On my recent trip to Kentucky, one of my priority items was to visit Mammoth Cave. I’ve heard lots about it, but no specifics. Yes, it’s the biggest cave in the world – larger than the 2nd and 3rd largest caves put together by over 100 miles. (That is a total of nearly 400 miles of tunnels, in case you were counting.) But is it worth the trip?
Yes, absolutely. The cave is a couple of hours south of Louisville, and is accessed via guided tour by the National Parks Service. But with quite a few types of tours, how does one choose which Mammoth Cave tour to go on?
There’s no one “best” Mammoth Cave tour; it more depends on what you are looking for. They roughly break down into two types of experiences. Here are some tips and information to help you decide.
Walking Down Broadway – You Won’t Believe It
We started our tour by heading into the historic Mammoth Cave entrance and right into Mammoth Cave’s most unique experience of all: a series of tunnels they call Broadway. Why? Because these tunnels are massive – a couple of stories tall, very wide, and they run for miles. And miles. And miles. They’re so huge and expansive, it is hard to believe that humans didn’t make them.
This part of the cave also gives insight into the composition of the cave, which also makes it unique. The cave itself is made of limestone, which allowed rivers and underground seas to make these unique tunnels and passageways, centuries ago. But above the cave sits a layer of sandstone, which is far more impervious.
The result is that the cave underneath is neutral in every way – not too hot and not too cold, not wet and not overly dry. In fact, it is so still down here it is almost unnerving. You’ll pass by old mining equipment that’s been down here over 100 years, and it looks like the person who dropped it will return any moment.
The parks service has done a very nice job of creating pathways and they have done a recent lighting upgrade that makes it safe for exploration, while keeping in tune with the environment. The Broadway tunnels can be explored on several types of tours, including a paraffin lamp tour that takes you further down to where there isn’t lighting!
Tours Like This: Mammoth Passage Tour, Historic Tour, Mammoth Cave Discovery Tour, Lantern Tour.
Mammoth Cave still has miles and miles of unexplored/unmapped territory. Each year volunteers come in to explore and try to find/map out new passageways.
Frozen Niagara – A More Typical Cave Tour
Broadway is unlike any other cave I’ve seen, but Mammoth also offers you the more “traditional” cave experience, complete with stalactites, stalagmites, drippy ceilings, pools and ponds, underground rivers, etc. This part of the cave isn’t covered by that protective layer of sandstone, and hence it’s an environment constantly in change. The highlight of this area of the cave is the Frozen Niagara, basically a waterfall made of stone. You’ve got to see it to appreciate it.
It’s interesting to note that when you go into this part of the tour, you go through a very man-made looking entrance; that’s because an entrepreneur trying to figure out how to run tours on this part of the cave figured out where an entrance could be made, and blasted a hole! It’s a bit of a shame in some aspects, but the parks service does a nice job of keeping the cave stable while still allowing access through this part, called the New Entrance.
Having been in so many caves around the world, I kind of feel like the Broadway tunnels steal the show here at Mammoth and are definitely my favorite part of the cave, but the Frozen Niagara is also very interesting, and quite the visual treat if you have youngsters with you.
Tours Like This: Frozen Niagara Tour, New Entrance Tour
Mammoth cave is one of the oldest tourist attractions in the United States. The first tours started operating in 1816.
While You’re in the Area
I suggest you make a reservation (if the tour you’ve picked allows) as soon as you know when you’ll be in the area, particularly in summer as things get busy. Fees range from $5-$25, and are well worth it for the experience. All tours require you to go up and down a number of stairs, and some tours require moderate physical activity – do read the requirements and when in doubt, call and ask!
There are a variety of kitsch tourist traps in the area, as well as a couple of other caves, but while there nothing really piqued my interest. The old-school antique shops piled high with “junk” makes for some interesting photography and laughs, though who knows, perhaps you’ll find the perfect souvenir on the dusty shelves.
As for hotels, we stayed at the brand-spanking-new Sleep Inn at Cave City. It’s cheap and cheerful, with comfortable desks and beds, free Wifi, decent coffee, workout room, and a small indoor pool. Cave City is only about 10 minutes from the cave visitor’s center.
Editorial Disclosure: We’re very thankful for the National Parks Service who zipped us around several sections of the cave to help us get an overview and provide some recommendations. Much appreciated!