Mammoth Cave National Park: Going Underground in the World’s Largest Cave System

Underneath the bluegrass of Kentucky lays a series of seemingly endless caverns that wind their way like the cardiovascular system of the Earth into depths unknown. This system of natural tunnels tell the story of man throughout time; they were the host of lost Native American rituals dating back as far as 30 B.C., the hideout for bootleggers during the dark dry days of American prohibition, a catacomb for the dead, and an unlikely escape from societal hierarchy for the slaves who worked in the caves with white men nearly as equals.

This maze of caverns, a Unseco World Heritage site, goes by the name of Mammoth Cave National Park and it is by far the largest cave system in the entire world.  At the present moment 400 miles of caverns have been discovered and mapped out, but it is estimated that up to 600 miles still remain undiscovered.  

Forming drip by drip over millins of years.
Forming drip by drip over millins of years.

This subterranean labyrinth is home to an ecosystem of over 130 life forms.  Both bats and pale crickets with extensive antennae can easily be seen scattered across the walls and ceilings of the caves.  Along with the wildlife, written names, dates, and messages can be seen littered across the cavern walls.  Some names are written with the smoke of lanterns in black smudgy letters and others are simply carved in; in either case the names and dates go back to the early days of American history.  One of my guides Ranger Jerry is an African American descendant of the slaves that first worked in the mining of these caves.  During my first tour of the caves, the Historic Tour, Ranger Jerry proudly pointed out 3-4 generations of his family who had engraved their names into the wall over a nearly 150 year span.

These days’ regular folks are no longer allowed to deface this wonder of the world with their autographs.   The U.S. National Park Service keeps these caverns under careful watch preventing vandals from ruining what nature spent thousands and millions of years creating.  On the second tour I participated which I highly recommend, the New Entrance tour, stalactites and stalagmites thousands of years old jut out from the floor and ceiling.  Maybe 50 years prior these very rock formations would be broken off for souvenirs, but now they are protected by federal law ensuring they will be seen by many generations to come.

Traversing the Mammoth Cave system was like being transported to an alien world.  Sound bounced differently, darkness was so black it played tricks on the eyes, and rocks when illuminated glowed in hues of orange, red, and brown that I’ve never seen.  I’ll probably never get to go to another planet, but I feel like I have a sense of what one might be like after my time in the strange cool caves.

I recommend this experience to any person, but be warned underground tours usually last around 2 hours.  So if you’re claustrophobic or nervous in tight spaces I’d stick to the 60 miles of hiking trails that rest just above ground in the Mammoth Cave National Parks rolling Hills.

Some other pro-tips for your visit are as follows: Photography: These caves are dark and dimly lit, so make sure you have your camera ready to rock and roll for that scenario.  Additionally, as flash is not allowed in the cave I’d suggest messing around with your Iso setting and your exposure settings prior to going underground so you don’t miss anything fumbling with your camera on the tour.

Accommodation: Mammoth Cave Hotel residing only 50 or so meters from the main cave entrance and within the forest is an extremely affordable and convenient place to rest your head after a day of hiking and touring beneath the earth. The soft beds and the songs of crickets outside my window made for a night of deep peaceful sleep.  When I go back I plan on staying here again.

Eats: Both my guides Ranger Steve and Ranger Jerry told me to get my grub on at Porky Pigs Diner only a few minutes outside of the park. They said I could get some of the best southern style BBQ in Kentucky there and they certainly did not lie.  The slow cooked pork butt I ate there still haunts my carnivorous dreams. It could have been coincidence or serendipity that this delicious pig meat was found at Porky Pigs Diner in Pig, Kentucky. Seriously, I can’t make this up. If you’re a Meat-a-saurus Rex you’re going to love this place.

If you’re into nature, awe inspiring rock formations millions of years in the making, and hiking the endless rolling forest hills then you should most definitely check out Mammoth Cave National Park. Until next time travelers, keep your headlamp batteries fresh and your adventures underground, as always- ST

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