Underground Exploration in Mammoth Cave National Park

Before our trip, whenever people would ask where we were headed on our Appalachian Adventure, Ryan would say: “We’ll be spending time in West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky.” Then I’d glare and say, “HONEY, we’re not going to Kentucky.” And yet … we ended up in Kentucky.

Welcome To Kentucky

I guess I just didn’t think we had time to do it justice — but when we ended up trimming a few Gauley weekends from the schedule, we suddenly had a week or so to kill. So to Kentucky we headed — and it ended up being one of the best decisions of our trip.

In the dead center of the state was Mammoth Cave National Park — our first destination in Kentucky.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but most of the park was quiet and wooded, with rolling treed hills and almost a dreamy quality.

Mammoth Cave National Park Woods

The dreaminess quickly ended when we locked our keys in the car. Fortunately a sassy-yet-helpful ranger was kind enough to lend us a coat hanger, and Ryan put his cat burglar skills to work in the parking lot. It’s a good thing he was able to rescue them, because we had absolutely no cell service to call AAA with!

Womp Womp

Crisis averted, we headed inside to explore the visitor’s center. Well … sort of. It turns out visiting Mammoth Cave takes a little more planning ahead than we were used to; unlike at Carlsbad Caverns, where self-guided tours were standard, the majority of Mammoth Cave’s tours require a tour guide and reservations. And … it was spring break. The park was packed. When we arrived, the tours we were interested in were all sold out. Instead, we took a short jaunt down to the one cave that was open for self-guided tours, just to whet our appetites.

We also checked out the visitor’s center at Mammoth Cave, and it was really cool. We loved this cross-section model of one of the larger caves …

Mammoth Cave Visitors Center

As well as this relief “sculpture” of the cave system. (Mammoth Cave is the world’s longest known cave system, with more than 400 miles explored!)

Mammoth Cave Model

And I loved this Find Your Park poster emphasizing the park’s history.  In 1838, the cave was purchased by Franklin Gorin, who intended to operate Mammoth Cave as a tourist attraction. Gorin used his African-American slaves as tour guides — and one of them, Stephen Bishop, would become one of Mammoth Cave’s most celebrated historical figures. Stephen was one of the first people to make extensive maps of the cave, and named many of the cave’s features.

Mammoth Cave Retro Poster

Stephen was very respected by Gorin, who described Stephen after his death as “the celebrated and great Stephen … a self-educated man [with] a fine genius, a great fund of wit and humor, some little knowledge of Latin and Greek, and much knowledge of geology, but his great talent was a knowledge of man.” Despite his contributions to the cave, Stephen lived most of his life as a slave, although Gorin freed him just a year before his death in 1857.

Mammoth Cave was an interesting contrast to Carlsbad Caverns because while Mammoth is the longest known cave system in the world, it is not nearly as deep as Carlsbad. The entrance to Mammoth felt very shallow compared to the 750-foot trail of Carlsbad’s Natural Entrance.

The interior of the cave looked totally different from Carlsbad, too! The caves were very rocky, and there were fewer formations than we saw at Carlsbad.

One of the cool things about Mammoth Cave was the wide variety of cave tours offered. We did the Domes & Dripstones tour and it was excellent. We would have loved to do the River Styx tour, as well, but there were only a few tour times offered and none while we were in town.

Mammoth Cave National Park was definitely a park where planning ahead would have served us well. You guys know we love to wing it but between the limited tour times and crowds due to spring break, this one needed a little more foresight. (We also didn’t camp in the park because it was super unclear if there were showers and restrooms available — we stayed at the solidly meh Horse Cave KOA campground — but when we took a spin through the park , it looked like there were facilities. It would have been wonderful to stay right in the park — next time!)

We had one more experience in central Kentucky: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park. Unfortunately, this ended up being another poorly planned excursion on our part. First fail: While the NHP is only a 40 minute drive from Mammoth Cave … it’s in another time zone. Yeah. Second fail: the park’s website lists its hours as 8am-4:30pm … buuuuuut the buildings all actually close at 4:00. So, we showed up at what we thought was 3:00pm, which was actually 4:00pm, still thought we had half an hour to zip through the buildings, but they were all closed.

Fortunately, a kind park ranger saw the desperation in my eyes and went into the closed visitor’s center and stamped my passport for me. And we did take a quick tour around the grounds, which were super beautiful — so it wasn’t a total loss! We would have loved to take in the visitor’s center, and check out the “symbolic birth cabin” — turns out the one in the mausoleum above isn’t the real Lincoln birth cabin, as they thought when it was constructed — but hopefully you can learn from our mistakes.

Despite a few setbacks, we loved our first foray into Kentucky! Has anyone else made the same mistakes we did? And is there anything else in the area you’d like to recommend to our readers?

I'm the oldest of 12 crazy kids and two pretty awesome parents. My love of travel developed during my early years traveling the globe as an Air Force brat. I'm a runner, a writer, and a reader, and I love cooking up good food and cozying up our camper.

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