dissolved the limestone to create the caves. Despite what you might think, paddling down a lazy river with almost no current is NOT an easy job. We stroked nearly 100% of the ride because of a stiff wind in our faces, but the exercise was great, the scenery grand, and it gets us ready to handle trips to the parks next summer with our grandkids!
Thanks, Mammoth Caves NP, for a great start to NP trekking!
Descent to the traditional cave entrance through a canopy of trees, down into the hollow.
Fall colors just coming into the hills of Kentucky above the Green River.
Gypsum “flowers” on the wall of Great Onyx Cove
The descent into Domes and Dripstones was 280 stair steps!
The vertical drops are quite spectacular.
Part of the Frozen Niagara flowstone.
More flowstone — so eery.
This is all the same solution that makes up stalactites, but in this case shaped curtains.
Time for lunch at a scenic overlook.
Catfish on baking powder biscuits!
These are the walls surrounding the green river: several hundred feet of sandstone and limestone outcroppings.
The beginning of our “Lazy River” kayak.
Cable-guided paddle wheel ferry system in front of us carries three cars at a time over the Green River.
Super-sunny day was perfect for a paddle!