I found myself winding through the hill country south of Louisville as the sun began to set. There was no need to get off onto side roads – the scenery was amazing from the highway (and the same was true on the trip back north through Lexington). I was having trouble deciphering the Kentucky State Park campground information, so decided to spend the night at Mammoth Cave National Park. After a sub-freezing night among the oaks in the campground, I decided to wake up early, pack up quickly, and get in line for the first cave tour of the day. The second accidental detour of the trip was another wonderful experience!
The park was busier than I would have expected for a weekday in October, and the tour I was hoping to take sold out with the customer in front of me. After chatting with the very helpful park staff, I decided on the “Historic” tour, which was also enjoyable. After my limited experience, I would recommend that you not visit the park as I did! Plan to spend two full days, and include some above-ground hikes and maybe two different cave tours, one each day. It really is an amazing natural wonder, and worth a little bit more attention!
Mammoth Cave, unlike many of the other “show caves,” is largely a “dead,” or dry cave. That is, in most of the cave there are no showy stalactites and stalagmites, no pretty colors with minerals trapped in the calcite, or water dripping into pools. In fact, as the Historic tour showcases, the cave was dry enough to have had many uses throughout history. The cave was carved as a channel of the Green River passed underground, eating away at the limestone in the process. Over millennia, the above-ground river carved a deeper and deeper passage through its valley, and the altitude of the underground portion of the river decreased accordingly. This created several layers of passages, connected by vertical tunnels, and in the lowest of these, the river continues to flow today (in the cave, they call it the River Styx). As a result, Mammoth Cave is, with 365 miles of known passages, twice as long as any other cave in the world!
It is possible to take a hike through the oak- and maple-dominated upland to the point where the River Styx comes out of the ground and re-joins the main Green. I wish I would have taken that hike, as well as one to areas of the park which contain older-growth forest. If you go, spend more time than I did, and tell me all about what I missed!