Visiting the World’s Longest Cave System
Designated as a National Park in 1941 to protect the fragile eco-system, Mammoth Cave National Park is now host to 2 million visitors a year.
Mammoth Cave in South Central Kentucky has over 360 miles of known cave passages, giving it the distinction of being the world’s longest cave system. Geologists estimate there are hundreds of miles of uncharted passages still to be explored. Exploring the cave offers even the most ardent spelunker an unforgettable experience.
Originally formed around 10 million years ago, the caves are a Karst formation, created when underground water systems flowed through the limestone and sand of an ancient sea bed that covered the central United States 350 million years ago.
Mammoth Cave and Human Exploration
About 4000 years ago, prehistoric Indians began using the cave, mining the minerals and perhaps using the caves as shelter. Evidence of their presence was discovered in the form of mummies, burial places, cane torches and artifacts, some of which remain in their original locations. 2000 years ago, for some unknown reason, the Indians stopped using the cave and it remained unused and uninhabited for years.
In the 1800’s, the caves were mined for minerals and saltpeter, which is used to make gunpowder. News of the caves reached across the seas, and local and international visitors have been touring the caves for hundreds of years. Evidence of their passage can be seen in graffiti left on the cave walls.
Experience a Mammoth Cave Tour
The first must-do for all visitors is a cave tour, led by knowledgeable and humorous guides. Several tours are offered each day. There is the opportunity to learn something new on each one, as the information changes depending on the types of geological formation or history being discussed.
The cave maintains a stable temperature of 54 degrees F., but it can be colder at the mouth of the cave during the winter months, so a light jacket is suggested when on a tour.
Several tours have been designed to fit all ages and limitations, but walking and stair climbing are to be expected on even the least strenuous tour. Some tours are suitable for small children and people who use canes or walkers for assistance, and others have rigid age and weight restrictions. Special equipment such as knee pads or gloves may be required.
Visitors entering the mouth of the cave will immediately notice how the air cools as they descend into the unknown. When the tour guides extinguish the lights, visitors are amazed at how one watt of candlepower dispels the eerie, total darkness and lights up the cavern.
Small track lights illuminate the passages through the cave, but caution is necessary. Dripping water and slippery stone make the passageways a bit hazardous, so sturdy footwear is a must.
Depending on the tour chosen, visitors will slide through Fat Man’s Misery, gaze into a bottomless pit, or walk along the River Styx. The very adventurous may want to try the strenuous Wild Cave tour: six hours of crawling, climbing, squeezing and squirming through rock, dirt, mud and narrow crevices, some only 9 inches high.
There are also self-guided tours. The prices for a tour range from $4 to $45.00 US.
Explore the Diversity of Mammoth Cave National Park
The park contains much more than just caves. The beautiful natural setting is home to several species of endangered plants and animals, and groups of school children are often seen on field trips. In addition, the park offers fishing and canoeing on the Green River, and hiking and horseback riding over 70 miles of trail.
A hotel and several campsites are available for overnight visitors. Reservations are suggested during the busy summer months.
There are other caves, but none so great and varied as Mammoth Cave. Reservations and tour tickets can be purchased by visiting the website at www.nps.gov or calling toll-free 877-444-6777.