Going to Mammoth Cave National Park is a trip back in time, ancient time and more recent history. It is also a trip to one of the rarest and most unusual places on earth, and not on the face of the earth, but down below the surface. You go to Mammoth Cave to explore its wonders, to follow in the footsteps of the uncounted numbers of people who came before you, and to go away having seen a rare and wonderful place.
Mammoth Cave is the world’s longest known labyrinth of connecting underground cave corridors. The known area comprises more than 400 miles of paths and trails through the living rock, down under the earth. And there is sure to be more, that’s just the portion of the Cave that has been explored, so far. Sights inside the Cave include views of stalagmites, stalactites, columns, onyx flowstone in a rainbow of colors, gigantic rooms, narrow passages, deep pits and arching domes. You are fortunate indeed to be able to see this wonder which was named a National Park in 1946. Plan ahead, book your tours and allow for some free time of discovery as well. Remember to take along a sweatshirt to wear, because no matter how hot it is above ground, it is a constant chilly 54 degrees Fahrenheit in the lower depths.
Mammoth Cave was well-known to the first nation peoples more than four thousand years ago, as evidenced by the torches they left in the cave. They used the Cave as a meeting and burial place. They also collected gypsum from the cave and left behind other items such as moccasins which have remained intact to this day. The evidence of their presence is to be found in many parts of the Cave; your guides will show you some of them.
John Houchins may have been the first settler to happen upon Mammoth Cave while hunting a wounded a bear and chased it into what is now known as the Historic Entrance to the cave. That was in the 1790s. Saltpeter was mined in the Cave during the War of 1812, to be used in the making of gunpowder. Once, the actor Edwin Booth used a limestone ridge as an impromptu stage where he recited a selection from Hamlet for a group of cave visitors. The spot is now called Booth’s Amphitheater. The signs of those who came before you include stone monuments along Gothic Avenue indicating what states visitors came from. Tourists also used candle smoke to write on the ceiling. Of course, such practices are forbidden now, but they remain part of the Cave’s lore.
The Cave has all kinds of stories and legends, from Stephen Bishop, the slave who made the first extensive map of the cave, to cave owner John Crohagn, who thought that having people with tuberculose live in the cave would cure them (it didn’t and the damp cool air may have hastened their demise), to cave explorer “Lost John” whose mummified remains were discovered under a boulder, to 300-million year old fossils, to artifacts from thousands of years ago up to the modern era. There are fabulous formations in the cave, many of them with poetically descriptive names. There are signs everywhere of the people who explored the cave before you.
It has been said that Mammoth Cave is the world’s largest haunted place. On the various tours, you will hear stories about those who lived, died and were buried in the Cave. You will also see signs of those who came before you, including artifacts and inscriptions that hold a wealth of stories from the past. Those who went out of their way to see Mammoth Cave include the famous Swedish Soprano Jenny Lind; celebrated British novelist Charles Dickens; transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson; and Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia, the son of Tsar Alexander II.
Book your tours in advance; consider the Historic Tour and the Domes and Dripstones Tour. The first part of the Domes and Dripstones Tour is the same as the Historic Tour, but toward the end, you see the stalactite and stalagmite areas and the waterfall rock formations. The Historic Entrance is a major portal to the cave. Another is the New Entrance. The New Entrance tour takes you to Roosevelt Dome, grand central station, fairy ceiling, crystal lake, frozen Niagara, and the drapery room. The Violet City Lantern Tour is particularly amazing, since it covers portions of several other shorter tours, and you do the entire tour by lantern which lends a lovely light and an added mystique of adventure. Whichever tours you take, you will not fail to be impressed by the Cave’s size and the sense of grandeur.
Outside the Cave, enjoy the museum and gift shop. There is plenty to see above ground. This is good news for people who know that they suffer from claustrophobia or are afraid of the dark. You can have a wonderful time at Mammoth Cave National Park and never go an inch underground. Among the sights to see, I recommend the Cedar Sink Trail, a forest, cliff, and waterside stroll of about two miles that leads you to the famous disappearing river. Drive all through the park to enjoy the scenery, and stop at the Green River and hike. Ride the ferry. There are canoeing options on the Green River. You must visit nearby Sand Cave if you are a history buff; it is where Floyd Collins languished amid nationwide press coverage before he met his untimely end.
For dining options, eat in the park at Travertine, where sirloin bourbon chicken, pork loin, and trout are usually on the menu. Places nearby to eat include Mis Amigos in Brownsville for Mexican quesadillas, burritos, and spinach enchiladas, Sahara Steak House in Cave City for filet mignon, steak fries and peanut butter pie, El Mazatlan in Cave City for Mexican favorites, and The Lookout Restaurant at Park Mammoth in Park City for chicken teriyaki and country fried steak prime rib dinner. A bit further east, try Brothers in Campbellsville for pulled pork, brisket, potato salad, BBQ beans, broccoli salad and vinegar slaw. Or visit the last Druthers in the USA, also in Campbellsville, for the royal burger and bar rings, the fish sandwich, fried squash, biscuits and gravy, and lemon turnovers. Bowling Green is just down the road a piece and well worth a visit, a stay and a meal. There are many nearby lodging choices; if you seek one that is unique, beat a path to the Wigwam Village where you can spend the night in a teepee.