Pros: Miles and miles of caves; rare wildlife
Cons: Some caves require much physical exertion and some are costly.
Located in central Kentucky, Mammoth Cave National Park is the largest known cave system in the world, with more than 336 miles of underground caves that have been explored and mapped. This area was designated as a National Park in 1941. The park is just off of I-65, south of Louisville and it attracts more than 2.5 million visitors each year.
The major attraction here is, of course, the extensive cave system. There are numerous caves available to tour and most people will only have time to explore a few of them. Some of the caves include Ganter Cave, Grand Avenue, Frozen Niagra, Wild Cave, Main Passage (the most popular), and several others.
This system of caves was created millions of years ago when waterways navigated through the limestone deposits, making their way to larger rivers. Over time, the water level dropped, leaving this cave system behind. Underground water is still moving around in many of the caves, which is working to enlarge the cave system continuously.
At first, the dark passages of this cave system might seem completely lifeless, but that isnt the case at all. There are more than 200 species of animals that live and thrive in this dark environment and some of them are not known to exist anyplace else on earth. Besides bats and mice, which are commonly found in caves, Mammoth Cave is home to many rare species, like eyeless fish and white spiders. Several species have lost coloration completely and are white, a result of adapting to the dark cave conditions. Since there is no light, there is no need for camouflage, so these creatures have gradually evolved into white- skinned animals.
If touring through caves is too scary for you, there are still other ways to enjoy the scenery of this National Park. Above the surface, you can partake in hiking one of the many scenic trials. These trials range in length from about one- half mile to nine miles. The terrain is covered with hills, streams, and waterfalls, but none of the trials are exceptionally difficult or physically challenging.
Boating and canoeing are another popular past time at Mammoth Cave. There are two rivers in the park: The Green River and Nolin River. The Green River is the larger of the two, averaging about 200 feet in width. The Nolin River is much more narrow, so if you decide to paddle a canoe (which can be rented in the park), you need to be careful. Its very easy to run into tree branches or to hit a rock thats buried beneath the surface of the water.
There are three campgrounds at Mammoth Cave National Park: Headquarters Campground (located near the Visitors Center), Houchins Ferry Campground, and Maple Springs Campground. Fees to use the campgrounds range from $11 to $25 per night. If you come during the off- season (December, January, or February), only the Houchins Ferry campground will be open. Its the only one thats available year- round. The other two are open only from March through November.
Costs to Enter:
Mammoth Cave doesnt charge any general entry fee to get into the park (at least, thats how it was when I last visited). Where the cost comes into play is when you decide to take a tour of a cave or utilize the campgrounds. The price for cave tours varies, and it can change at any time. You will see the fees posted at the major cave entry points.
Mammoth Cave can be described in one word: Massive! Its the worlds largest cave system and its continuously growing each and every year. Even today, there are miles and miles of cave passages that have still not been explored and mapped.
These caves can sometimes require levels of physical endurance that some visitors may not be prepared for, so you should do your homework before you schedule a tour. You should also keep in mind that most every cave tour will charge a fee (a few are free) and this fee can range from $5.00 to $45 or more. Some of the tours are very long, too. For instance, the full tour of Wild Cave lasts 6 hours and it includes more than 5 miles of walking and climbing. Another cave, Grand Avenue, requires ascending more than 500 steps (!) and lasts 4.5 hours.
The most popular of these tours (and one of the least strenuous) is the Mammoth Passage. Park Rangers provide guided tours of this cave, the main part if the Mammoth Cave system. This tour is less than a mile in length and it costs only about $5.00 per person. I went on this tour myself, and it was crowded, but tolerable. There were about 80 people in the group and many were in awe over the scenery and the ecological history of the area. It was an easy tour, with almost no steep climbing at all, which is why its so popular. It was a little on the cool side, too. The temperature in most of these caves ranges from about 50 degrees to 65, so you need to be prepared for a drop in temperature when you enter a cave. The temperature will continue to fall as you descend deeper and deeper into the cave. Since the caves are protected from the elements, these temperatures remain constant all year. If you come in the wintertime, the inside of the cave will be warmer than the outside air.
If you have any inclination toward acrophobia (fear of heights) or achluophobia (fear of darkness), then you had better pass on exploring the majority of the caves in this park. Many of the tours involve climbing and some of these climbs are vertical (up or down a ladder- like series of steps). There are also some tight squeezes in a few places, making it difficult to pass through if youre over a certain size. And its very common for a tour guide to turn out the lights during a tour, so that the tourists can experience what its like to be in total, 100% darkness. I have been on some of these tours and when those lights go out, you can hear the sound of deep breaths and screams from some of the hikers. You are in total darkness!
Overall, Mammoth Cave is an incredible National Park and its great fun for the entire family. Some of the tours are strenuous and some are costly, but they are enjoyable and fascinating. Its the largest cave system in the world, located right here, in Central Kentucky.