America’s national parks, fifty-nine areas of unsurpassed beauty and wonder, are lands of superlatives. Denali is home to the highest point in North America. Sequoia has the largest trees on earth. Hawai’i Volcanoes features not only the most active volcano, but also sits atop Mauna Loa, the tallest mountain in the entire world. Our own Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to more flowering plants than any other area of the country.
Just a couple hours north of Nashville, Mammoth Cave National Park sits among the rolling hills of the Bluegrass State. For first time visitors, the park might not seem so special while driving down Mammoth Cave Parkway. Lush forest lines both sides of the road, providing a refuge to deer, turkey, and other wildlife. The knobs and valleys the parkway traverses are picturesque, but insignificant when compared to the Smokies soaring peaks. What is so special about this park that draws half a million visitors each year?
Of course, if it wasn’t for the park’s name, this might remain a mystery until one arrives at the visitor center. We all know that Mammoth Cave lies beneath the surface of the Kentucky landscape. Stretching through passageways large and small, Mammoth Cave is the largest cave system on the planet. Over four hundred miles have been explored so far, with new tunnels and hidden passageways found on the regular.
New park visitors should make their way first to the Mammoth Cave Visitor Center. The modern facility is home to an information center, the official national park store, an informative museum, and the ticket center. If one has not already purchased tour tickets, it’s best to immediately stop at the tour registration desk to choose which cave tour one would like to go on. Over a dozen excursions are offered, ranging from easy half-hour strolls to taxing adventures which require six hours to complete, so it’s best to discuss one’s preferences with the rangers before purchasing a ticket. They can provide suggestions depending on visitors’ interests, whether they be classic cave formations, subterranean wildlife, or the cave’s storied history.
Visitors may have to wait for the scheduled tour time. If that is the case, the park museum is a great place to gain a better understanding of what waits in the depths below the surface. Here one will learn of the cave’s first explorers, ancient woodland people who ventured into the darkness as a rite of passage. The geology and formation of the cave itself is investigated. Visitors will learn of the specialized life forms inhabiting the grottos, from cave crickets which gather at the entranceways to eyeless cave fish, pale and blind from millennia of living in complete darkness. As always, we had to stop by the store to get our official stamp on our passport books. Here one can purchase maps, hiking medallions, guidebooks, postcards, and many other mementos to remember their visit to the park.
Before venturing below the surface, one should become familiar with all the park offers above ground. Just behind the visitor center sits the Lodge at Mammoth Cave. This hotel offers a variety of options for guests who wish to stay on site throughout their visit. One can choose from the modern rooms at the main part of the hotel or budget-friendly quarters at the Sunset Terrace motel. A more rustic experience can be had while staying at the Woodland and Historic Cottages. These bungalows have one to four bedrooms and are placed in a forested setting just a short walk from the main lodge. The Green River Grill and Spelunkers Café offer dining options here as well for hotel guests and park visitors alike.
For those who prefer to rough it, three campgrounds are spaced throughout the park. The Mammoth Cave Campground is the largest and sits within the visitor center complex. 105 sites offer plenty of space, while the nearby campground store offers plenty of camping necessities, a laundromat, and a post office. Not far away sits the park amphitheater. Here rangers invite guests to join them for nightly campfire talks to learn even more about the wonders of the park. The Houchin Ferry Campground is much more primitive and sits on the shores of the Green River, while Maple Springs Campground caters to larger groups who want to explore the backcountry areas on the north side of the park.
Of course, as most national parks do, Mammoth Cave offers a plethora of hiking trails for visitors of all ages to enjoy. Accessible nature trails such as Sloans Crossing Pond Walk and Sand Cave Trail allow everyone to enjoy the natural wonders above ground. Several miles of trails crisscross the area around the visitor center complex, ranging from nature boardwalks to strenuous climbs down to the Green River and back. These dip into sinkholes, stop by cave entrances, and skirt the edge of impressive river bluffs. Be sure to pick up a trail map at the visitor center, because the trail layouts are rather confusing in this section of the park. Bikes are welcome on the Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike and Hike Trail which traces the historical route followed by the area’s former railroad.
Visitors who take the Green River Ferry across to the park’s northern half are in for a treat. Devoid of the crowds which flock to the cave areas, this part of Mammoth Cave National Park offers almost sixty miles of backcountry hiking trails that explore the rough terrain. Primitive campsites are scattered throughout, and most of the trails are open to horseback riding as well. Big Hollow Trail also is a destination for mountain bikers, as it is one of few such biking trails found in the national park system.
Be sure to join us next week as we venture underground and also explore the unique history of this amazing national park!