For those who live among the hills and valleys of East Tennessee, caves are an intrinsic part of the landscape. The region’s unique geology has combined with the passage of time to give us more caverns than any other state in the country. Who hasn’t seen a barn or billboard touting the wonders of Ruby Falls or calling on travelers to visit the Lost Sea? Cumberland Caverns near Crossville is probably the only place one can catch a bluegrass concert underground. Within the pages of The Loafer, we have visited Tuckaleechee, Forbidden, and Appalachian Caverns in past issues and marveled at the geologic formations which lie hidden just beneath our feet.
Alas, while Tennessee may have more than eight thousand individual caves, all those cannot even begin to approach the gargantuan size and length of Mammoth Cave, located just about fifty miles north of the border in neighboring Kentucky. Over four hundred miles of passageways have been discovered and mapped out so far, with new ones discovered on a regular basis. Almost the entire cave system is protected within the boundaries of Mammoth Cave National Park, a World Heritage Site as well as an International Biosphere Reserve.
Last week we began our exploration of this extraordinary park’s wonders located on the sunlit side of terra firma, from miles of trails to the peaceful waters of the Green River. If the thought of venturing into the earths dark recesses is a big no-no, don’t let that deter you from visiting this park. The rolling hills and forested valleys are beautiful and offer days’ worth of recreation opportunities.
For those who are eager to venture into the depths below, it’s best to take a few minutes and chat with a ranger to decide what tour is better for your interests and the physical abilities of your party. Better yet, visit the park’s website before arriving at the park to get a good idea of the excursions offered and purchase the tickets ahead of time. While Mammoth Cave doesn’t see anywhere near the same number of visitors as our Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the cave tours are by far the most popular activity and always fill up fast. We saw them begin to sell out even before noon.
Usually the park offers a dozen different tours, but these numbers do change depending on the season. Some expeditions aren’t available during the slow season, such as the challenging Wild Cave Tours, so check the schedule online at www.nps.gov/maca. The fall schedule runs through October 28th of this year, with the following winter schedule extending through March 9th, 2018.
Visitors with only a short amount of time will want to book the Self-Guided Discovery Tour. A short hike down from the visitor center will bring you towards the historic entrance. A sudden chill may wrap around your legs as you enter the valley where the gaping maw of the cave rests. Crisp winds blow out of the entrance, making even the hottest summer day suddenly a bit chilly. It could have been this wind that led to the discovery of the cave by Native Americans thousands of years ago. Around the year 1800, local legend tells the story of hunter John Houchins, who also stumbled upon the cave entrance while chasing a wounded bear through the Kentucky Wilds. While a modern flight of stairs descends the hollow to the cave entrance, one can almost imagine themselves there on that day two centuries ago when this wonder of the world was rediscovered.
The self-guided tour allows visitors to venture into the opening and through about the first 0.25 miles of the cave itself. The main attraction is a visit to the rotunda, one of the largest rooms within the cave. It takes about thirty minutes to complete. Those who want to venture further past this point can sign up for the Mammoth Passage Tour or the much longer Historic Tour. Both of these offer great insights into the cave’s storied history.
The Frozen Niagra Tour is a short trip to one of the most spectacular sights within the park. Ideal for those with children or the elderly, it fits a lot into a short distance. The Mammoth Cave Accessible Tour makes use of the park’s elevator to ensure that everyone has the chance to visit this wonderland. Take a step back in time on the Great Onyx Lantern Tour, and visit pristine formations lit only by candlelight. Those who wish for more adventure might want to try out the Grand Avenue Tour, one of the longest excursions at four miles. Wild Cave Tours are just that-a trip through the untamed depths of Mammoth Cave. There are no walkways here. Those brave souls who sign up for this trip will climb through narrow tunnels, jump over canyons, and scramble over boulders.
We greatly enjoyed our trip along the Domes and Dripstones Tour. This is a physically demanding hike of 0.75 a mile through large passages and over deep pits. The trek begins by plummeting down a steep staircase of almost three hundred steps above a series of plunging shafts. The depths below are dizzying, and some of the passageways are a bit claustrophobic. The trail then leads through large rooms with remarkably flat, unnatural ceilings that make it feel more like a secret military base than a cave. Finally, the last portion of the tour stops by Frozen Niagara, a magnificent formation composed of flowstone that is simply stunning to look at. Draperies, stalactites, and other classic cave formations line the remainder of the trail.
This was by far our favorite cave tour we have done. The size and grandeur of the cave and formations make others seem so small in comparison. Our wonderful guide, Ranger Vedvig, did a great job of explaining the science and geology behind the formations. This is our recommendation for those who are visiting the park for the first time, but that might change when we return and tackle the Wild Cave Tour on our next trip!