Mammoth Cave National Park: History, Mystery and Wonder

Historic entrance of Mammoth Cave, the longest cave in the world.
Historic entrance of Mammoth Cave, the longest cave in the world.

When I first headed down the stairs to the historic entrance of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, I was a child fascinated by walking through passages deep underground. On recent visit with my kids and husband, I found my fascination still intact. The world’s longest cave—more than 400 miles discovered so far, is one of the most unusual places I’ve been.

Memories from my first trip blended with this latest experience. Happily, Mammoth Cave in Mammoth Cave National Park is as wonderfully weird and mysterious as it was years ago. Its weird mysterious is what has attracted people since long before the Civil War.

Today, a tour led by a national park ranger is filled with tales of history, geology, biology and the human experience.

Remnants of the saltpeter mine operation during the War of 1812
Remnants of the saltpeter mine operation during the War of 1812

Our tour, the Historic Tour included: the saltpeter mine used during the War of 1812 when miners’ efforts helped make gun powder; the story of how Floyd Collins, one of Mammoth Cave’s most ambitious explorers was trapped and perished in 1925 when a boulder fell on his ankle; and of Stephen Bishop, a slave and expert guide who was able to purchase his freedom by saving up the tip money from the wealthy people Bishop took into the cave. Bishop would write the name of his clients with smoke from a torch for money.  Evidence of Bishop’s work, and the other guides who worked with him, still remain on Mammoth Cave’s ceiling.

Along with the human history details, our two-hour tour was a moderate work out as we passed through formations that required us to bend over a bit while we walked down stairs sideways and sometimes backwards. Fat Man’s Misery was the most fun. The narrowest part was below hip level, but it involved a series of quick switch backs, a tricky endeavor for those with big feet.

Writing on the ceiling from more than a century ago.
Writing on the ceiling from more than a century ago.

What wasn’t included from what I remember from the tour that I took as a child were: Lost John, the remains of a Native American trapped years and years ago; the eyeless fish in the river that flows deep in the cave; and the rooms of the former TB hospital.

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Lost John used to be behind glass tucked in a recess of the cave’s wall until the mid-70s when the U.S. government decided that displaying human remains is not seemly. The boat trip on the underground river where the eyeless fish are also doesn’t happen anymore for environmental reasons.

The TB hospital, a failed experiment to try to cure tuberculosis by keeping people at a constant temperature in the mid 50s, the year round temperature of a cave, is not part of the Historic Tour. To see the remains of the TB hospital that operated (and failed) in 1841, take the Violet Passage Tour.

Park rangers entertain and inform during each tour.
Park rangers entertain and inform during each tour.

About tours: I signed up for the Historic Tour the day before we arrived at Mammoth Cave because we weren’t sure which tour would fit our schedule. If you can nail down your vacation plans earlier than we could, that gives you more options. Although there were several times for the Historic Tour left, some other tours were sold out.

Although the Historic Tour is listed as “moderate” in terms of difficulty and effort, if you are in okay shape, you’ll do fine. Even though the tour has Fat Man’s Misery on its menu, people of a larger size should not be dissuaded. You can check with a ranger if you’re not sure.

We paired our tour with an overnight at the Mammoth Cave Hotel across from the Visitors Center near the Historic Entrance. The hotel has three lodging options: Heritage Rooms, connected to the main hotel building, Sunset Terrace, a one story separate building, or historic or Woodland Cottages.

Heritage Trail near the Mammoth Cave Hotel
Heritage Trail near the Mammoth Cave Hotel

Our room was in Sunset Terrace, a comfy, clean, two queen bed room that had a 1960s period feel with modern amenities. Our room included a microwave, refrigerator, a clock radio and cable TV. Ironing boards, irons and hair dryers are available. Just ask the staff at the front desk.

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Mammoth Cave National Park also has an RV and tent camping campground.

As with any national park, Mammoth Cave has several hiking trails to explore and a variety of activities. In the morning, I walked down the Heritage Trail leading down from the hotel to the Green River where a deer family crossed from one shore to another without giving me a glance.

Mammoth Cave is a visit with bats
Mammoth Cave is a Visit with Bats

In the evening, we went to the campfire talk led by a park ranger. Campfire talks, in my opinion, are a must at any national park visit. This particular talk was about bats. You can’t go to Mammoth Cave without finding out about bats–several kinds of bats.  Bats in this part of Kentucky need the cave for survival. At the talk, we were able to hear them as they flew overhead thanks to the bat listening device the ranger had.

Whether you stay overnight or go as a day guest, eat at one of the hotel’s restaurants. Order the soup beans with cornbread. This is a southern Kentucky favorite food. The soup beans I had for lunch were delicious.

Friends down by the river
Friends down by the river

Insider Tip: Mammoth Cave National Park is open year round, however, the hotel does not operate in full swing after September 30 and before March 1. Also, cave tours are scaled back.

If you go to this part of Kentucky, about an hour south of Louisville, you can easily pair the trip with a Bardstown visit. Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace and the site of one of his boyhood homes is also close by.

If You Go:

Mammoth Cave National Park
1 Mammoth Cave Parkway
Mammoth Cave, Kentucky 42259

phone: 270/758-2180

Post and photos courtesy of Jamie Rhein, member of Midwest Travel Writers Association.

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  1. Pingback: National Parks Guide U.S.A.: For Kids but Adult Friendly | Nancy D Brown

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